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Why Address Creationism?

Initial Publication Date: September 7, 2006

Why can't a science instructor just launch into the tale of discovery and deduction and teach Earth history without addressing students creationist beliefs?

  • If students cannot make new information (such as geologic time and evolution) fit in with their previous understanding of the world, they are unlikely to incorporate that new information into their worldview.
  • An understanding of evolution, climate change, and other important themes of Earth history is essential for making present-day decisions about biotechnology, pollution, and other serious issues.
  • Many of our students will be teaching Earth history themselves, or making decisions about how it will be taught in the future.

Students Learn by Building on What they Know

Students build on their existing understanding of Earth History, that they have developed over the years before they walked into your classroom.

  • Religious beliefs tend to be parts of a coherent life view; Young-Earth Creationists rely on the Bible not only for details about the origin of the Earth system, but also for answers to philosophic questions about the meaning of life, the value of nature, and the problem of evil.
  • Students will not discard this coherent belief set based on new understanding of Earth history or evolution.
  • However, people of all kinds (creationists included) learn and adjust their worldviews on a daily basis. If you can provide students with information (directly or otherwise) that is believable and useful to them, they are likely to keep it in mind and to continue to use it when learning other information.

Research indicates that student preconceptions, not just religious ones, need to be drawn out and worked into the educational process (NRC, 2000 ). Shulman, 1999 describes several problems that may occur when prior knowledge and new knowledge clash:

  • Amnesia: the students forget the material or even forget learning it
  • Fantasia: the students misremember what they have learned in such a way as to make it compatible with prior knowledge with which it originally conflicted
  • Inertia: the students are unable to synthesize or apply the facts they have learned

The amazing thing about all of the above problems is that they can be observed in students who have done well on exams. Students can compartmentalize information, learn it (usually memorize it) for the short term, and then snap back to their previous beliefs (Schneps and Sadler, 1988 ). To break this cycle requires engaging students' original beliefs and encouraging them to examine their beliefs in light of the new material they are learning.

The Public Needs to Understand Earth History and Evolution

Earth history and evolution provide critical understanding for modern citizens.

  • Earth history deals with issues that society is struggling with here and now, such as climate change, natural disasters, and extinctions. Conservation biology is firmly rooted in evolution. So is our understanding of pesticide and antibiotic resistence.
  • Recent discoveries in hominid evolution have given us a new perspective on race. At the same time, cloning, genetic engineering, and the search for life beyond the Earth require people to make decisions based upon an understanding of genetics and evolution. Many students will ultimately be working in, investing in or otherwise involved with the biotechnology industry.
  • We are extremely dependent on geologic resources, such as coal and oil, that only formed under certain conditions. Their modern locations require an understanding of stratigraphy, paleontology, paleoclimatology, and plate tectonics to discover.

See also: Why Teach with an Earth History Approach

Prepare K-12 Teachers and Voters to Make Decisions about Earth History Education

Some believers in Young-Earth Creationism have tried to ban or weaken the teaching of evolution in public schools and others to require or allow their own (sectarian) beliefs be taught there. Recently, there have been numerous attempts to introduce Intelligent Design into public-school classrooms.

Why this matters to college and university faculty:

  • Current and future K-12 science teachers depend on college and continuing education science classes to teach them controversial ideas like the age of the Earth and evolution well enough that they in turn can teach them to kids in the face of serious political resistance.
  • Likewise, your students are also voters who need to understand how and why science works and why creationism should not be taught as science in public schools.
  • Finally, many college students get much of the prior knowledge they bring into their college classrooms from public school. If they have a flawed understanding of evolution coming in, they will have a difficult time developing a better one in college (Alters and Nelson, 2002 ).