ONLINE EXTRA: More Tips for Teaching Controversial Topics
CARL D. PRIESENDORF (email@example.com) is a geology/geography instructor at Metropolitan Community College – Longview serving the Greater Kansas City Region.
Today in America, scientists are being challenged on a wide range of topics labeled as "controversial." The most divisive topics that I encounter deal with the scientific theories and consensus related to the age of the earth, evolution, radiometric dating, environmental protection, human overpopulation, and global climate change.
Most of the students who take my classes are non-majors who need a science credit as part of their Associates Degree. Although many of my students do not take exception to the "controversial" issues, a significant number of them do. For instance, in Missouri and in neighboring Kansas, only 29% of adults believe that evolution occurs by natural processes. Approximately 63% believe that evolution is guided by God or that humans have always existed in their present form. Interestingly, both states were "red" (Republican/conservative) during the past presidential election. By comparison, in California and New York (both "blue" states and more Democratic/liberal), approximately 40% of adults believe evolution occurs naturally and 52% believe that evolution is guided by God or hold the belief that humans have always existed in their present form. In either case, less than 50% are of the opinion that evolution occurs by natural selection (Pew Research Center, 2014). (Although the problem is quite pervasive in the United States, evolution is not as controversial in some European countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, just 3% reject the concept that "plants and animals have evolved from earlier forms," Farrell, 2015). Similarly, with respect to the effects of carbon emissions as they relate to global climate change, disagreement exists along political party lines. Only 29% of conservative Republicans believe that restrictions on carbon emissions will make a big difference, compared to 76% of liberal Democrats (Pew Research Center, 2014).
These statistics explain why some students here in the U.S., especially the "red states", dismiss the subject matter altogether, become close-minded, reject science in general, and occasionally display anger towards the instructor, as these students feel increasingly empowered to argue with or ignore data and scientific consensus. Many students are unwilling to learn about evolution or the fact that the earth is billions of years old, due to religious convictions or political beliefs. As an instructor of science at the college level, it has become increasingly apparent to me that, in order to work through these challenges, it is no longer enough to simply convey the subject matter to my students; the content must be convincing and compelling. I am a geology/geography instructor at the Metropolitan Community College - Longview campus, one of five campuses, serving the Greater Kansas City Region as MCC. I teach several courses, each having its own unique topics of potential disagreement. These "controversial" issues have given me numerous challenges over the years. As instructors, it is our obligation to teach the topics as accurately as possible. It is important to avoid being confrontational, yet convey the necessary information, regardless of how the students may view its validity. The classes that often generate disagreement are my introductory geology classes (physical, environmental, and historical), physical geography, meteorology, and world geography. As a result of these experiences, I have found it necessary to utilize a variety of teaching strategies that help keep the student's mind open and nurture a desire to learn what science has to offer. I have used the following five teaching strategies with success:
1. Acknowledge the Role of Science in Daily Life
Discuss the relevance of what science has to offer, and what it has done to make our world a better place. Examples include vaccines, medicine, materials, transportation, electricity, etc.
2. Describe the Process
Spend time defining what science is and explaining the Scientific Method. Emphasize the process of how good ideas are pursued and "bad" ideas are weeded out. Discuss situations where long-held beliefs (scientific or otherwise) are replaced by better explanations. Consider using the example of the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the universe, later to be replaced by the Copernican heliocentric view of the solar system. Another example is the Expanding Earth hypothesis of the early 20th century, which was a much discussed idea that the earth was expanding and causing the earth's continents to move apart; this hypothesis is now replaced by the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Examples such as these help the students to understand that science has no agenda other than to discover the truth.
3. Provide Early Intervention
Set the rules early and include them in the syllabus to avoid many of the confrontations that may arise at a later date. For example, in my Historical Geology class, I include the Geological Society of America Position Statement on Teaching Evolution (find this and other GSA Position Statements at https://www.geosociety.org). I read it aloud, emphasizing the most relevant statements. Many other scientific organizations have similar pages, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Astronomical Society, the World Meteorological Association, and countless others.
4. Challenge the students to keep an open mind
Build the case. As the semester progresses, care must be given to build a solid foundation that will support and give credibility to what will eventually lead to the "controversial topics." Building the case is the most time-consuming aspect of teaching a controversial topic. It is unlikely that students would be able to comprehend the significance of highly folded sedimentary rocks unless they first understood the elements of weathering, erosion, lithification, tectonic uplift and how it relates to plate tectonics, and the existence of Pangaea. On a field trip to the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas (see step #5), my students were in awe when they saw, for the first time, the power of tectonic activity. Several students commented that they now understood how it "all fits together." These awe-inspiring moments are not possible without a thorough foundation of the fundamentals of geological processes.
Ask questions. If the students are not convinced, inquire as to "why?" Might they have a "better" explanation? Is the source of disagreement one that is based on pre-conceived notions?
5. Introduce first-hand evidence
Try hands-on/experiential education. If possible, find an opportunity that gives the students a first-hand experience which supports the course content. I often reflect on the most influential moments that changed my way of thinking about the validity of an old earth and paleoenvironments. As a freshman, I went on my first geology field trip not far away from my home town. We examined layers of limestone and discovered numerous marine fossils. They were abundant and diverse: there were crinoids, corals, brachiopods, and so much more. It was exciting to find them and recall what we had learned in the classroom. I was amazed to discover that the textbook information was actually true! We really were under a shallow-tropical sea at one time. It was also a little disconcerting to learn that our continent, which is usually perceived as land, could have been under sea water. Before this field trip, it was easy to dismiss the classroom information as mere conjecture, only now I had seen the evidence myself! Explore your region and find locations to investigate. Opportunities include a small stream, rock quarry, landfill, cave, waste-water treatment facility, highway road cuts, etc. For my environmental geology class, I take the students to a nearby creek. We observe erosional and depositional features, and discuss the effects of human activity on the system.
Find supporting data. When it is not possible to conduct field investigations, or to supplement them, I introduce the students to real data coming from a variety of sources such as the E.P.A., National Weather Service, United States Geological Survey, etc. The students are asked to analyze the data and make their own conclusions. This method works particularly well with environmental issues, including global climate change.
The problems I face as a college teacher are exacerbated by the fact that students may be underprepared to enter college. Some may have never been exposed to evolution and its numerous implications.
As teachers of science, we experience these and other challenges on a daily basis. Regardless, it is imperative that we do not "water-down" the subject matter for fear of controversy; the information we communicate must be accurate. We must do what is necessary to keep the students interested and maintaining an open mind.
Farrell, J., 2015 Jan 27, New survey finds creationism in Britain has been overstated: Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnfarrell/2015/01/27/new-survey-finds-creationism-in-britain-has-been-overstated/
Pew Research Center, 2014, Religious Landscape Study: Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/