Friday, February 12, 2010

Teaching Evolution & Civil Discourse

Teachers always ask me, "What should I do when students say, 'What do you believe?'" I've been thinking about that question ever since The Missing Link came out. I wrote about that issue in the last chapter and outlined an approach, but I've also had a several new thoughts about civil discourse.

One of the big problem with evolution, and with teaching it, is the lack of civil discourse. Emotions begin to simmer, and words get heated. I got called "evolutionist" and "creationist" on the same day soon after The Link came out. Since then, I've also been called "heretic" and "atheist" None of this is civil discourse. Name calling doesn't help either side, and both the creationist side and the evolution side have done their share of name calling.

So, I'm trying to imagine a classroom where children can talk civilly about evolution, especially children in a public school who come from diverse backgrounds. I used to think that teachers should work to minimize personal conversations while students are learning evolution in an effort to minimize controversy, but now I realize that approach probably just doesn't work. Any time students are engaged in inquiry, they're going to have sidebar conversations about personal matters. Adults, as well as children, do that when they work in groups. So, I realize now that teachers can't shut down the personal conversations that are going to happen as students are learning about evolution. I'm not even sure that they should, even if they could.

I've also been thinking about the civil discourse that we hope happens in a democratic society. People are always going to disagree, and the trick is how to handle the tough conversations. I'm starting to realize that evolution is a good opportunity for teachers to help their students learn some of the skills of civil discourse. Rather than shutting down the personal conversations about "Well, I believe..." that will certainly come up when public school students are learning about evolution, I'm beginning to catch a vision of how a skilled teacher could be present in those discussions, guiding students to understand what civil discourse looks like when people disagree on deeply felt issues. Learning about evolution could be an opportunity for student to learn some life lessons about handling a whole range of controversial issues.

It's a tough topic for teachers to tackle, but I have a lot of faith in science teachers. I bet they can figure out what civil discourse looks like with their students.

1 comment:

jhubb546 said...

It will probably be rough going at first, but i think over the course of the year with the teacher modeling and guiding the discussions students will learn what is acceptable and not. This could also lead to a discussion about how to argue and use logic as opposed to just opinion when dealing with current/controversial issues in science