I often hear, “Science is just tough to learn, so is evolution really any different?” It’s true that students struggle to learn concepts like photosynthesis or gravity, but evolution presents some unique challenges not inherent in all science learning. The challenges are evidenced by the near flat line of acceptance in the United States over the last several decades (Miller, Scott, & Okamoto, 2006).
Recently, my colleagues and I brought together over 40 psychologists, science educators, and evolutionary biologists to explore just what makes evolution particularly vexing to teach and learn (see Rosenberg, Evans, Brem, & Sinatra, 2012, also see Sinatra, Brem, & Evans, 2008). Our findings? Evolution: 1) conflicts with intuitive ideas, 2) requires overcoming misconceptions, 3) is conceptually complex, 4) challenges individuals’ identity, and, 5) presents emotional and motivational hurdles. Let’s consider each of these challenges in turn.
1) Young children come equipped with intuitive ideas about biology, often called folk biological knowledge. For instance, children tend to believe that members of a category have an underlying immutable essence (Gelman & Rhodes, 2012). Essentialism helps children learn to categorize living things, but it conflicts with the idea that species change over time. Children also tend to believe that things are made for a purpose (teleological thinking) by an intentional agent (intentionality), notions much more consistent with creationism and intelligent design than evolution (Evans, 2012).
2) Misconceptions like “Humans evolved from modern day apes” are common among evolution learners. Conceptual change is the process of overcoming misconceptions, and is notoriously difficult to promote and achieve (Sinatra & Mason, 2012).
3) Emergent systems, deep time, and uncertainty are extremely complex, abstract ideas. Each of these concepts have been shown to be a rough go for learners but combined, they present a high bar.
4) Accepting the scientific explanation of the interrelatedness of all living things may raise unsettling questions about one’s identity and fundamental questions about who we are and what is our place in the universe.
5) Conflicts with knowledge, beliefs, and identity can evoke strong emotions. Even students who accept evolution find it disheartening (Brem, Ranney, & Schindel, 2003). Motivations such as goals, values, openness to new ideas, and beliefs about knowledge can either facilitate learning or create resistance to learning about evolution.
Students can and do overcome these challenges and learn about evolution. Evolution educators may be more successful if instruction is designed to address the challenges head on and promote conceptual change (Heddy & Sinatra, 2012). It also helps if evolution is taught with an eye toward appreciating the nature of science and how we come to know facts about evolution. Finally, the relevance of evolution to learners’ every day life (i.e., antibiotic resistant bacteria) should be central to any evolution curriculum.
Evolution is a challenging topic for many learners, but with the right approach, we can budge those stubbornly resistant numbers and help promote a more scientifically literate populace.
Listen to Gale Sinatra’s interview.