Evolution is a politically, socially and religiously charged theory that has historically evoked controversy and created tension for biology teachers. This case study explores the sociocultural influences surrounding the teaching evolution in three Southern tenth-grade public high school biology classrooms. In particular, we focused on sociocultural influences that shape teachers’ instructional decisions with respect to teaching evolution. Theoretically framed in sociocultural theory, data included field notes collected during eight months of classroom observations and in-depth interviews of the participating teachers, science department chairpersons, students, and a Protestant minister. The teachers were unaware of the focus of the research until the end of the study. Findings portray complex intersections among socioculturally embedded lived experiences of each teacher that influence their instructional decisions regarding evolution. The strong religious beliefs within the Southern culture was a powerful influence on all three teachers’ decisions, though their decisions were different. In particular, religious beliefs made teaching human evolution especially difficult. Other themes included the authority of the textbook and the presence of escape routes to avoid evolution such as contradicting political documents, the pressure of time, and the double-edged sword of teacher autonomy.
Science education and science
organizations, including the National Academy of Science (1999), National
Association of Biology Teachers (2000), American Association for the
Advancement of Science (AAAS) (2002), the National Academy of Science (1998),
and the National Science Teachers Association (
Research findings (e.g. Weld &
McNew, 1999; Rutledge & Warden, 2000; Moore, 2002) have shown that many
teachers are hesitant to teach evolution in a thorough fashion, often choosing
to include creationism or omitting evolution from the curriculum, and suggest a
number of reasons. First, some teachers do not fully understand the theory of
evolution and natural selection (Demastes, Good, & Cummins, 1992; Moore,
2000) while others simply reject the theory (Moore, 2000) usually because they
have deeply held religious beliefs that are not consistent with the theory
(Brickhouse, Dagher, Letts, & Shipman, 2000). Furthermore, some teachers
believe in and endorse creationism, choosing to include creationism in their
curriculum, with or without evolutionary theory (
On a national level, research
findings from teacher samples suggest that many biology teachers advocate
teaching creationism. For instance, Zimmerman (1987) found that 15% of
The controversy over teaching evolution in school is alive and well after more than a century of debate. For instance, a 2005 decision has recently been rendered in a Pennsylvania federal court upholding the ban on including intelligent design in science courses there; while, the Kansas board of education has recently approved the inclusion of intelligent design in its state science curriculum guide. Teaching evolution and/or creationism under the guise of intelligent design in public high schools and state universities is continuing to cause curriculum controversy currently in Iowa, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Mexico (Golden, 2005)..
Socially Bounded Cultural Beliefs
The values and beliefs of both teachers and students create an interpretative framework that affects their acceptance and understanding of scientific concepts. This framework is a complex interplay between one’s cognition and emotions (Snively, 1990). Beliefs formed early in life and within one's native culture tend to be strongly held and emotionally powerful to the individual (Jackson, Doster, Meadows, & Wood, 1995). According to Kilbourne (1984), belief systems are complex and develop within one’s culture. They are generally emotional, moral, and/or religious in nature and relatively static and not changed easily (Bryan & Atwater, 2002). One's beliefs are rarely objective and do not necessarily relate to what is known scientifically (Kilbourne, 1984; Cobern, 1994).
Lemke (2001) pointed out that we all live within large-scale social institutions that affect how we make sense of the world as well as our belief and value systems. Every individual is affected by his/her family, school, church, and community situation, creating a unique culture. Cummins, Demastes, and Hafner (1994) concluded that one's culture has a major influence on one’s acceptance of the concept of evolution. Shipman, Brickhouse, Dagher, and Letts (2002) stated, "A person sitting in a science classroom is not just a science student; she or he is a thinking human being who sees the world in terms of a variety of other contexts" (p. 528). So as such, beliefs developed within a given culture co-emerge and give direction to social action and choices.
Lemke (2001) used the example of evolution to illustrate how difficult it is for students to accept and believe a scientific theory when the students’ community culture does not. Acceptance could mean social ostracism by those most important to a student. Lemke stated, “Beliefs about the natural and social world have coevolved in cultures along with the entire complex network of social practices that bind a community together. … Changing your mind is not simply a matter of rational decision-making. It is a social process with social consequences” (p. 301). Science and schooling are parts of one’s culture and consequently, the opinions students hold on issues are influenced by views held by the community at large (Lemke, 2001). Levinson and Holland (1996) stated that it is important to have a global perspective, to view “schools as complex sites for the cultural production of educated persons” (p. 15) in order to understand “relations between school, the cultural traditions of its constituent groups, and a broader political economy” (p. 22). According to Zembylas (2002), the social and power structures within which teachers work can be sources of pressure or support for them. "The milieu within which evolution education takes place is an interwoven fabric processing cultural, political, personal, theological, epistemological, and scientific influences" (Woods & Scharmann, 2001, p. 3).
Therefore, because schools are an integral part of a community and its culture, various stakeholders in a school district make demands on educational systems and in the process impact the curriculum offered. These stakeholders include the business community, school and district administrators, school board members, the public at large, parents, politicians, and teachers. In addition, principals and their philosophies enact a strong influence on the curriculum and the school environment (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988). Of all the stakeholders, students are the most important but often have little or no voice or choice in the system. Students should be the focus of concern, yet often they must simply participate in the enacted curriculum chosen by others. Students are part of a complex society with many individuals delivering conflicting messages on issues (Sinclair & Pendarvis, 1997/1998). According to Connelly and Clandinin, "Our schools are in a dynamic relationship with the society" (p. 124). Teachers “… have a fine line to walk between responsiveness to students and parents, and their intellectual freedom" (p. 134). Levinson and Holland (1996) stated, “Schools and education often become sites of intense cultural politics. Local educational practices and ideologies may be pitted against those of national priority. … Struggles, sometimes submerged and virtually invisible, sometimes clear and dramatic, erupt. Politics can engulf the curriculum. Coalitions form and reform trying to appropriate the schools to their own ends.” Lerner (2000) concurred that, "Teaching evolution as scientists see it - particularly biological evolution to K-12 students - still evokes bitter controversy. … The controversy is not really about science but about religion and politics" (p. 287).
Understanding the theory of evolution is central to understanding the coherence of biological concepts yet it is politically, socially, and theologically charged, running contrary to the beliefs of many cultural and religious groups, this case study seeks to understand how teachers negotiate the dilemma of whether to teach and how to teach evolution within the sociocultural contexts of the South. According to Patton (2002), a qualitative approach is appropriate when the research questions are concerned with people’s experiences and the meanings they assign to them. They are also useful when studying people within their social context in order to gain understanding and insight on a particular situation. Likewise, Demastes, Hickman, and colleagues (1992) suggested examining the influences, such as personal beliefs, community concerns, and ethnicity that affect the teaching of evolution. Therefore, this case study will explore the sociocultural net intersecting three teachers’ journey into the teaching of evolutionary theory. The following over-arching question and subordinate questions were explored in this study:
How does sociocultural situatedness shape instructional decisions regarding the theory of evolution in three tenth grade public high school biology classrooms in the South?
a. How does a teacher’s personal identity narrative and their perceived socioculturally constructs influence their teaching of evolution?
b. What sociocultural constructs are enacted in teachers’ instructional decisions surrounding the teaching of evolution?
The researcher observed the classrooms of the three participating tenth grade biology teachers, Margaret, Gail and Robert, three times per week from October 2003 until April 2004. The classroom teachers were unaware of the focus of the study until they were debriefed at the conclusion of the study. Pseudonyms have been used for all participants.
The teachers taught in two large public high schools within the metropolitan area of a mid-sized southern city. In the South, family lives often center on school and church activities. Many of the Christian denominations that are predominant in the South are grounded in a literal interpretation of the Bible, including the creation story (Kincheloe & Pinar, 1991). The three participating teachers, their students, and their communities were a part of this culture.
All three teachers were Caucasian and reared as Protestant Christians. They each described their students and their communities as being predominantly and fervently Christian. Margaret taught at a high school located in a predominantly Caucasian upper-middle class suburb. Robert and Gail both taught at a racially diverse high school in a working class suburb.
Reflective memos and field notes were made during observations that guided subsequent observations, interviews, and the collection of artifacts. Multiple in-depth, semistructured interviews, in person and by email, were conducted with the teachers, science department chairs, and students. Additional data collected included artifacts such as classroom handouts and tests and interviews with an experienced Southern protestant minister, John Mayer, for insights and clarification of religious issues. Member checks, peer debriefing, prolonged time in the field, and triangulation of multiple data sources established the trustworthiness of the data.
The analysis used in this study was an inductive, interpretative approach that allowed exploration of the sociocultural influences contributing to how teachers taught evolution within the sociocultural context of the classroom setting and their personal views of evolution. According to Gallagher (1991), themes are concise statements that represent iterative patterns and regularities that are inductively derived from the data. Complex sociocultural influences do not act in isolation and therefore are connected and woven into the themes.
The themes re-presented are a “reality” for the participants and suggest a wide range of sociocultural influences that shape teachers’ identities and mediate how and what they teach about the theory of evolution. While recognizing that themes are interwoven, they were individually teased out of the data and are addressed independently in an attempt to discern the many different sociocultural influences that intrude upon the teachers’ instruction of evolution. Therefore, painting a complete picture of the complex and interlaced issues that impact one’s cultural viewpoints and decisions is impossible, especially when they are presented as independent of each other.
As such, while the themes that emerged are central to the participants, they are only a few of the many influences embedded within the institution of schooling, Southern culture, and the individual identities that affect teachers’ instructional decisions regarding evolution. The sociocultural layers through which one views the social world begin with the culture of the individual and his/her immediate family. From the culture of the family, new layers of cultural influences are acquired though social interactions within schools, the greater culture of the community, and the world beyond. Each cultural layer expands the sociocultural knowledge that shapes how one makes sense of reality. As each interconnected cultural layer expands one’s sociocultural knowledge, shifts in decision-making may occur. This occurs because sociocultural influences are reprioritized with respect to a particular issue, in this case teaching evolution.
The data collected revealed several generalities common to all three participating teachers including: 1) personal affiliation with Protestant churches, 2) advanced degrees in biology education, and 3) sincere concern for their students. Despite these generalities, each teachers’ enactment of their care for their students, their scientific knowledge, and their concern about conflict was vastly different. The observational and interview data confirmed that the instruction on evolution taught by these three participating teachers reveal a great diversity in the teaching of evolution in biology classrooms. The instruction presented by the participants of this study represented different stances ranging from no instruction on evolution to fully integrated instruction. Yet, several core themes emerged from this case study that were common to all three teachers as they negotiated the problematic situation of teaching the theory of evolution in the South.
The idiosyncratic positioning of each teacher’s personal religious beliefs, views towards evolution as a scientific theory, and level of concern regarding “conflict” affected the way the participants chose to teach evolution. The teachers in this study found themselves weighing whether teaching the theory of evolution was valuable enough to balance the sociocultural tensions it created within themselves, some of which were in direct opposition to their own religious and culturally shaped beliefs. The participating teachers found themselves struggling to negotiate their personal values and beliefs about evolution, the beliefs they perceived their students held, and their personal perception of the community’s position on the theory of evolution. Sociocultural influences and the value teachers placed on them mediated what ultimately led to each teacher’s decision regarding modifications of instruction on evolution.
For Robert, sociocultural influences of the community’s religious views against evolution
and potential conflict created internal tension, but it was counterbalanced by his strong personal views that students need to understand evolution in order to fully understand biology.
I teach [evolution] rather aggressively, not that I tell people that you have to belief this. In fact, I tell them you do not have to replace your beliefs with this but it’s an underlying theme in biology. And I tell them its one of those things that you can’t avoid talking about along with several other things like how to acquire food, how to avoid predators, what to do with wastes, the issue of sex, and evolution. These are things you can’t escape in biology.
(Robert, interview, 10/30/03)
Robert placed a high value on teaching evolution and taught it in the face of opposition. When parents or students expressed their displeasure about his teaching of evolution, he told them, “Your education just cannot be held hostage by somebody’s religion.” While holding this stance, he was constantly respectful of his students’ religious beliefs.
I try to be a little more delicate, a little more tactful about [evolution]. I don’t alter the science, I just try to alter the presentation, and be a little bit more sensitive to their feelings. I always try to say, “This is science; we’re not trying to replace your religion here. Your religion is personal but I’m not here to teach you religion.” … We don’t attempt to explain God in science because it is outside of the realm of science. But there’s nothing in science that precludes it, or prohibits it, in either case.
(Robert, interview, 2/23/04)
Robert’s major concern was fostering his students’ intellectual independence. He was willing to debate the opposition and stand firm for the right of all students to be educated in the theory of evolution as well as other controversial topics. This guided his instruction. Perhaps, the fact that he did not live in the community made it easier for him personally to take an unpopular stand. He did not risk losing friends and he did not subject his family to any negative consequences due to his decision to step outside of the social norms and expectations.
In contrast, Gail, who taught at the same high school as Robert, was particularly embedded in the community and its culture. She had grown up in the surrounding community and had lived most of her life there. Her husband was the pastor of a fundamentalist Christian church in the area and he was active nationally in the pro-life movement. Interview data suggests that her instructional decisions regarding evolution flowed primarily from her religious beliefs and that she did not personally accept evolution. It appears that her involvement and religious standing within the local community tipped the scales of her internal cultural equilibrium to avoid the internal cultural disequilibrium that teaching evolution would have caused in her worldview. She elected not to teach evolution.
Gail was asked about her personal views on evolution.
OK, well my personal perspective, you know, because I have a religious background, I have looked at some of the scientific evidence that kinda discredits some of the things that scientists say happened. I used to think that because I was a Christian, and I read the Bible and such, I used to think, well you have to take these things by faith and believe, that if the Bible says it, then it must be true no matter what. The scientific evidence must be kinda skewed or inaccurate in some way. I found out later on in my science reading there is scientific evidence about the age of the Earth. For example, it is not quite as old as some scientists say it is. And, you know, in all the classes that I’ve been in you never see the other side of the story. … There are hard-core, scientific things that I’ve been looking at and there are other evidences here. It ties into the creationist theory; it’s all tied into the age of the Earth. So you know, that’s sorta my belief … but I try not to be so skewed in what I say in class but most of my students know … my husband’s a priest and they already know where I’m coming from anyway. Did that answer your question?
(Gail, interview, 12/9/03)
Gail’s personal religious beliefs were juxtaposed with her scientific knowledge. By suggesting that there is scientific evidence to support her religious beliefs, Gail seems to find a need to merge the two very different epistemological stances (science and religion). She draws upon the empirical tenets of the nature of science to legitimize her stance and reconcile the tension she felt between her religious beliefs and her scientific training.
When Gail was asked if she thought her students held the same point of view on evolution as she did, she replied, “I think so and I think it’s because of where we are- this part of the country, and the backgrounds that we have.” Similarly, when Gail was asked if she felt that the students’ parents would support her instructional decisions regarding evolution she answered, “Yeah, I do.” And indeed she reported that she had never been contacted by a parent who expressed concern about how she had taught any controversial topic.
Margaret, like Robert and Gail, was also committed to her Christian beliefs. She expressed her concern for her students’ fledgling religious beliefs,
I just care so much about [the students]. … I’m a Christian myself, and I don’t want to do anything to discourage their religious beliefs. And it is a belief system and this is a very impressionable age. And I feel that, I think they should not only have their religious presentation from the church but also have this presentation of the theory of evolution from school. And then they can make their choices and do the blending or make the stand that they feel is right for them.
(Margaret, interview, 1/22/04)
When asked more about this, Margaret answered, “I am not sure how many of my
students are active church members; however, if they are, they usually have strong beliefs that evolution is contradictory to their Christian beliefs.” She also stated that in her experience most people assume that the theory of evolution is incompatible with Christian beliefs. Yet Margaret felt that it was important for students to be familiar with evolution in order to achieve success in upper-level biology courses, so she also decided to teach it. However, her instruction was superficial, with great care given to avoid controversy. For example, she stated,
I’m very concerned that I not offend any of the students. Or, gosh, how do I put this? I don’t want to offend them but I do want them to think about the theory and how it could align with or contradict their own religion.
(Margaret, interview, 1/22/04)
Margaret’s concern for her students and her personal anxiety of controversy based upon her sociocultural knowledge of the community appeared to have shaped her instruction, and in particular, her instructional presentation of evolution as seen in the following.
I admit that I’ve never experienced any complaints from parents or administrators. But I just, it’s just a personal fear that since it’s a controversial subject that it could escalate into a serious problem … just on how it plays out, and the nature of who you have in your class, and how aggressive the parents are, and school issues, and it would just be a random situation. … So, I try in my dealings with my students, parents, co-workers, and administrators, I just try to make sure everything is smooth. So in my nature, yes, I’m gonna try to please everybody.
(Margaret, interview, 1/22/04)
Thus, Margaret elected to present evolution in as palatable a way as possible to avoid any unnecessary controversy or discomfort for all those involved.
Because evolution is highly sophisticated, politically and socially charged, each teacher measures, evaluates, and determines whether and how to teach evolution based upon his/her cultural capital including social position, education, and socially-defined identity; knowledge of evolutionary biology; and cultural knowledge of the school and community. In this study, each teacher’s sociocultural positioning and meaning-making were unique, complex combinations and thus, each teachers’ decision regarding the teaching of evolution was idiosyncratic. Due to the unique sociocultural positioning of each teacher with their unique sociocultural influences such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and physical attributes, and each teacher’s lived experiences, they each mediated their instructional decisions, each being sensitive to the religious beliefs of their students and their community.
Religion presents the creation of humans as a “special event” separate from the creation of lower animals; therefore, teaching human evolution was unofficially taboo when teaching evolution. The egocentricity of the human society lends itself to the commonly held view that humans are not part of the animal kingdom. Research suggests that K-8 students often do not see humans as animals (C. Barman, N. Barman, Newhouse, & Goldston, 2000). In addition, the separation of humans from the animal kingdom is advocated in the literal interpretation of texts such as the Bible. Therefore, the presentation of humans as part of the evolutionary process, the same as the lower animals, often meets with outright resistance and is difficult to teach even for teachers who accept evolution.
All three teachers reported that students often expressed the misconception that the theory of evolution supported the idea that humans evolved from monkeys. Robert had a student who asked directly during an observation, “Are you saying everyone in here was a monkey at one time?” Likewise, Margaret put it this way, “The comment I always get is about we came from the monkeys.” Furthermore, several of Margaret’s students made comments on their evolution unit quiz expressing their disbelief in human evolution.
Robert and Margaret, who both taught evolution, each reported that they had more student resistance to human evolution than to evolution of lower animals or plants. Both teachers approached human evolution with particular deliberation. To lessen the perceived inflammatory impact of evolution on the students, Margaret intentionally used examples of lower animals in her presentation of the theory. When asked her rationale, she responded,
Certainly, it is easier to talk about the animals and the evolution of the Earth and evolution of even plants. … I guess I was really avoiding the explanation of the evolution of man and … I guess I was actually avoiding that discussion.
(Margaret, interview, 1/22/04)
When Robert was asked whether he experienced more resistance or opposition to the idea of human evolution than to that of lower animals or plants, he replied,
Yes, I do…It is more acceptable to think about … worms becoming creatures with legs or snakes having lost legs at some point. It is more acceptable to think about one insect becoming a winged insect, than it is to think about … an ape becoming a man. … They hear so much from religious discussions, that that’s typical, they bring it into their culture. They’ve just never heard much about evolution from a pro-evolution standpoint. All they’ve heard is, that’s its a crazy theory that says we came from monkeys. Bull-l-l. And it’s just always said in a negative way. So, now I’m trying to present it in a positive way.
(Robert, interview, 10/30/03)
The researcher followed up with the question, “Do you think that most of the students do come in with a negative view of evolution?” Robert answered, “Yes, I do think that most of them do come in with a negative feeling.”
Gail personally rejected human evolution, and she reported that she had on occasion expressed her view to her students through the use of a video on reptiles and amphibians, although she did not touch on human evolution during the seven months of field observations.
We had a video that I used to show at one of the schools. … It was a great video on reptiles and snakes … They made a statement in that video and they said, “All higher life forms had a reptilian ancestor.” And they didn’t say that, “Oh, this is a theory or this evolution is a theory.”… They just made that blanket statement. … I would point that out to my students, I’d say like, “Are you a higher life form?” Yeah. “Well, did you have a reptilian ancestor?” … If you ask me how I personally believe, I don’t personally believe that I had a reptilian ancestor.
(Gail, interview, 12/9/03)
The data clearly indicate that the two teachers who accepted human evolution still found that it was difficult to teach because they feared that their students would be offended or opposed to the notion of human evolution. From the sociocultural tradition of the South, humans see themselves at the top of the “intellectual” food chain, apart and separate from other organisms. Because evolution became personal with regard to humans and because it is in direct opposition to the special creation of man stated in the Bible, the teachers saw this as the heart of the controversy.
Influence of the Textbook
In the South, the Bible is commonly accepted as the authority on ways of living and the primary source of “knowledge.”
“Believing in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible” has become a mantra to distinguish true believers from the suspect. … Mainstream religion [in the South] is basically a conservative Christianity, which focuses on an inerrant scripture and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They “believe the Bible” even if they have never read it.
(Mayer, email, 10/25/03)
Juxtaposed with the Bible, teachers use the biology textbook as an authority. The use of printed textbooks is “sacred cultural capital.” It represents a cultural resource that is unquestioned; if it is in print, it must be true. Therefore, if the words come from the textbook, the teachers are less susceptible to attack, since the words are not their own. Research has shown that teachers and the community at large trust in the authority of the textbook (Kuhn, 1962; Schug, Western, & Enochs, 1997). As stated by Christenbury and Kelly (1994), “There is power in those bound books; there is the air of certainty and truth” (p. 77).
Those teachers who choose to teach evolution depend on the authority of the textbook to provide safety from the consequences of teaching evolution and to legitimize their instruction and the topic. Both Robert and Margaret taught evolution and relied on the authority and the safety of the textbook. In stark contrast, the unit on evolution was the only time Robert was observed having the students read aloud paragraph-by-paragraph directly from the textbook. In fact, it was the only time he was observed using the textbook in his class. When asked why he chose this strategy for his instructional unit on evolution, he gave several reasons.
I need good graphics with [Power Point], I don’t have as many good graphics with the evolution chapter. … There might be, this is not a reason I do it, but there might be some feeling that it’s more legitimate. Power Point is something that I make; they know that. … There might be some sentiment that it is more legitimate if you read it from a textbook. … And for evolution it’s not just crazy me up here saying these things, it’s a whole community of scientists who feel this way. So when you start to get presented with those many different pieces of evidence, people start to say, this must be something that is legitimate. There must be something to all this. This isn’t just one person.
(Robert, interview, 10/30/03)
The science department chairman at Robert’s school also based his instruction on evolution on the textbook. He stated, “I taught [evolution] using the depth of the textbook as a guide.” Similarly, Margaret turned to the textbook for support. While her typical daily instruction was closely tied to the textbook, she relied on it to a greater degree than usual during her unit on evolution.
While other biological topics were afforded a full week, the unit on evolution was covered in less than three class meetings. Margaret’s presentation of evolution began with and concentrated on the historical information about Darwin and his travels through the use of an hour-long video and companion worksheet. The only presentation of the scientific concepts of evolution was done by calling on students to read aloud from the book, each reading a paragraph. In addition, Margaret herself read a lengthy passage from the book. She had been observed on two other occasions reading from the book but in those instances, she only read a sentence or two aloud. Afterwards, when she was asked if she had indeed read from the book more than usual, she responded,
I agree with your observation. And I think when I quoted from the book, I wanted to make sure that the wording was correct. So that the information that I shared was correctly worded in some areas. And then when we got to the summary of Darwin’s ideas, then I wanted the students to hear themselves read the summary and (pause), gosh, and hopefully that they would have to think more about the statements they were reading and not just have the statements come directly from me. … In summation, it was like I had done all the talking and I gave all the examples and I wanted them to articulate in the same way some of the ideas from his theory.
(Margaret, interview, 1/22/04)
In contrast to Robert and Margaret, Gail did not teach evolution and did not agree with the textbook’s coverage of evolution. Instead, she manipulated the textbook insert to shed doubt on evolutionary theory and promote alternative views. She pointed out the state-mandated textbook insert to her students when a question about natural selection came up on a state graduation examination review sheet. The state-mandated insert states:
The word “theory” has many meanings. Theories are defined as systematically organized knowledge, abstract reasoning, a speculative idea or plan, or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
Many scientific theories have been developed over time. The value of scientific work is not only the development of theories but also what is learned from the development process. The Alabama Course of Study: Science includes many theories and studies of scientists’ work. The work of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein, to name a few, has provided a basis of our knowledge of the world today.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is a controversial theory that is included in this textbook. It is controversial because it states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation of the diversity of living things. Since natural selection has been observed to play a role in influencing small changes in a population, it is assumed that it produces large changes, even though this has not been directly observed. Because of its importance and implications, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories. They should learn to make distinctions between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.
There are many unanswered questions about the origins of life. With the exploration of new scientific knowledge in biochemical and molecular biology and exciting new fossil discoveries, Alabama students may be among those who use their understanding and skills to contribute to knowledge and to answer many unanswered questions. Instructional material associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.
(Resolution passed by the Alabama State Board of Education, November 8, 2001)
Therefore, Gail relied on the authority of the insert to support her personal views in opposition to the theory of evolution and to downplay the authority lent to the theory by its coverage in the textbook.
Gail described to her students in class what she felt was the board of education’s rationale for the insert,
Well, I think the reason they point it out is there are a lot of people who think there are sorta two sides of the story. … In a lot of science books, … there’s only one side of the issue. And so, a lot of the groups around the state thought that we should point out both sides … A lot of times it’s sorta treated like, well, there’s not another side of the story, like [evolution is] hard cold fact. (Interruption) It wasn’t me that did this. It was something they felt was necessary to point out to you. There are people even at universities that are involved with the other side of this issue. There’s plenty of scientific evidence … on the other side of this.
(Gail, observation, 12/10/03)
While Gail did not include evolutionary theory in her biology course during observations for this study, she did assign her students to read the chapter section on stem cell research in the textbook. When asked why she presented the controversial topic of stem cell research in class and not evolution, she replied,
I thought [stem cell research] was a sorta important one since I do … have a personal perspective and involvement with this one. … And so, I just thought it was an important topic and sometimes you just have to make time for those things even though you don’t have much time … but I did decide to invest the time. … We don’t go it to it too much but we talk about stem cell research and using embryos from abortions and developing embryos from in vitro fertilization using left over embryos for stem cell research. … This particular issue, I do feel like I could speak to it very well, but that’s just from personal reasons, because of what my husband does, and what he’s involved in, and he’s highly involved in that aspect because he’s a priest, and his actual ministry has to do with life issues.
(Gail, interview, 10/20/03)
Thus, Gail used the textbook for support when teaching a controversial topic she wished to introduce. While creationism is legally banned from the classroom, discussions on stem cells and their procurement is not. Gail was able to introduce her pro-life views into the biology classroom while avoiding teaching evolution.
This theme suggests that these teachers recognize that the textbook is a social and cultural product of authority. As such, they can use textbooks as a guide, making their instruction legitimate in the eyes of the students and community while providing safety in a social realm of discordant views. If parents, students, and administrators question their coverage of evolution, teachers are able to respond that the “book says it” rather than taking on the responsibility, and perhaps the consequences, of using information coming directly from them. Schug, Western, and Enochs (1997) found that teachers express confidence in the authority of their textbook. The socially defined and recognized view of textbooks as an “authority” becomes the cultural capital that teachers in this study used to legitimize teaching evolution. Teaching controversial material seemed to reinforce the need for cultural definitions of authority; in this case they chose the textbook as authority, not themselves.
Escape Routes to Avoid Evolution
As the study evolved, interviews with teachers suggest there are several escape routes to avoid the evolution controversy. These escape routes seem to increase the likelihood that evolution will not be taught regularly in high school biology classes. The teachers described social and political loopholes available for those who wished to avoid teaching evolution including those provided by inconsistent political documents.
The Politics of Evolution
When two influential political documents, the state course of study and the graduation examination, send mixed messages about the importance of evolution within the curriculum biology teachers have options to mediate their tensions with evolutionary theory. In this study, the biology curriculum in both schools of the teacher participants was shaped and conceptualized by a state course of study and a graduation examination that all students are expected to pass. All three participating teachers viewed the state course of study, which includes evolutionary theory, as an important reason to cover evolution; however, the omission of questions related to evolution in the graduation exam sent a different message to teachers.
Robert described the situation at his high school,
Well, we don’t have a set curriculum for this school. We have our [state] course of study and [the county school system] has a little bit more stringent course of study that … goes one step farther but nothing specific about those topics, that you must teach X, Y, and Z. … I think at our school, from what I gather from other teachers, it’s part of the state curriculum so it’s something that we have to do. But other teachers try to skirt around [evolution] as much as possible.
(Robert, interview, 10/30/03)
Similarly, Gail, who taught at the same high school as Robert, stated, “Who determines the curriculum here? The book is determined for us … but as far as curriculum, no one really. I’ve learned that I should cover the course of study and high school graduation exam material.” This was confirmed by the science department chairman who stated that the teachers were all college educated and unless they came to him and expressed the need for guidance, he left them to make their own instructional decisions.
The science department chairperson at the high school where Margaret taught was interviewed about her views on teaching evolution. She stated that she did not place importance on teaching evolution because, in her opinion, time was better spent on more important topics, such as those covered on the graduation exam. There was “so much else to cover; gotta cut somewhere.” She described her instruction on evolution as, “I gave students the definition of evolution and moved on.” She did mention that she planned to order a set of videos on evolution and creationism that were produced by a physicist, a chemist, and a theologian. She described the videos as explaining scientifically how the creation story and evolution might be not as contradictory as most people assumed. When asked whether she would be showing them to her students, she responded, “No, we can’t talk about creationism in school because it’s a belief; that’s against the law.”
When asked if the science department chairperson gave her any guidance on teaching evolution, Margaret replied, “No, no she gave me free reign to treat it as I saw fit.” Despite the chairperson’s view on teaching evolution, Margaret was the final authority on what was taught in her classroom. Margaret did elect to cover the theory of evolution, if only superficially.
The state board of education delivers a mixed message in regards to evolution. On the one hand, the course of study mandates instruction on biological evolution. On the other hand, “inserts” challenging the theory are state-mandated for placement in biology textbooks and evolution is left out of the graduation exam. Because teachers and schools are evaluated by graduation exam passing rates, the omission of questions pertaining to evolution on the exam sends a strong message about the value placed on the theory of evolution, and teachers have an escape route for omitting it if they so choose. The “hands-off” climate and culture of the schools allowed the teachers to make individual instructional choices. Therefore, teacher autonomy becomes sociocultural capital that influences and shapes the school climate regarding controversial issues and in this southern state contributes to the likelihood that evolution will be omitted if a teacher chooses to do so.
While teaching autonomy is essential for teacher empowerment and professionalism, autonomy can be a double-edged sword allowing a teacher’s personal views and beliefs to impact the classroom curriculum. Teachers are the final authority of what is taught in their classroom regardless of state-mandated curriculum guides. The three teachers participating in this study all described a sense of autonomy set by the culture of their science department and school when it came to their instructional decisions, even on controversial topics such as evolution. Gail stated, “No one is looking over our shoulders. I’m the authority on what I teach. … As far as the people here, the administration … they don’t look over my shoulder at all.” When Robert was asked, “Do you have a feeling that anyone is looking over your shoulder to be sure that you teach topics in certain ways?” Robert responded, “Not that I teach topics in certain ways.” When asked about who set the curriculum Robert replied that the state and district course of study set a broad framework but the details of what to teach on a particular topic were left entirely up to him. Margaret also reported, “I’ve never had an administrator here to give me any direction about the teaching of evolution.”
Teacher autonomy is an important cultural capital of the profession as it prevents teachers from becoming simple technicians, delivering a product. From a sociocultural stance, teaching as a profession is embedded and framed by professional norms and values that support autonomy. Other teaching values include being knowledgeable, ethical, and caring decisions-makers. These values are part of the socialization process of teachers into the profession. Therefore, decisions regarding what to teach and how to teach are ultimately determined by the teachers. However, choices teachers make are mediated by the social, political, and economic conditions of their lived experiences inside and outside the institution of education. Autonomy, as a part of the participants’ professional culture was voiced strongly, especially when addressing a controversial topic like evolution. The social and political structures of the schools, with their “hands-off” attitude, did not provide for close accountability. In this study, neither the school administrators nor the science department chairman checked to see if the teachers were indeed teaching the objectives of the state course of study. Teacher autonomy supported by the professional culture permits a great deal of freedom, highly valued by the teachers. However, autonomy can be a double-edged sword when it pertains to controversial issues such as evolution. Autonomy allows teachers to make instructional decisions based on their knowledge and skills as a professional; by the same token, autonomy allows the teaching of personal views and beliefs that may not be part of the curriculum. Introduction of inappropriate content and/or the omission of important content may occur under the guise of autonomy. However, to put chains on teacher autonomy through social or political mandates flies in the face of the profession, devalues professionalism and the integrity of educators.
When faced with covering the vast biology curriculum, teachers are forced to decide what biological topics are taught in depth within the allotted class time. All three teachers spoke of the tremendous pressures created by the very real problem of limited instructional time. They are mandated to cover a vast biology curriculum specified by the state course of study and the objectives of the state graduation exam while dealing with the loss of class time caused by standardized testing and class interruptions. Biology students are typically tenth graders who attempt the state graduation exam for the first time during the year they take biology. Biology and life science are major components of the science portion of the graduation exam and all three biology teachers were well aware of the responsibility that fell on them. All three teachers expressed difficulty covering the vast amount of subject matter laid out in the course of study before the graduation examination in early spring.
I’m sure there are other things [besides evolution] … that you’re suppose to cover but I don’t get to it either. There’s just not time. … I’ll just say [evolution] is probably not … the only thing that I leave out, and I probably should cover it. But another biology teacher here … said, “Any teacher in the state … that says they cover everything in the course of study is probably not telling the whole truth because there so much in there to cover.”
(Gail, interview, 12/09/03)
The other two teachers often cited time as a limiting factor in their instructional decisions. Robert was diligent in keeping the course moving, but even he ran out of time and could not cover anatomy as planned. Margaret also brought up the factor of time several times during interviews. She believed that the early graduation exam date was a particular problem, causing biology teachers to feel enormous pressure to cover material quickly. She summed up her opinion in an email stating, “We are in cram mode for grad. exam.” She also sent the following email listing time as a contributing factor in her decision to cut short evolution.
If I had known that evolution was your topic of interest, I certainly would have
studied more and given the topic the time it deserved. Please keep in mind
that grad exam is given the week of March 12 and the kids now have a 5 day
up. IT IS CRAM TIME!
(Margaret, email, 2/9/04)
As a theme, lack of instructional time was a very real socially defined institutional construct that impacted their instructional decisions on whether to teach evolution or not. Within the two schools, the decision of where to place emphasis or what content to spend time teaching is a teacher’s decision. The teachers’ selection or omission of concepts and the time spent on them is noteworthy; therein lie the implications of what concepts they view as important and worthy of time.
The breadth of the biology curriculum creates pressure to cover it in the limited class time available. The issue of time and the mixed messages from the state board of education as well as the lack of oversight by the school administration provided legitimate (if covert) escape routes to avoid teaching evolution if teachers choose to do so. Therefore, it appears that many students are not being taught the theory of evolution.
Understanding sophisticated and highly complex social phenomena is difficult at best and impossible at worst. In this study, the teachers consciously and perhaps unconsciously deliberated within a layered web of sociocultural influences, personal beliefs, and lived experiences as they faced the dilemmas of how to teach evolution, especially human evolution. The sociocultural influences that surfaced from the data and served as escape routes for teachers who wanted to avoid evolution included: 1) the limiting factor of class time, 2) the socially and politically prescribed course of study and graduation examination, and 3) the setting and cultural climate of the school and science department that allowed the teachers a great of deal of autonomy. In addition, themes emerged that related to the socially and culturally defined authority of the textbook and, most evidently, to the social and cultural knowledge of the students, the community’s religious beliefs, and the unique dilemmas associated with teaching human evolution. While all three teachers understood that they were to cover the objectives in the course of study, autonomy gave them the freedom to decide to teach or not to teach particular concepts. This seemed to create unequal learning opportunities for the students. For the most part, the teachers were left to deal with teaching evolution as they saw fit, often allowing personal beliefs and community norms to influence instructional decisions pertaining to the concepts of evolution.
The qualitative approach and longevity of this study allowed the researcher to explore the lived experiences of three biology teachers within their classrooms, schools, and communities to portray dynamic, shifting images of the sociocultural influences that affect instructional decisions concerning the teaching of the theory of evolution in two Southern public high schools. As the image’s outline began to appear, questions were asked and new data collected to delve deeper into lives of the teachers, the culture of the school, and the culture of the community in order to elucidate the details of the sociocultural, personal, and educational factors that dominated the teachers’ instructional design for teaching evolution. While the three participating teachers had many similarities in their backgrounds and all were notably mindful of their students’ religious views and the community’s norms and values when they taught the theory of evolution, they held different opinions on whether and how to teach evolution.
This study suggests that ultimately each individual teacher negotiated a maze of sociocultural funds of knowledge, shifting in and out of personal experiences, social interactions, perceived limitations, religious beliefs, personal perspectives, and goals with respect to the theory of evolution, negotiating the shifting perspectives of the sociocultural landscape to determine whether and how evolution is presented in their classroom. While the three participating teachers only rarely reported confrontations over the theory, their sociocultural knowledge that conflict might erupt kept anxiety high. The administrators at the two participating schools adopted a “hands off” role in curricular decisions regarding evolution. They did not provide staff development or guidance to assist teachers in teaching controversial issues. Science teachers, in general, have traditionally been taught science as an empirically driven, fact-based discipline and as such are often hesitant and ill-prepared to teach value-based issues in science. With the increasing number of controversial topics such as genetic engineering, stem cell research, cloning, and environmental issues, biology teachers will find themselves negotiating an ever-expanding maze of ethical issues. The lack of preparation in pedagogies that address controversial/ethical issues will continue to be a source of teacher anxiety and lead to instructional choices that do not align with the goals and standards of science education. Thus, if the past predicts the future, then the failure to effectively teach evolution in many instances predicts that these newer controversial topics will not be taught appropriately unless science teachers are better prepared and supported in their attempts to do so.
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