Friday, 29 July 2011

What Makes An Exemplary Science Teacher?

A few weeks ago I caught the end of the #asechat, asking "what makes an exemplary science teacher". There was some wonderful debate about whether we should all be calling ourselves science teachers, rather than sticking with biology, chemistry and physics. Maybe one to discuss for another time.

But an interesting question was raised by a tweeter:
"Can a sci teacher with great results, respect from kids, passion, great classroom mgt, but who disputes evolution, be exemplary?"
My response was:
"Since evolution is the unifying theory of biology, would doubt it for biology, especially lessons on evolution"
I know, and indeed work with, lecturers who do not accept evolution, but who teach it nevertheless. They teach intermediate courses, or those with no evolution component, leaving me to tackle the more advanced adaptation-evolution-speciation topics. It probably suits them and me best. Chemistry seems to be a safe place for creationists to hang out (and it does seem to be the field from which the various Discovery Institute talking heads hail).

Sanders (2010) wrote a superb study for the 2010 SAARMSTE conference looking at the teaching methods employed by teachers with different levels of acceptance of evolutionary theory and earth history. The more vehemently young-earth creationist the teacher, the less effective the teaching strategy they employed, in general. It is a single study, and I am not sure of the extent of peer review relating to the article, but it raises some questions that really should be addressed at some point! Are teachers who do not accept evolution more likely to create a hostile teaching environment?

One could argue that it is possible to avoid teaching evolution. It would certainly be very easy to teach BTEC biology courses without ever touching on evolution (although I shove in a fair bit of variation and adaptation as an added bonus). Someone teaching pure physiology courses could avoid it too. However, my response to that is identical to Nesse et al. (2009), who say evolutionary biology is essential for medicine. There is so much in biology with an evolutionary link - Dobzhansky (1973) worked that one out when he said "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".

At advanced level I am supposed to have mastery of the subject. I am supposed to be a biology expert. I am supposed to understand all the theory that I teach (or at least to know where to find the best explanation if I don't have one). I simply do not accept that someone who disputes evolutionary theory understands it well enough to teach it at advanced level. This is not to say that people with religious faith cannot be exemplary biology teachers. Religious faith has nothing to do with it - just ask the hundreds of palaeontologists who have strong faith but who wholly accept evolution, abiogenesis and the age of the earth.

So the short answer to the question is "no", but the long answer is "perhaps, as long as they stay away from biology at advanced level". Otherwise, they are forcing their students to learn from someone who does not understand the subject to the extent required, and teachers who fall short of the subject knowledge required are soon punted into less damaging roles.


Dobzhansky, T. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher 35:125-129.
Nesse, R.M., C.T. Bergstrom, P.T. Ellison, J.S. Flier, P. Gluckman, D.R. Govindaraju, D.
Niethammer, G.S. Omenn, R.L. Perlman, M.D. Schwartz, M.G. Thomas, S.C. Stearns & D. Vallem. 2009. Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(Suppl):1800–1807.
Sanders, M. 2010. Teaching evolution in a multi-cultural society: teachers' concerns and management strategies for coping with conflict. SAARMSTE 2010 Conference. [online]

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