Science - Why teachers need to have a little faith in evolution

28th February 2014 at 00:00
Cover creationism or risk alienating students, they're told

Science teachers delivering lessons on evolution and the origins of the universe should also broach the subject of creationism in order to avoid "alienating" students with strong beliefs, research suggests.

Students with a strong faith are likely to be turned off science because it does not correspond with their own outlook on life, a study says, so more should be done to try to engage them.

The findings contradict popular opinion, which tends towards the view that religion has no place in lessons about evolution. Just last month, leading scientists on both sides of the Atlantic warned of the dangers of creationism in the classroom. Alice Roberts, president of the UK Association for Science Education, claimed that it amounted to "indoctrination" and called for a blanket ban on the teaching of creationism in science lessons, even in private faith schools.

Her comments were echoed by the National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit organisation in the US, which said that creationism was a "very real threat" in US schools.

The number of students in the UK who were sceptical about evolution was greater than many teachers would expect, the researchers from the University of York said. Pam Hanley, research fellow at the university's Institute for Effective Education, said that because of this, it made sense to mention religion when discussing the subject.

"You have to differentiate between teaching creationism as fact and teaching about it as context," Dr Hanley said. "I wouldn't for a moment say you should teach creationism in science, but you could certainly talk about evolution in the context of when Darwin first published his ideas, when it was challenging the religious orthodoxy."

Science teachers who taught only the facts were in danger of distancing students who were struggling with the information they were being presented with, she said.

"I don't think that approach is good for science, because it is setting it up as something you can't challenge. And it can risk alienating those pupils whose religious beliefs don't sit easily with science," Dr Hanley added.

As part of the study, researchers questioned more than 200 students aged 14-16 from four different secondaries. One was a faith-based Christian school, two were non-faith schools with mixed catchments and one was a non-faith school with a majority Muslim student population.

More than 80 per cent of Muslim respondents believed in creationism, and more than 60 per cent of those attending the Christian school thought that humans developed with some divine assistance. Although more than half of students at non-faith schools believed in evolution, one in three thought God played some part and 10 per cent believed in creationism.

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the University of London's Institute of Education, said the study revealed that the number of students who did not accept the theory of evolution was greater than was often supposed. In the light of this research, he added, teachers should broach religion only if they were confident on the subject.

"What I would not recommend would be to enter into a discussion about the scriptures, be it the Bible, the Koran or whatever," Professor Reiss said.

"Teachers should simply be respectful of their pupils' beliefs, and say that it is fine to have religious views, but add that science is about looking at the empirical evidence either for or against scientific theories, and that it does not stray from this narrow line."

The British Humanist Association said that the research into students' religious beliefs revealed the "state of affairs in the English state school system".

"While it is clearly not possible to force students to accept evolution and schools should do what they can to keep young people engaged with science, evolution remains the only explanation we have that is supported by the evidence," said Richy Thompson, the association's campaigns officer.

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