Friday, November 20, 2009

What I Wish I Said I: I'm Still Learning about Evolution

Call it author's remorse, but now I'm thinking of all the things that I should have said in writing The Missing Link. I guess there's no way to get a book right on the first edition. My mentor Tom Koballa said the other day that you never really get any book absolutely right.

What I wish I had said in the Introduction was that I'm still learning about evolution. I'm not an expert at all. I come to learning about evolution late because I was schooled in the American South, where evolution is often skipped due to controversy. Also, my background in fundamentalist Christianity made me fearful of studying evolution. Writing The Link put me on the road to learning about evolution, but I know that road is a long one before I've filled in the holes in my background.

I'm sure that readers will find mistakes in the science in The Link. I just don't know enough yet to have nailed down the science clearly. I'd be fine if the topic were chemistry or physics. the areas I have taught as a high school teacher. Biology was actually my first love, but as a high school student I began veering away from biology because of the conflict I saw between evolution and my faith. Now, here I am 30 years later, turning back to what I was most interested in all along.

All of this is why I wish I had said in the book blatantly, "I'm an evolution learner." First, it's the reality. Although I wish I knew more about evolution, that's just not where I am right now. Second, I wish I had said that for the sake of the other teachers out there who, like me, are still catching up on their knowledge of evolution. Some may have had backgrounds similar to mine where they were afraid to study evolution. Others might be teachers from another certification area who find themselves unexpectedly teaching evolution. The Appendix in The Link is titled, "Help! I'm a Biology Teacher, and I Don't Think I Understand Evolution Myself." I wrote it to help teachers who, like me, need to learn more about evolution. In fact, that appendix presents the resources that were most helpful to me in deepening my understanding of evolution while I was writing the book.

I'm also wondering now if identifying ourselves as evolution learners is a good, not a bad, thing. Every week I see news of new findings in evolution, and I find another good book on it that I want to read. I can't keep up! I know students respond well to teachers who are open about how they are still learning. I think we'd all agree that if students say at the end the evolution unit, "Hmmm. I want to know more," that would be a great result of their study of evolution. With all of the new fossils coming out of the ground these days, I would think that we'd all have to be evolution learners.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Hearing Ken Miller's Balance

Ken Miller spoke at UAB last week, and I had the privilege of attending his lecture. I was impressed by two things he did. When it came scientific questions and issues, he stuck tenaciously to the evidence. He did this with clarity and expertise in his talk and in the Q&A time afterwards. When it came to questions and issues outside of science, he responded with grace and openness. The combination of the two approaches was powerful to watch.

With regard to evolution, he stuck to the science, and he didn't blink in the face of tough questions during the follow-up period. Some might think that he was attacking creationism and intelligent design, but I didn't. I heard him clearly delineating scientific approaches from non-scientific ones. He kept coming back to scientific evidence and scientific processes, and he kept exposing the inherently religious nature of creationism and ID.

When the issues touched on anything other than science, however, he was gracious and non-dogmatic. He defended religion throughout the Q&A time as something valuable and enriching to humans. He spoke easily and quickly of his own faith (Catholicism) without proselytizing. He pointed out the non-scientific statements that those like Richard Dawkins have made as they've used evolution to attack religion, but he refused to attack Dawkins himself and instead spoke kindly of him.

If you're not familiar with Dr. Miller's work, take a look at his evolution webpage. For me, I'm off to order a couple of his books to see what else I can learn from a man who is unapologetic about the evidence, but gracious in all else. (Also, I'm pretty challenged by his deep knowledge of the evidence for evolution. I still have much so much to learn about the evidence for evolution, but I'm getting more and more comfortable with viewing myself as someone learning about evolution. More on that soon.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

State-By-State Grades on Teaching Evolution

In The Missing Link, I took the stand that all students need to learn about evolution and that creationism/ID is not appropriate for teaching in public schools. That continues to be my stand. All students need to understand the piles and piles of evidence for evolution and how scientists explain evolution limiting themselves to natural processes. In The Link, though, I focused on how to do that in a way that is sensitive to and honors students who come to evolution with deep religious objections.

My UAB colleague, Rob Angus, just passed along to me a recently published analysis of how each U.S. state scored on the teaching of evolution. The title is Why Science Standards are Important to a Strong Science
Curriculum and How States Measure Up
, and it's available free on-line. The graphic here is from that article, and the image gives the quick-view of the results. There's progress here with several Southern states improving their ratings. But, children in many states still don't appear to be getting the opportunity to even examine evolution at all.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Coming Soon: What I Wish I Had Said in The Missing Link

I guess every author has those things that, after the book comes out, he or she realizes, "Oh, dang, I should have said __________ ." I've had a few of those thoughts, and I'm hoping to post about them soon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ASTA Follow-Up

It was great seeing so many old friends at ASTA yesterday. Thanks to all of you who attended my sessions or who came by my book signing table. Remember to use the Labels and the Links on the left-hand side of this page to help you find any follow-up information you need. If you can't find what you're looking for, or if you have any other questions, feel free to post it as a comment here or to e-mail me at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monday, October 05, 2009

Learning about Whale Evolution from National Geographic

In The Missing Link, I laid out an inquiry on whale evolution that uses data from a written article. This is a different style of inquiry than many people think of, since the students don't collect the data themselves. That would be kind of hard for them to do, right, since they're not paleontologists! So, this style of inquiry has them looking at, thinking through, and explaining data that other scientists have collected and published.

The article is "The Evolution of Whales" from November, 2001, of National Geographic. I could not find an electronic version of the article anywhere, however. Probably, it's easily accessible to teachers, though, since most school media centers carry National Geographic. A work-around is Edward Babinski's web-based summary of the article, which also includes some nice drawings.

I like the article because of how it traces whale evolution in a broad sweep, rather than bogging down in the details. Although this 50,000-feet level will be helpful to middle- and high-schoolers who read the article, it will also probably cause them to trip up over some of the details. That's why I've created the graphic organizer that appears here for students' use when reading the article. The graphic organizer scaffolds the students' reading of the article by focusing them on the most important information. In The Missing Link, I proposed a fairly generic graphic organizer. I've been looking for this opportunity to develop one that is more specific, in case teachers need tighter scaffolding for the article.

Teachers can use this graphic organizer as a base for thinking about how much scaffolding their student need. Older students, or those who are adept at inquiry, need less scaffolding as they approach a complex data source. Teachers can remove some of the scaffolding by taking away the species names in the left-most column and thereby require students to decide as they read the article which species of the ones mentioned are the most important. By keeping the scientists' names in the graphic organizer, as shown in the version here, the students still have some guidance as they work. To remove almost all of the scaffolding, teachers would remove the scientist names as well.

Teachers can also scaffold the activity more tightly for younger students and students new to inquiry by filling in more information and thereby providing more guidance for the students as they work. The image shows a version I created by leaving the text for the cell on each line that I thought was the most difficult to extract from the article. This is the least obvious information, and by providing it to the students, I prevent frustration from impeding their process on the inquiry.

I created the last graphic organizer from a completely filled out one that is my version which I completed as I dug into the article. As I teach the inquiry, I'll have that version with me for my own reference if students get stuck. Since it was already filled out, removing information from some of the cells made creating the most structured version of the graphic organizer a 3-minute process.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Resources for a Lesson on the Evolution of HIV

In writing the Missing Link, I put together an outline for a lesson on using HIV resistance to help students better understand evolution. I'm starting now to flesh out that outline and find resources that teachers can tap in using an inquiry-based approach to teaching evolution.

In developing an inquiry, I always have to keep in mind my purpose. Maybe it's just me, but I always have to fight the tendency to drift to related science or to get lost in the evidence, forgetting my overall goal. So, I kept the following in mind as I worked:
  • Lesson Purpose: Students examine evidence of the evolution of HIV in response to antiviral drugs as an example of evolution occurring in their lives right now
  • Focus Question: What does the theory of evolution say?

In understanding the evidence, you and your students will probably need a big-picture understanding of HIV's genetic sequence. This one that I found is from the HIV database mentioned below, and it was a rosetta stone for me in understanding the rest of the evidence.

The source of evidence I worked with while writing the Missing Link was the research article "Mutations in Retroviral Genes Associated with Drug Resistance." The article summarizes the actual research detailing the evidence of HIV evolution at the codon level, but it is pretty technical, especially for use by secondary students. The site on which the article is posted gives other potentially good sources of evidence and resources that can be tapped for helping students understand the summary of mutations in the article.

I'm interested in the HIV Drug Resistance Database housed at Stanford University, and I'm focusing now on the portion of the site giving summaries of drug resistance. There, you and your students will find a section giving "Antiretriviral drug summaries." This seems to be a productive source for giving your students access to a high-level understanding of the clear evidence for HIV's constant and rapid mutation when it encounters drug therapy. Each of the links under that section takes you to a table giving the key mutations associated with a specific class of drug, and students can clearly see below the table the list of scientific publications from which the tables are constructed.

In the process, I stumbled on some other possibilities:
  • The Geography Search Interface from HIV Databases Site gives a pretty amazing tool by which students can examine the evidence for geographical distribution of different strains of HIV worldwide. Great for visual and kinetic learners!
  • If you or your students need to brush up on understanding HIV's basic structure or life cycle, a simple Google Images search gives a lot of quality images. I searched "HIV structure" and then looked at the web addresses for a sense of which ones were coming from reputable science sources. (Ok, I'll admit. Sometimes I also went for the easy stuff.)
  • I just started playing with the TRIP database. I've been working at UAB's medical school for a couple of years now, and they are focusing students on evidence-based medicine (the science behind good practice). TRIP is a database of evidence-based medicine, and I got several good hits when I initially searched on HIV there. An interesting feature is that it give patient information leaflets, which might help students who are asking, "Why do we need to know this?"
My next step is to address how I would scaffold these resources differently for middle schoolers in a life science course and high schoolers in general biology. That may have to wait a couple of weeks, however. Next week looks pretty busy.

Hey, Dr. Jackson's students!

Welcome to my blog, and I'm looking forward to being with you next week (and to being back at Science Ed at UGA). Make sure you notice the labels on my blog:
  • The Inquiry label lets you focus on posts I've made about inquiry itself.
  • The Unbelieving Evolution label shows posts about my work on teaching evolution to religious students. (Dr. Jackson got me started on this!)
  • It's not a label, but another special feature is the Links section. They're all related to inquiry, and many teachers have reported them to me as helpful.
You can post questions that you have for me here as comments, if you'd like, and you can do so anonymously.

Enjoying Lesson Development

I'm realizing how much I enjoy developing inquiry lessons. That's much of the work that I did in writing The Missing Link, but now that I'm developing other inquiries since then, I'm realizing how rewarding and meaningful the process itself is.

I think this realization began to hit when I was working on the HIV lessons that I did in July and August. Several things about the process were really good for me:
  • Learning science: Inquiry often puts me in the learner mode because I'm having to think deeply about my understanding of the science involved as I try to represent it for my learners.
  • Reflecting on standards: I have to often circle back to meaningful standards to make sure that I'm focusing my students on science that is meaningful to them. (Atlas for Science Literacy is my go-to set of standards.)
  • Creative teaching: I love the creativity in developing good lessons. Don't all good teachers? I'm now working at a new level of creativity because I'm working to engage & sustain my students in rigorous inquiry.
  • Lots of reflection: I'm always having to think deeply, either in lesson development or in teaching the lesson, about, "How is this going? Is it working? How do I know?" I enjoy that process.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Theory Supporting Inquiry

I'm leading a session this week on the topic of learning tools for a group of UAB faculty who are interested in teaching better. I wanted to refer them to some of the big ideas that support modern approaches to teaching, and as I was thinking about that, I realized that lining these approaches out for inquiry teachers would be a good as well.

(GEC Participants: Please see some comments I'm starting to post that will give you resources for specific learning tools we discussed.)


For Inquiry Teachers

For GEC Participants

How People Learn

Key Research Supporting Inquiry’s Focus on addressing student misconceptions, facts aligned with big ideas, and use of conceptual change strategies.

This is the research that framed our face-to-face session. Start at the page linked here for the key research findings, but back up to the entire document (especially chapters 2 & 5) if you want to know more.

The Private Universe and Minds of Our Own

Private Universe is a seminal video in science education because of how it communicated the prevalence and persistence of scientific misconceptions. Minds of Our Own took the same methodology and presentation style to content other than astronomy.

Assessing prior knowledge is the first step in authentic teaching and learning. These resources help you see more the power of student misconceptions by examining the blocks K-12 students face.

The 5 Elements of Cooperative Learning

Inquiry is difficult, if not impossible to accomplish, if teachers can’t manage effectively student work in small groups. Cooperative Learning, as described by the 5 Elements, defines true cooperative learning, which is very different from typical group work.

A first move many teachers make when beginning to implement authentic teaching is breaking large classes into small groups. The 5 Elements of Cooperative Learning give you a powerful way to think about how to do this successfully..

Atlas of Science Literacy (Original Version and Complete Version)

Why spend hours and hours trying to find the big ideas of science when this stellar work from Project 2061 has already done that. These maps show 100 grand ideas of science and how they should be developed across a students’ K-12 learning.

These big ideas from K-12 education give you strong examples of how big ideas can be used as a conceptual framework for learning the facts.

For a different example, you may want to review UAB School of Education’s Conceptual Framework to see how we structured assessment of professional program around 11 big ideas (click the links there for rubrics).

Educating the Net Generation

Today’s K-12 students grew up with the Internet. They have no idea what life and learning are without it. This resource helps teachers understand how today’s students are different, not deficient.

Traditional-age undergrads and grads are used to learning with the WWW at their fingertips. The Introduction from this resources gives you powerful ways to understand these students, the challenges they face, and the strengths they bring to the learning environment.

Other Inquiry Resources

I’m always collecting inquiry resources and posting them to this page. The first part of the page gives curriculum resources; the second give more general resources.

Inquiry is a model of authentic learning specific to science instruction. If you’re interested in learning more, start with the 5 Essential Features of Inquiry.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's Here!

One of the cool things about working with Heinemann press is how well they care for their authors. One of those is their neat tradition of overnighting one of the first books of the press to the author. I got mine on Tuesday! (See more book details at Heinemann's site or on Amazon.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Managing the Conflict..." online

Just found out that an earlier paper I had written on evolution is available on-line. It's "Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion," and it appeared in 2000 in the American Biology Teacher. David Jackson and Liz Doster were my co-authors on the paper.

Friday, July 17, 2009

615 network forum: Details for 7/28

Below are the details on our next networking forum. Please let me know any questions or comments you have. You know how bad I am with details; so, watch for a "Final Details" post that clarifies any issues I've missed.

Date: Tuesday, July 28
Time: 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Location: The Oak Mountain Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain State Park
Cost: $3 (to cover your park admission)
Topic: Starting the Year Off with Inquiry

What to bring:
  • Lunch
  • Drinks for the day
  • paper & pen
  • USB drive (optional)

What to expect:
  • A nice preview of the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center and information on how you can tap this resource in your teaching.
  • Good, practical tips that will help you get your school year started right.
  • A chance to connect with old friends from UAB. A chance to make new friends from some of the area's best science teachers.
  • Help in improving your teaching, including professional development that moves you closer to achieving National Boards in science.
What do I need to do in advance:
  • RSVP, if at all possible, just so PLM knows a general sense of how many are coming. Making a quick comment here is all you need to do, or you can send him an e-mail.
  • Check in with your UAB friends to make sure that they've gotten the information about this session. (Many of them have disappeared from PLM's list.)
  • Let PLM know if you want to bring a teacher who isn't part of the 615 network. They're welcome, as long as there's enough room.
Special notes about getting to the Interpretive Center:
  • You can enter the park from the main gate or from the back gate (off Highway 119 just west of Oak Mountain Middle School).
  • Don't speed in the park! They'll pull you over.
  • Signs clearly lead you to the Interpretive Center. It's located by the Alabama Wildlife Center across from the main lake in the center of the park.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

My Sabbatical Story

I sometimes have teachers ask me about the year I spent back in the classroom learning to teach inquiry first-hand. I had the privilege of writing the lead-off chapter in a new book from NSTA Press entitled Reforming Secondary Science Instruction, and the chapter itself is currently available from NSTA free of charge. Clicking the title of the post should take you to the chapter download, or go to the NSTA store and search "reforming secondary science". The title of my chapter is "Change in Secondary Science Settings: A Voice from the Field." Please let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Starting the Year with Inquiry

In June, I had the privilege of working with teachers in my father's home town of Lexington, TN. They were a privilege to work with as they were trying to wrap their heads around all of the issues involved in getting started with inquiry. Toward the end of the day, I walked them through the key issues involved with starting the school year off with inquiry, and since this topic has been on my mind, I snapped some pictures of the white board with my iPhone, and I wanted to post the discussion here.

We were focusing on their potential use of FOSS kits, and of course, we had to talk about how to prep before the year starts. The image shows several of the items that we came up with. They seemed a little overwhelmed with the list, but as I drove home I realized that any teachers has to do some sort of unpacking and poking around in a new curriculum. Inquiry adds the dimension, though, of materials management and the need to work through labs. I focused them on doing this for the first kit only, though. For any teacher, I would think they'd only want to look at the first unit of instruction, reserving prep on the later units (or kits) for after the first one is finished. You learn so much while you teach your first inquiry-based unit that I'm afraid that prepping the other units before the school year starts might be a waste of time.

We then focused a lot on the first days of instruction. The image talks about the first day, but really these are issues to be addressed during the first week. A lot of key issues need to be addressed in the first weeks as teachers help their students learn how to learn in an inquiry-centered classroom. The more we talked about all of these issues, the more I began to realize again how important training is for the students. They really often don't know how to work during inquiry, and one of my key mistakes at Spain Park High was not guiding my students well at the beginning of the school year. Instead, I just through them in and expected them to be able to learn. They were really frustrated!

We then talked about what happens in the next 3 weeks of inquiry. The kids have gotten started, but they still need a lot of training if they're going to be get off to a good start as they head into a year of learning from inquiry. That's what the "requires time" note in brown marker at the top indicates. Teachers need to take the time to continue training students in the key aspects of inquiry, and at times, this will feel like time away from teaching the actual content. Think of it as an investments, though. The time you invest at this point in training the students will be returned back to you richly as your students know how to learn in later months and are not frustrated, confused, or disengaged.

The rest of the first kit or unit continues with the teachers holding students to their expectations, as indicated in the image above. As this unit wraps up, the students should know your expectations and how to function correctly in the classroom. You also have the other systems that support inquiry functioning, especially materials management and assessment. By the end of the first unit, the classroom should be in order.

Now, you've finished the first unit (or kit). As the image shows, one of the key things you need to do is to breathe! Youv'e learned a lot about teaching by inquiry, and your students have learned a lot about being inquiry students. Everyone is probably a little weary of all the change! Don't be afraid to take a few class days off from inquiry before going into the next unit. This is a good time to address any standards that you know you won't cover in your inquiry-centered curriculum doesn't cover. It's also a good time to retrain or reteach students on your expectations so that they're crystal clear as you go into your next unit.

The final issue is areas to focus on while teaching the second unit. The image gives several, including having students working in new groups. The key issue to me is improving student understanding of the science itself. Don't let all of the action and process of inquiry steal focus from students actually building strong, deep content knowledge. Also, don't forget to keep communicating with parents. Throughout your start-up of inquiry, keeping clear communication lines open with them will help them understand what's going on in your science class and how it truly is a benefit to their children.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Update

Just in case you've missed the Twitter feed updates, I just finished the copy edits. The next step is the page edits in June, and then I'm finished with my work. The Missing Link: An Inquiry Based Approach for Teaching All Students About Evolution should be out in September.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Inquiry Follow-Up from NSTA

If you attended my session on the Evidence for Inquiry, make sure to explore the links to the left. The "Evidence 4 Inquiry" link takes you to the website I showed during the presentation, but the other two links may be interesting to you as well. Please let me know any questions or comments you have. You can e-mail by clicking on my picture and then on the e-mail link under the Contact section. You can make a comment (including an anonymous one) here by clicking the word "comments" directly below. I look forward to hearing from you.

NSTA Evolution Follow-up

Thanks to all of you brave souls who came out at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon for us to put our heads together on teaching evolution to religious students. I appreciated so much how we were able to talk, but not argue, about this tough issue. You can find additional information about the topic here on my blog, and the easiest way to do so is to click "UNBelieving Evolution" on the left under the Labels heading. Then, the blog will display only the posts associated with teaching evolution.

Please let me know any questions or comments you have. You can e-mail by clicking on my picture and then on the e-mail link under the Contact section. You can make a comment (including an anonymous one) here by clicking the word "comments" directly below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, March 09, 2009

New Orleans Bound!

Please let me know if you'll be in New Orleans for NSTA. I'm planning to arrive on Thursday.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Manuscript submitted!

Got the manuscript on the book submitted on Friday. I'm really excited! I had no idea, though, how consuming the last month of work would be.

Here's the basic outline, by chapter title.

Framing the Issues
Deciding the Focus of Your Unit
Engaging Students in Studying Evolution
Guiding Students to Examine the Evidence for Evolution
Guiding Students to Examine Evolution Itself
Deepening Student Understanding & Addressing Objections
Using Project-Based Learning to Solidify Student Understanding
Help! I’m a Biology Teacher, and I Don’t Think I Understand Evolution Myself! (Appendix)

I'm hoping, after a couple of week of decompressing, to start blogging on the UNBelieve approach again. Lots has gone on in my head as I've finalized the manuscript.

(The picture is my favorite Caffeine Delivery System when writing. The red gizmo is a moka, which is an Italian stovetop espresso maker.)

(Oh yeah, my brain is numb!)