• Teachers Increase Misconceptions About Evolution

    Evolution: Education and Outreach recently published an article by Tony Yates and Edmund Marek. The study is entitled “Teachers teaching misconceptions: a study of factors contributing to high school students’ acquisition of biological evolution-related misconceptions” (available in the open access journal here).

    Having been a high school science teacher and an adviser at several colleges and universities, I can say that the majority of people entering the teaching of science are not science people. The reason for entering science fields for new teachers is two-fold. First, it is a critical need area. That means that such teachers can make more than the average teacher just starting out and those teachers are much less likely to be laid off due to budget cuts. (Of course, in Texas, being a winning football coach is much more valuable skill than any teaching ability.)

    What has happened is both the watering down of science education training and the entrance of people with very little science background into the field. In general (in my experience), the majority of science teachers mean well, but many of them are not knowledgeable about all aspects of their field, they do not keep up with research advances in science (or education for that matter), and they are just not proficient in scientific skills.

    There are many excellent high school science teachers. There are also many exceptionally poor science teachers. Including those that purposefully lie to students in order to promote their personal religion instead of the science concepts that they are supposed to be teaching.

    The authors of this article contacted numerous teachers and developed a survey pool of 35 teachers and 536 high school students. They were all from the same state (Oklahoma). I have little doubt that the state had some effect on the results, Oklahoma being squarely in the Bible Belt. But as no other states have been tested, that remains an unconfirmed hypothesis.

    What is confirmed is that these 536 students coming out of high school biology had a statistically significant increase in misconceptions about evolution. Since the survey included teacher responses to the same questions the students were asked, we the conclusion of the authors is

    there is little doubt that teachers may serve as sources of biological evolution-related misconceptions or, at the very least, propagators of existing misconceptions.

    One part of the self-reported teacher survey was particularly disturbing. Each teacher was asked how much teaching time was devoted to evolution.  One teacher devoted zero hours to teaching of evolution. That is, one teacher did not think that the most fundamental concept in biology was worthy of any teaching time.

    The majority of teachers (17 out 35; 48.6%) devoted between 1 and 5 hours to evolution. Only one teacher devoted more than 15 hours to evolution.

    The other interesting point (and supports my anecdotal experience) is that of the 35 teachers, only 13 had a degree in biology and only another 8 had a non-biology science degree.  The rest (14 teachers; slightly over 1/3) had no real science education.  Now, by “real” science education I mean more than the intro classes that many education programs require for teachers.

    Quick aside. There are science degrees. And some people with science degrees take extra courses to become a teacher. Then there are education degrees that focus on teaching. These people take some extra science classes to become science teachers. When I say ‘extra’ it ranges from just enough to pass the content teacher test to just over enough to pass the teacher content test.

    Prior to instruction the students self-reported their evolution knowledge. They did the same in a post-instruction survey. The majority of students rated their knowledge of evolution (pre-instruction) as “average” (45%), with the second highest rating as “fair” (22.4%) and third was ‘good’ (better than average) at 14%.  Post instruction, the students rating themselves as average remained about the same (47.4%), but the fair rating dropped to 11.8% and the good rating increased to 29.5%.

    So the students were instructed and they felt that they learned the material. This is a good thing. But what material did they learn?

    The teachers and the students (before and after instruction) were given a 23 question survey that asked them to rate their agreement with common concepts in evolution. These questions covered everything from science and scientific methodology to mechanisms of and evidence supporting evolution.

    Analyses revealed that students typically exit the Biology I classroom more confident in their biological evolution
    knowledge but holding greater numbers of misconceptions than they initially possessed upon entering the course.
    Significant relationships between student acquisition of misconceptions and teachers’ bachelor’s degree field, terminal
    degree, and hours dedicated to evolution instruction were also revealed. In addition, the probabilities that specific
    biological evolution-related misconceptions were being transmitted from teachers to their students were also identified.

    For example, students and teachers were asked to rate their agreement with the statement, “There exists a large amount of evidence supporting the theory of evolution.” Teachers responded overwhelming in the affirmative. Over 51% strongly agreed with the statement. However, the next highest group at 22.9% strongly disagreed with the statement.

    More telling, students who had teachers that somewhat and strongly disagreed with that statement came out of the classroom with higher disagreement with the statement as well. In this case, 19.2% of students began somewhat disagreeing and 23.9% of students strongly disagreed. After instruction by teachers who somewhat or strongly disagreed, student support of the misconception increased to 21.8% and 26.5% respectively. So nearly 40 students were converted from their initial opinion to having a stronger disagreement with the statement that “There exists a large amount of evidence supporting the theory of evolution.”

    This is only one example and it is not the strongest example. The biggest change was from the statement “New traits within a population appear at random” resulted in nearly 120 students being taught a misconception. ”

    There were two cases in which the students entered their biology course with a higher score on the evolution question survey than their teachers. This means that the students knew more accurate information about evolution than the teacher did.

    Obviously, there are other influences on students’ perceptions of evolution such as religion and parent influences. However, the incident at which teachers taught misconceptions about evolution was very high. A 1999 article by Weld and McNew stated that about 1/4 of Oklahoma life-science teachers place moderate or strong emphasis on creationism.

    It is imperative, then, that we as educators identify sources of student biological evolution-related misconceptions, identify or develop strategies to reduce or eliminate such misconceptions, and then implement these strategies at the appropriate junctures in students’ cognitive development. If teachers are unaware of the misconceptions prevalent with students and do not take them into consideration when implementing instructional strategies, they may hold overly optimistic expectations of the effectiveness of their teaching

    Here’s the deal. We are having a massive problem getting concrete accurate information about evolution out into the general public. For many people (probably the vast majority of US citizens), high school biology is the ONLY instruction in life science that they will receive. When you think about how much of our lives are dependent on life science (we are living things), it becomes imperative that we present this information as accurately and effectively as possible. I mean this to include not only evolution, but discussion on vaccines, health, reproduction, nutrition, cancer, medicine, and the like.

    Unfortunately, we can’t begin to discuss some of these concepts until a student has a basic understanding of things like cells, germ theory of disease, the central dogma of molecular biology, even ecology. How can we expect someone with very poor knowledge of DNA, molecular biology, and ecology to make an informed decision on genetically modified organisms? How can we expect someone with poor knowledge of the germ theory of disease, vaccines, genetics, and reproduction and development to make an informed decision about vaccines and how it actually doesn’t affect things like autism?

    This is especially important when the teachers are actively or unintentionally promoting misconceptions about the basic concepts of life science. What will happen when an anti-vaxxer teacher starts talking about vaccines?

    These graduates deserve a high school biology teacher who functions not as a source of students’ misconceptions but rather as a resource for their identification and elimination. Yet, students’ knowledge structures have been found to approximate those of their teachers (Rutledge and Mitchell 2002), and currently substantial numbers of biology students become biology teachers while still retaining major misconceptions (Nehm et al. 2008). We must work diligently to disrupt this cycle.

    Yes we must.


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