I am the proud recipient of NABT's 2014 Evolution Education Award, but pride was not the sole result. The award afforded me an unexpected degree of political agency – the ability to take action. This national honor told me and others that what I was doing in my classroom and beyond was both significant and meaningful. The award resulted in a cascade of events that included a surprise classroom visit from the governor and an invitation to be part of the “Rhode Island Strategic Leadership Team.” The award empowered me and gave a larger voice to ideas that I thought were correct but now am even more sure are valid.
I suggest that to enable students to comprehend the beautiful and powerful connections among living organisms, we must instill in them a strong sense of evolutionary biology that provides extraordinary unifying explanatory power. This could be accomplished by introducing the subject of evolution as a prelude to the normal curriculum but then revisiting it and reinforcing the connections and explanation offered by evolution throughout the year. Biology instruction notwithstanding, it is vital that our students have every possible opportunity to think critically, and there is no better way to do that in biology than with evolutionary theory. Indeed, given the fact that evolutionary theory is still, to some, a controversial topic, its inclusion in the curriculum provides a wonderful opportunity to explore scientific philosophy, methods, and even social impacts.
Over the past few years, my school started all life science classes with an introduction to evolution. The results of this focus on evolution have been astonishing: greater student engagement and increased enrollment in elective science courses. Correlation isn't causation, but we are pleased by these trends. Even in the most economically disadvantaged school district in Rhode Island, our students are desperate for opportunities to become real thinkers; otherwise they will surely fall to what is relentlessly predicted for them – the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. When we provide students opportunities to critically analyze data and evaluate their own ideas, we have given them the most empowering of gifts: asking revelatory questions. I, too, was freed in this fashion from mental and even economic poverty as a student in this same school.
Our jobs as educators are so much more than being content deliverers; we are mind-openers and curiosity- sparkers. We must get students to appreciate how scientific ideas shape us today and will shape our futures. Most of us know how satisfying it is to have students ask deep, insightful questions; this occurs only when learners gain an understanding of the centrality of evolutionary theory, uniting all the biology that they learn. Carl Sagan said, “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.” What better way to provide our students with this than by exposing them to the idea that unifies our current understanding of living entities? Otherwise, we are asking students just to memorize disjointed biological facts. For example, learning about organelles only in terms of structure and function has so much less meaning than when we connect them to the endosymbiotic events that led to the revolution of energy conversion in eukaryotes.
When students understand basic principles, they are liberated to ask astounding questions such as those that we were asked last year by regular (non-AP) biology students: “How did aquatic plants (not algae) evolve differently from terrestrial plants, and how is the light that they absorb different?” and “Does the absorption of different wavelengths of light give plants a greater chance to survive if our environment is rapidly changing?” I believe it was the intent of the Next Generation Science Standards to elicit this type of thinking: making content connections and applying them in synthetic, creative ways.
Sagan also prophesized about failure of science education. He wrote: “We have…arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology…[and] sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” Evolution has withstood the test of time and criticism, even as it has been enriched and broadened for more than 150 years. Its explanatory power uniquely provides students with the keys to understanding life on this planet, and this understanding has benefits that far transcend the biological sciences. In the final analysis, it is indefensible not to focus our efforts on teaching this unifying suite of ideas early and returning to it consistently.
Receiving the Evolution Education Award has reaffirmed for me the importance of evolutionary biology in the classroom, its ramifications beyond school, and our roles as teachers of these vital ideas. As mentors of future citizens, we must focus on the development of critical-thinking skills that will allow all students to analyze and question meaningfully. These are the tools that can be developed through the introduction of universal and thought-provoking topics like evolution, the same tools that our students will use to create a just society.