Too often we treat our students with kid gloves. We give them weak, watered down, sterile, sanitized, aseptic curriculum. Curriculum that reminds you of grandmother’s powder room in which you were afraid to dirty the towels, so you dried you hands on your pants instead.
We don’t let students wrestle with the really big questions of life. Instead, we try to give them “thinking skills” and teach them how to answer their own questions. That is, as long as the questions are the “safe” ones.
I’ve been guilty of this at times myself. This year I’m trying to force myself in the opposite direction. It ain’t easy, for me or for the kids.
When it comes to evolution, students ask questions that many adults have yet to answer for themselves. In many science classes, evolution is treated in a rigidly scientific manner. This approach, while loyal to the content, allows students to compartmentalize. They tell themselves that their teacher can only teach them what’s in “the standards” or “the book.” The teacher uses this as an excuse to keep the carnage to a minimum. Nobody wants the mess on their shoes.
Most science teachers take one of 3 approaches to controversial topics:
Option A - Ignore it; don’t cover it; avoid the controversy altogether.
Option B - Address it directly and scientifically. Leave no room for debate, disagreement, or discomfort. Heaven forbid you get a call from an angry parent (for what it’s worth, if you teach a topic they don’t like, they’ll call anyway…)
Option C - Preach the gospel of science, baby! Convert your students to the church of Darwin & Dawkins. Tell them what to believe and think and why.
Each of these approaches is wrong.
Option A is wrong because it sets students up for a life lived in denial and ignorance.
Option B is wrong because it ignores the nature of science. Science is messy and constantly debated. There is plenty of gray area in science.
Option C is wrong because it can offend people and drive them away from science forever. People hold grudges against former teachers for the rest of their lives.
So what should we do?
I believe that we must allow students to wrestle with the really big questions of their world. The very same questions that adults argue about endlessly. The questions that have made CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News major players in the media market. The same questions that have made The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so successful for their incisive spoofing of these “news” networks.
Does this mean we let them debate creationism vs. evolution in class. Well, no. However, I’m letting them examine such topics on their blogs as part of their current project. Students have generated their own questions and are now diving in. In about a week, the results of their research will be published on their blogs for all of the world to see.
At least it won’t be boring…