STRATEGY FOR TEACHING: "How Does Evolution Compare With Other Major Scientific Theories?"
This is a teaching strategy for the expanded outline of the key points which would help students consider the relative strengths of scientific ideas (available below in PDF format).
Suggestions for teaching this:
PREPARATION: Prepare brief summaries of several well-established theories in science. Be sure to include the fundamental empriical patterns for each one, the proposed causes that account for them, and the empirical evidence for each. You may expressly identify those three categories, or leave that for the students to distinguish (depending on their perceived level of sophistication). I would tend to go with leaving them unidentified, so that students will be challenged to recognize those features. If necessary, you could provide clues during the activity. Be sure there is enough information provided (including sufficient historical information) so students can evaluate the theory according to the eight criteria (below). [If you do this, please share your summaries with us, and we will share them with other teachers via this web site.] Alternatively, students could be assigned to search for the needed information via the internet, textbooks, and library resource materials, but this might take longer than you are willing to devote.
Theories to include could be: gravity, planetary motion, atomic, relativity, cell, biological evolution, gene, radiometric age-dating, periodic nature of chemical elements, stellar evolution, plate tectonics.
PROCEDURE: Place students into collaborative groups, and provide each group with the eight criteria for comparing scientific theories (listed below). Silently give each team a different theory (or give two distant teams the same theory as an internal check). Be sure to include biological evolution as the theory for one team (or pair of teams). Provide the appropirate information summary to each team for its assigned theory.
Ask each team to first identify the empirical patterns, the causes for each pattern, and as much evidence for each theory as they can find. Then have each team judge its theory on the basis of each of the eight criteria, pehaps assigning some simple qualitative or quantitative level of confidence to the theory for each criterion, and a final summation for a total value (all discussed and agreed upon beforehand), so it is standardized for subsequent comparison of the theories. Values could be a "3" for a high level of compliance to a criterion, a "1" for a low level of compliance.
1. How many lines of independent evidence support the theory?
2. How many previously unconnected areas of knowledge did a theory tie together?
3. Does the theory make precise predictions?
4. How clear are the causal mechanisms?
5. Does the theory adequately explain the ultimate origin of the systems it describes and explains?
6. I the theory scientifically controversial, or only publicly or politically controversial?
7. Is the theory fundamental to many practical benefits embraced by our economic system?
8. Is the theory widely understood and accepted by the general public?
The full text of this material can be found in the NSTA booklet The Creation Controversy & The Science Classroom. (2000), in the article by Craig E. Nelson: "Effective Strategies for Teaching Evolution and Other Controversial Topics", on pages 26-30.