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Creation Confrontation in the Classroom

 One of our pioneer and most prolific ENSI teachers, Steve Randak (ENSI 1990) shares the recent experiences of his school with a student-led petition to include creationism in the biology curriculum. His story appears in the latest issue (April, 2001) of The American Biology Teacher as a Guest Editorial, and he has kindly consented to posting his article on ENSIweb.

Steve has already received considerable email reaction to the article, mostly from other teachers who have had similar experiences. You are invited to post your comments, questions, and suggestions with us on our ENSI BULLETIN BOARD. You can send your email to Steve (his address is at the end of the article), or to the ENSI webmaster. We will post your comments on this page as they are received, unless you request otherwise.


Guest Editorial by Steven Randak
The American Biology Teacher, April 2001, pp. 226-230

The Children's Crusade for Creationism

The nightmare of every biology teacher happened at our school. Creationists petitioned the school board to have creation science added to the biology curriculum. The outcome was mixed.

Why Us?
Why did it happen at Jefferson High School, Lafayette Indiana, in the shadow of Purdue University? It seems reasonable to assume that if you are not teaching evolution, you greatly reduce your chances of a confrontation to nearly zero. As you increase the time spent on evolution and the effectiveness of your instruction, the risk of creationist intervention should logically increase. After an introductory unit on the nature of science, we teach one semester of ecology and one semester of evolution, with genetics and the cell included in evolution. John Moore's deductions of evolution are the skeleton upon which we build the second semester's study (Moore 1993). In addition to teaching the big ideas in biology, we spend considerable time teaching life skills with goal setting, group learning, student choice, and oral testing. We use several tools that increase the chance that the 80% of the time spent in labs will result in critical thinking skills development. Because the class is team taught, student centered, and constructivist , students tend to enjoy it and they learn (Randak 2000). These factors work together to create an environment that stresses students with creationist beliefs. To relieve that stress we teach a comprehensive 5 week introductory unit on the nature of science. It includes not only the scientific method but a consideration of how science is distinguished from nonscience and a condensed history of science. The commitment to developing a deep understanding of the nature of science comes, in part, from our involvement with a NSF sponsored ENSI program (ENSI 2000). The ENSI philosophy assumes that if students develop an understanding of what science is and how you distinguish science from nonscience, they will have fewer problems when confronted with evolution (Nickels et al 1996). In the past it worked. This time it didn't. Why?

Student Generated
The mystery further deepens when you consider that the entire initiative to add creationism to the curriculum was student driven. No adult took an obvious role. We know from talking with students that one of our chemistry teachers offers a great deal of support for the creationist view. It seems possible and even likely that the petition was his idea. In the past, he spent the first several weeks of school preaching the creationist dogma, but appeared to have stopped because of administrative pressure. He has recently started preaching in his classroom again. The guidance of this one adult may be the reason this creationist action happened or it may truly be a student response to effectively taught evolution. Our superintendent holds this latter opinion. He feels that creationist parents and students are upset because we teach evolution effectively.

The Crusade
Why it happened remains unclear but what happened is vividly clear. The school's Christian club served as the spring board. These students organized and obtained hundreds of students signatures and dozens of faculty signatures on a petition requesting creation science be added to the biology curriculum . We found that even among faculty the argument, "It is only fair that both sides be presented," was very compelling. Even two of our 16 science staff signed the petition. The chemistry teacher's signature was missing. Most of the students and adults that signed do not understand that science has little to do with the playground idea of fairness. They fail to understand science is a competition of ideas where the strength of the supporting evidence determines which idea is accepted. We spent considerable time falsifying creationist arguments both with individual students and small groups. An interesting aspect of refuting creation "science" is that students holding that belief take your criticism as an attack on their religion and not as an attack on a scientific idea. To quote one student, "It is bad enough that you teach the earth is old, you should not be able to attack my evidence that the earth is young." Many of the students, when they felt their faith or faithfulness was under siege, threw out the rational mind and critical thought and regressed to knee jerk mantras such as "evolution is a religion," or "it is only a theory." To a teacher it is humbling to see students in the midst of gaining critical thinking skills regress to mindless chanting of such worthless drivel.
On the plus side, it energized all our students. We had more interest in the study of evolution and higher unit grades than ever before from a class that is not our strongest. As you might expect, the local paper's editorial section was also energized on the issue for months. Around the time they petitioned the school board there was a media frenzy.

The Outcome
What is most encouraging about this story is the way our school corporation responded. The superintendent immediately stated to us his support for our curriculum and kept us informed of his actions. The biology staff mutually decided to maintain a low profile in the media. Our department head bravely gave the one newspaper interview, which resulted in the predictable misquotes. The superintendent educated the school board about the nature of science and the law and with the help of the science department head convinced the one wavering board member . The students were respectfully treated by the administration and the school board. At the public school board meeting, under the glare of local and national television lights, they were politely told that the curriculum would not be altered. It all worked the way a science educator would hope. Where is the mixed outcome mentioned in the introductory paragraph?

The Warning
When things calmed down and I had some free time, I called Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (1-800-290-6006). She is the first person I would call if you have problems with creationists. I was curious how our experience fit into the larger picture. What she told me was a shock. I assumed that student- led crusades for creation science were common. They are not. I assumed that school boards and superintendents often do the right thing. They do not. I was told that our situation was the ideal, not the norm and at that moment, I experienced more concern than any time during the many months of controversy.
Children crusading for creation science or intelligent design in the name of fair play is a compelling idea. If the tactic is used in school corporations less ideal than ours, it will surely meet with success and science education will suffer.

References
ENSI - Evolution and the Nature of Science Institute (2000). http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/

Moore, J.A. (1993). Science As A Way of Knowing. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.

Nickels, M. K., Nelson, C. E. & Beard, J. (1996). "Better Biology Teaching by Emphasizing
Evolution & the Nature of Science
". The American Biology Teacher, 58(6), pp. 332 - 336

Randak, S. H. (2000). Randak 2000

 

Steve Randak
Biology Teacher
Jefferson High School
Lafayette
, IN 47905
srandak@nlci.com

COMMENTS BY THE WEBMASTER

As discussed elsewhere on this site, the ENSI approach has been primarily to help teachers present an accurate and dynamic student-centered program which addresses the actual nature of modern science and the principle elements of evolution as currently understood, especially focusing on those factors which are often misunderstood by the general public and misrepresented by creationists.

This positive, constructive approach should hopefully equip teachers and students alike with a level of science literacy that should enable them to see creation "science" claims as the pseudoscience it is, and to realize why creationism has no place in any science classroom. The goal here is NOT to attack religious beliefs (science is not equipped to do that, nor is it legally or ethically proper for teachers to do that), but rather to clarify what science CAN and CANNOT DO, HOW it does that, and where it is misrepresented. In addition, the parallel goal is to recognize why evolution reflects one of the best examples of an active science, and clearly provides the best explanation for a wide range of biological, behavioral, medical, ecological, and agricultural phenomena, totally consistent with ALL critical observations and analyses.

Unfortunately, the human mind can be profoundly influenced by persuasive and compelling voices, even when the message is not consistent with reality. Teachers will always have students who bring such perceptions into their classes, combined with very strong religious beliefs. They won't always produce the level of confrontation described here, but they are there. As science teachers, we are obligated to present the best, most accurate science we can, and to point out the popular misconceptions about science. However, we must also respect the deeply cherished beliefs of our students, and clearly point out that we do NOT take issue with their religious beliefs, but we DO take issue with any misrepresentations of science.