Cobern, W. W. (1994). Cultural Constructivist Approach to the
Teaching of Evolution. SLCSP Working Paper #112.
(This manuscript served as the basis for Cobern, W. W. Point: Belief,
understanding, and the teaching of evolution. Journal of Research in Science
Teaching, 31(5): 583-590.)
Educators typically think that one teaches evolution to develop students'
conceptual understanding of evolution. It is assumed that if students understand
evolution they will believe it. From a constructivist perspective it can be argued
that understanding and belief, though related, are distinct concepts each of which is
a potential goal for instruction. Though there are good reasons why belief should
not be an instructional goal, achieving conceptual understanding requires that
issues of belief be addressed. The point is that students are not likely to gain much
understanding of something that they dismiss outright as unbelievable. What
counts as believable for an individual rests on that person's world view. This
article argues that instruction on evolution can profitably begin with a dialogue on
what counts as believable. Such a dialogue would be based on a study of the
cultural history of Darwinism which would allow students to see how people in
Darwin's day wrestled with the same fundamental questions at issue today. The
purpose of this strategy is to create a shared meaning in the classroom that certain
fundamental questions are worth discussing and that the biological principles of
evolution can contribute to that discussion. Thus, rather than trying to present
evolution as a purely scientific issue, this article suggests the rather unorthodox
strategy of explicitly addressing the social and cultural issues related to the topic of
Evolution is a truly interesting subject. It holds a central position in
modern biology. Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973, p. 125) went so far as to say,
"nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Evolution is also
interesting because of its high public profile. No other topic in science has
generated as much public comment and debate as has evolution. From the
Huxley/Wilburforce debates of Darwin's time, to the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of
1925, to the balanced treatment legislative initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s,
evolution has been the science community's lightening rod for public interest. In
broad terms, the science community is committed to evolution as both an
appropriate and essential aspect of the school science curriculum as one sees in the
quote from Dobzhansky. They face, however, a largely unresponsive public as one
sees in various surveys of public attitudes and knowledge concerning science and
evolution. Clearly a problem exists. The solution for some in the science
community is to overcome obdurate religious resistance. For others the solution is
to increase the evolutionary content in curricula and to improve instructional
approaches. Many science educators see it as a matter of both with the second
solution being key to the first. One can find these approaches in many of the
recent policy statements on science education (e.g., AAAS, 1989; California,
1990; NAS, 1984). In my view, these approaches simply will not suffice for the
task at hand.
There is a question at the heart of the troubles one faces when teaching
about evolution, what is the goal of this instruction? Many science educators will
likely consider the answer to this question patently obvious. The goal is for
students to acquire a knowledge about evolution. However, this answer is obvious
only within a positivist view of science; and, in my opinion, the answer is both
simplistic and unrealistic. In contrast, I offer a cultural constructivist approach to
evolution education centered on six points. 1) A constructivist perspective implies
that all teaching and learning takes place in context. 2) Metaphysics and world
view are key cognitive aspects of any context - thus, the modifier "cultural". 3)
Evolution as a topic of curriculum and instruction is placed in a context defined by
teachers and curriculum writers. 4) To the consternation of all, the context of
evolution education is frequently in conflict with the metaphysical and world view
contexts brought to the classroom by students. 5) The theory of evolution and the
role of evolution in science today does not necessitate this contextual conflict. 6)
Lastly, there are instructional approaches that promote the sound teaching of
evolution, but from within a different and culturally sensitive context.
A Criticism Worth Heeding
At the onset of this discussion it is crucial for one to recognize that
nowhere in science is the overlap between scientific ideas and other ideas in society
more clear than with the theory of evolution and origins. Given this situation the
science educator's focus is easily drawn to well advertised controversies only to
miss the crux of this science and culture interaction. The nature of the
science/culture interaction that often takes place in education has been criticized by
Ogawa (1989) and Young (1974) among others. That criticism comes from both
the political left and the political right is a measure of the significance of this
criticism. The Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1966) decried the
dehumanization of society brought about by the reductionism of the physical
sciences that he viewed as endemic in American schools. On the opposite end of
the political spectrum, Phillip Johnson (1991) decried the anti-religious bias of a
science education unnecessarily wedded to philosophical materialism. From both
sides comes the same criticism: there is more in science teaching than that to which
teachers of science and the professors of science admit. This "more" that critics
speak of is a particular metaphysical framework that is seldomly stated outright,
but is implicit in most of science teaching. If there is a criticism of science
education that is shared by the left and right wings of our society, then, it seems to
me, this is a criticism to which science educators ought to pay attention. It is true
that some object to this criticism claiming that the problem is not that something
more than science is being taught along with evolution, but that evolution is not
being taught at all (e.g., Stone, 1992). Even if this claim were granted at the high
school level, and this is by no means a given, the objection could hardly be
sustained at the college level. Yet, even at the college level one sees the rejection
Not One, but Two Goals
In 1959 three thousand scholars gathered at the University of Chicago for a
week to celebrate the centennial of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.
The celebration mantra was "one hundred years without Darwin [is] enough" (Tax,
1983, p. 37). One might have thought that the Scopes trial of 1925 marked the
end of anti-Darwinism, and in the eyes of the media and of many scholars it did. In
fact, the topic of evolution remained in the shadows of science teaching until the
centennial celebration 34 years later (Grabiner & Miller, 1974). The momentum
gained at the conference for bringing evolution into the mainstream of secondary
school science led to significant changes in curriculum and textbooks. BSCS was
at the forefront (Hurd, 1961; Mayer, 1986).
Unfortunately, the science education community misread American culture
and was taken by surprise when anti-evolutionists fiercely counterattacked BSCS-
led curricula innovations with a spate of successful legislative initiatives.
Moreover, ruled by a philosophy of "when in doubt, throw it out," textbook
companies quietly dumped Darwin effectively neutralizing the post-centennial
gains. Evolutionists and anti-evolutionist had been struggling for years but the
new wrinkle in the 1970s was the legislative action to bring about a balanced
treatment of evolution and what was touted as scientific creationism (Numbers,
1982). In the seesaw of attacks and counterattacks, the balanced treatment acts
succumbed to court challenges and by the late 1980s evolution education was on
the rise again (see Skoog, 1979; Pauly, 1991).
Riding the crest of renewed support for the teaching of evolution, science
educators turned their attention to the question of how best to teach evolution. In
the years after the centennial, constructivist oriented research such as
misconception, alternative conception, and conceptual change research flourished
providing for educators new insights on learning. Research results showed that
students have a variety of notions about various aspects of evolution, for example
adaptation or natural selection (see Helm & Novak, 1983; Novak, 1987;
Wandersee & Mintzes, 1987). Learning is thus more accurately viewed as the
change and development of concepts rather than a simple acquisition of concepts.
Much research is now focused on how best to bring about conceptual change and
development rather than on finding better ways to tell about evolution (Good,
Wandersee, Anderson, Fisher, & Lawson, 1993).
The research is welcome but it would be a mistake to once again misread
American culture. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only nine percent of all
Americans believe the orthodox scientific view of evolution (reported by Sheler &
Schrof, 1991). Educators are tempted to say that people reject evolution because
they do not understand it or are simply uniformed. However, it stretches credulity
to argue that only nine percent of Americans understand evolutionary theory.
Moreover, similar findings are reported about college biology majors and teachers
(e.g., Johnson & Peeples, 1987; Van Koevering & Stiehl, 1989). Is it possible that
all of the curriculum innovations of the past 30 years have had so little effect? I
believe it is more reasonable to conclude that even among those who have a basic
understanding of evolutionary theory there are many who reject textbook
Darwinism. Therefore, if the science education community expects that better
techniques alone will substantially change this nine percent statistic, I fear we are
in for a major disappointment - once again.
I applaud and support efforts to improve the teaching of evolution, but a
more fundamental question must be addressed, what is the goal in regard to the
teaching of evolution? To be specific, are we expecting instruction to improve
understanding or to change belief? In the past this question would have held little
meaning for many educators. Imbued by the spirit of positivism, educators
observed a strict separation between knowledge and belief. In constructivist
thought this separation largely evaporates and in the process a significant change
of goal occurs. There are two possible goals, not one.
Positivism and Constructivism
Logical positivism represents a distinguished formal school of philosophical
thought which spawned a widely held colloquial view of science. Colloquial
positivism roughly represents a classical view of realism, philosophical materialism,
strict objectivity, and hypothetico-deductive method. Though recognizing the
tentative nature of all scientific knowledge, colloquial positivism imbues scientific
knowledge with a Laplacian certainty denied all other disciplines, thus giving
science an a priori status in the intellectual world. Colloquial positivism is what
Smolicz & Nunan (1975) called the myth of school science.
In a sense, the certainty of colloquial positivism can make life easy for the
science teacher. Colloquial positivism allows the teacher to say to students that
this is the way things are, for science provides the one reliable source of objective
knowledge. No matter how tentative the current understanding of a phenomenon
might be, one always knows that science is at least taking us in the right direction.
Colloquial positivism's elevated view of science nicely serves what Eger (1989, p.
81) called the interests of science. The science community as it exists today is
concerned with establishing a Kuhnian pipeline beginning at grade school,
concluding at the university, and thus delivering future scientists. The secondary
interest of the science community is the insurance of public appreciation for
science adequate for acquiescence to continued funding for scientific research.
The perspective is that of the scientist holding center stage and looking out at the
Within a framework determined by the interests of science and a positivist
view of knowledge, it is nonsensical for the teacher to ask about believing
evolutionary theory. Only a fool would refuse to believe what is known to be true.
In a positivist framework, belief is never objective and can have no measure of
meaningful certainty. Thus, belief is irrelevant to the issue of knowledge. Rather,
the significant question is whether one understands evolutionary theory. It follows
then that the fact that large numbers of people reject standard accounts of
evolution can only have two interpretations. The most widely reported
interpretation is that educators have simply failed to both teach enough evolution
and to teach it effectively (Rosen, 1989). The only other interpretation is that
those who reject evolution have not attained the level of hypothetico-deductive
reasoning necessary for understanding evolution (Lawson & Weser, 1990). To put
it bluntly, they are too irrational to understand evolution.
Positivists can point the finger of guilt but they appear impotent in the face
of what Hawkins (1978, pp. 5-7) called critical barriers to learning:
reasonably patient explanation is no cure... we are up against
something rather deep in the relation between science and common
sense; we are up against a barrier to teaching in the didactic mode
which has hardly been recognized, or if recognized has been seen
mainly as a challenge to ingenuity in teaching rather than as a
challenge to a deeper understanding of human learning...
Moreover, poll results indicate that the problem in evolution education is not solely
one of understanding but also one of belief. Many students do not believe
evolutionary accounts of origins. Because positivist educators consider unbelief to
be a nonsensical conclusion, they are not inclined to address the issues of belief.
The consequence is twofold. The beliefs of many students remain unchanged, but
more significantly, students also resist conceptual change and hence their
understanding of evolution remains inadequate.
Understanding versus Knowing
Constructivist epistemology, whether in its radical or moderate forms (e.g.,
Glasersfeld, 1989; Good & Schlagel, 1992; respectively), hinges on three
assertions quite alien to colloquial positivism. 1) Knowledge is a way of making
sense of experience. 2) Knowledge is always an interpretation and therefore
always fallible and inherently uncertain. 3) All interpretations are based on prior
knowledge. Colloquial positivists declare that knowledge of evolution is a direct
representation of reality and therefore not open to belief or unbelief, only to
understanding. In contrast, constructivists say that knowledge of evolution is
science's best reckoning of reality - it is the way science believes things to be. It is
what scientists currently view as the most valid interpretation of phenomena. Of
critical importance, constructed knowledge admits to doubt and does not carry
with it the force of truth. This is a very different view of knowledge, one which
makes perfect sense of the question do we teach for understanding, belief, or both?
Moreover, sense making is influenced by social and cultural factors in a
student's life (e.g., Atwater, 1991; Cobern, in press b; Gallard, 1992; Lassiter,
1992; Pomeroy, 1992). Elsewhere, I have argued the importance of fundamental
beliefs with respect to learning science and the development of scientific attitudes
(Cobern, 1991). The argument is both intuitively and rationally strong that
fundamental beliefs about the world exert a powerful influence on how sense is
made of events in the world. The nature of that influence has to do with a
distinction between understanding and knowing, i.e., believing (Cobern, 1993;
Arendt, 1978). At heart is the question why one explanation makes sense to one
person but not to another person. Under the influence of colloquial positivism,
science educators long assumed that the case for the importance and validity of
scientific knowledge was prima facie. However, some years ago Arendt (1978)
noted that an argument can be rationally flawless, the interpretation of data can be
epistemologically perfect, and yet, some people will reject the conclusions. The
reason, she argued, is the fundamental difference between understanding and
knowing. Understanding is necessary for knowledge, but never sufficient.
Understanding is the epistemological or thinking process by which one comes to
conceptual comprehension. Knowing is the metaphysical process or process of
apprehension (determined by one's world view) by which one comes to accept as
true or valid that concept one has comprehended. In other words, knowing is
believing that such and such is so. Coming from a somewhat different
constructivist perspective, Gunstone (1988, p. 90) made a similar observation
about teaching, "rather than the traditional 'How can I explain it better?', the
teacher is led to 'How can I make this interpretation/model/generalization, etc.
appear believable to students?'"
Because colloquial positivism views science as providing truth, there is no
openness to other truth claims. This means that until a scientific explanation
concerning a phenomenon is provided, for the positivist nothing is really explained.
Once a scientific explanation has been provided, one need not defend it against
other truth claims. After all, it is science that provides true knowledge. There are
many examples to be found that demonstrate this phenomenon. The traditional
account of Jericho's destruction is a lesson, so to speak, taught by the Bible. The
January 1992 issue of National Geographic (Geographica section) teaches a
different lesson about Jericho. To start with, the Biblical account is called a "tale,"
and then Geographic opines that the city was likely destroyed by an earthquake
given the quake history of the region. The article clearly implies that one did not
know what really happened to Jericho until now. The Biblical account does not
qualify as knowledge for the author, nor is there even a sense that a complex of
complementary explanations might be appropriate as MacKay (1974) or Reich
(1990) would suggest. The article does not even argue that the new explanation is
better. It simply presents the new explanation with the full expectation that
readers will believe it. This only makes sense if one views science as offering the
truth while all else is opinion.
Then there is the curious debate about El Greco's painting style. Art critics
traditionally attributed El Greco's elongated and exaggerated figures to his
personal philosophy, but some scientists having taken an interest in El Greco
paintings argue that El Greco's style is symptomatic of unilateral astigmatism
(Ahlstrom, 1955; Dornhorst, 1987). In other words, El Greco painted strange
figures because that is how he literally saw them. As above, those who support
this scientific view do not argue that it is better than other types of explanation.
When one is offering an explanation based on a system that provides the truth (i.e.,
positivistic science), one need not deal with opinion. My point is that in neither of
these examples is there conclusive proof for one explanation or the other. At issue
is what counts as believable - and for the positivist the answer is simple.
Some science educators may want to jump in and say that these examples
involve a questionable use of science. They may wish to argue that science used
properly does not involve the question of what counts as believable. Sol Tax, to
the contrary, provides a personal example of how this issue does apply to science
within what is undeniably a proper scientific setting - learning about evolution.
Tax (1983) wrote about a college course he took on biological evolution. It was
no problem to him that the course emphasized evidences that could only be
explained by evolution. As a personal challenge, however, he tried to imagine a
non-naturalistic theory that accounted for the evidences and thus not refutable by
the evidence presented in the course. Then he wrote quite candidly,
But this universe of my imagination established for me the absurdity of a
supernatural alternative to naturalistic evolution. Needless to say, that was
easy because I had never entertained a contrary belief. (p. 36, emphases
Upon reflection Tax realized that he had not come to his position on evolution
through any rational process or argument. Evolution was consistent with what he
already believed the world to be like. In this respect, Tax provides a very different
perspective than the one in the first two examples. His lack of positivistic myopia
For Sol Tax, and of course for many others, there is simply no believable
alternative to Darwin. The mistake in science education has been to go one step
further and act as if belief were not an issue. I say that this is a mistake because it
seems quite clear that many students do not share Tax's sense of what is believable
(e.g., see Cobern, in press a). Bear in mind that one scientist talking with a co-
worker, or even a scientist from another field, is not the same as talking with those
outside the scientific community. Nor is teaching evolution at the secondary level,
for example, anything like a biology professor and graduate students discussing the
fine points of evolutionary theory. The question of what counts as believable is
important in science education precisely because teaching takes place across
groups, e.g., scientist to non-scientist. As noted earlier, a key point in
constructivist thought is that meaning is an interpretation based on prior learning.
Prior learning includes various scientific concepts, but it also includes culturally
dependent presuppositions or assumptions about what the world is ultimately like
and what constitutes first causes (Cobern, 1991). This is a definition for world
view, and the claim of cultural constructivism is that learning is influenced by
world view. Sol Tax found evolutionary concepts believable because they fit his
world view. These concepts fit the world views of most scientists and nearly all
science curriculum writers, but they do not fit the world views of many students.
Therein lies the problem.
The teacher of evolution faces a situation very much like Darwin presenting
the Origin of Species to a public who historically held a very different view of
origins. In Darwin's day the question of believability was still on the table. Today,
the tendency is to present a lean factual account of evolution (perhaps most of
science) devoid of nonscientific entanglements. However, this positivistic
approach is not unencumbered. It implies a philosophically materialistic and
reductionistic view of what is believable. If science education has as its primary
goal the interests of science as currently construed then perhaps little instructional
change is needed. The university science major, for example, works to understand
concepts that are already within the domain of what that student considers
believable. It seems though that the science education community is very much
concerned about interest in science, as Eger (1989) would say. In other words, we
are very much interested in the knowledge of science and attitudes toward science
among the majority of students. These students are looking in at science and the
first question that a constructivist educator needs to ask is, what counts as
believable for these students? If concepts of evolution are not deemed believable,
the student interpretations of what is taught will be decidedly different from
intended instructional outcomes. Thus, the concept of cultural constructivism
helps clarify why persistent science teaching, even when of high quality, is not
To answer now an earlier question, belief is not a proper science education
goal. If for no other reason, it is not proper because it is simply not practical.
Certainly schooling influences what students come to view as believable, but of
equal certainty are the myriad of non-school influences. Sol Tax is not atypical.
People come to evolution as believers, not the other way around. Moreover, even
if it were practical to teach for belief in something like evolution, to do so would
be tantamount to proselytization. The proper goal for teaching evolutionary
concepts is a worthy one but much simpler. It is the understanding of evolutionary
concepts. However, as I argued above, belief cannot be ignored. Though belief is
itself an improper goal, belief is the place where instruction should begin.
One addresses the issues of origins not by teaching a doctrine in positivistic
fashion (evolution or other), but by looking back historically to the cultural and
intellectual milieu of Darwin's day and the great questions over which people
struggled. Though evolutionary theory is not resisted in the 1990s the way it was
in the 1860s, students are still interested in the same fundamental questions. For
example: 1) What is the essence of Nature? 2) How do we account for the fact of
life rather than no life at all? 3) What does it mean to be a human being? 4) In
what sense, and to what extent, are human beings different from other living
things? 5) What is society? What counts as believable is embedded in the answers
one accepts for these questions. By beginning instruction with these questions, the
teacher is attempting to capture student interest by first raising metaphysical
questions that are usually of very broad interest among people. Moreover, I do
not believe that an accurate conceptual understanding of evolution can be attained
among the majority of students by ignoring these world view questions. This is
not a suggestion for a philosophical or religious bull session. I have in mind what
physicist David Bohm (1992, p. 16) called a dialogue, "The image this derivation
[of dialogue] suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among us... a flow of
meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding...
When everybody is sensitive to all the nuances going around, and not merely to
what is happening in one's own mind, there forms a meaning which is shared." The
recent Glasson & Lalik (1992) work on a social constructivism approach to the
learning cycle empirically supports this idea.
The balance of this article briefly examines the cultural history that I
propose science teachers use as a framework for a dialogue on fundamental
questions for the purpose of developing a shared meaning in the classroom.
Evolution as a Foreign Affair
The Thirty-Year War ended in October 1648 with the signing of the Peace
Treaty of Westphalia. "The supremacy of Christian theology in European life was
over. The age of Faith, the Middle Ages, had run its course" (Jaki, 1983, p. 11).
For centuries, the fundamental questions of life had been answered by a Christian
world view, which presented a unified view of knowledge and belief grounded in a
theology of creation. The cosmology of the Christian world view was based on
the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture which taught that Nature was
the purposeful creation of God. Moreover, people drew from this the inference
that Nature was essentially static. The Christian world view had a linear sense of
time that had both beginning and end. The Biblically based sense of linear time,
however, did not necessarily involve the view that the state of human existence
was ever progressing (Greene, 1981). The notion of progress though based on a
linear concept of time was to come much later, and indeed was a notion critical in
the development of evolutionary theory.
For the purposes of this paper, even a brief account of the intellectual and
cultural history of the Renaissance and Reformation is not really needed. Suffice it
to say, the religious wars that followed the Reformation dealt a crippling blow to
the certainty that the Church and Christian world view held for people throughout
the Middle Ages. The Westphalia Treaty ended the religious warring, and it also
marked the end of the decline into epistemological uncertainty. The advances of
the 17th century natural philosophers coupled with a seriously weakened Christian
world view, racked by skepticism and uncertainty, provided an opportunity for
positivistic naturalism. In this view, certainty of knowledge could be attained with
an empiricism restricted to measurable characteristics and secondary (or natural)
causes. In the words of E. A. Burtt:
The world that people thought themselves living in - a world rich with
colour and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love and
beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals -
was crowded now into minute corners of the brains of scattered organic
beings. The really important world was a world hard, cold, colourless,
silent, and dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable
motions in mechanical regularity (1967, pp. 238-239).
For those who chose it, positivistic naturalism re-established certainty of
knowledge, but one had to accept a diminished view of both religious and
humanistic concepts. With the philosophy of Descartes, one sees the beginning of
a mortal epistemological struggle between creationism and positivistic naturalism.
Early positivists like Descartes were clearly still thinking within a Christian
framework. Even Darwin himself as late as 1860, showed the influence of
I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as
plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and
beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the
world... On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this
wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that
everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything
as resulting from designed laws, with details, whether good or bad, left to
the working out of what we may call chance (quoted in F. Darwin, 1888,
vol 2, pp. 311-312).
With the Descent of Man, all had changed.
Since Kuhn (1970), philosophers of science have been saying that theories
of science are always underdetermined. So it was with evolution. It was not
enough for Darwin to make the observations he did. For example, there had long
been explanations for fossils within the creationist perspective. Without
compromising the genius of Darwin, one has to recognize the influence of the
cultural state of affairs during his lifetime. The West was still dominated by
Christian thought. Positivists shared important elements of creationist
epistemology such as the requirements of evidence and experimentation, the
canons of proof. The West, however, was no longer dominated by a Christian
world view. Darwin was born into an age of transition where long held ideas had
been weakened. Of particular significance to Darwin were presuppositions
concerning Nature. Newton argued that a static Nature was composed of
particulate matter in motion. For many, this described a changeable Nature, not a
static one. Herschel demonstrated that the stars were not fixed after all, but
moved. The accepted assumption of a static Nature was becoming less tenable.
By the 1800s, the West had witnessed remarkable scientific progress in
providing a mechanistic understanding of natural phenomena. Moreover, Darwin's
day was a time of unprecedented economic expansion, a time when laissez fair
capitalism was the rule of the day. Competition was the ethic of the capitalistic
marketplace that provided all the change and progress. In 1850, Joseph Paxton
built the Crystal Palace in London to showcase the scientific and technological
achievements of modern Europe. This was indeed an age of change and progress,
and this was the backdrop for Darwin's accomplishment. One can imagine Darwin
mulling over the ideas of mechanicism, competition, change, progress, origins.
One can almost hear his thoughts, 'If only there were a mechanism...'
I am not saying that these were the literal thoughts that led Darwin to the
concept of natural selection or that he even had such thoughts. However, he was
not a hermit. This was the environment in which he thought and reasoned.
Though what I have written is the barest of descriptions for this rich piece of
intellectual and cultural history, it is sufficient to make the point that one can
describe Darwin's theories as science, but not his embrace of positivistic
naturalism. Yet the first makes no sense without the second. To come again to
the classroom, understanding evolution requires no less now than it did for
Darwin. To understand evolution one must be able to see the world as it is seen by
positivistic naturalists - the world view of evolutionary biologists and of many
scientists in general. That is not, however, the world view of many students.
Thus, my position is that the teaching of evolution needs to begin with the very
metaphysical questions that were so troublesome in Darwin's day. These questions
are not amenable to simple, didactic teaching; but these questions and the history
behind them can serve as the basis for a dialogue among students and teacher that
creates a shared meaning in the classroom. That shared meaning is the sense that
these are important questions which people answer in a variety of ways for a
variety of reasons. Constructivist theory implies that having gained this shared
meaning in the classroom, students will be more attentive to the conceptual issues
of evolution. This is what I think Hills had in mind when he wrote about teaching
science as a matter of "foreign relations" (Hills, 1989, p. 183). Surely, Sol Tax
would also approve of this approach to evolution since he himself wrote, "on
reviewing what I had so far written, I say that for an avowed secularist I appeared
to be associating a great deal with religious ideas. But then it occurred to me that
to deal with students emotionally committed to religious premises might well
require rather more than less acceptance of them, as in a Socratic dialogue" (1983,
As long as evolution is approached from the perspective of colloquial
positivism, there will continue to be large numbers of students with misconceptions
about evolution or who reject it outright. The positivist view that science can be
taught as a distillate or pure essence is untenable. All science and science teaching
is encumbered (admittedly to varying degrees) by non-scientific ideas (Thelen,
1983; Fourez, 1988; Linder, 1992). Moreover, the subject of origins simply
touches on too many other disciplines for it to be approached as a science-only
topic even if it were possible. Students are influenced by too many non-school
factors for a teacher to think that a science course, let along a unit, will
significantly influence student belief even if it were agreed that such an objective is
appropriate. To the contrary, constructivist thought suggests that understanding
and belief are separate though related issues, and that the proper goal of
instruction is understanding. The relation of understanding to belief does not allow
one to ignore belief, therefore, constructivism suggests that belief be allowed a
legitimate role in the science classroom. My specific suggestion is that teachers
preface the conceptual study of evolution with a classroom dialogue, as Bohm
(1992) defined this term, informed with material on the cultural history of
Darwinism. There is ample scholarship that supports the assertion that social and
cultural factors influence science, so this suggestion for instruction does no
damage to science - unless one believes that science education is a matter of
indoctrination. Will a cultural constructivist approach improve science learning?
Since the science education research community is in the process of rethinking it's
research agenda with regard to evolution, it would seem quite appropriate that this
new agenda include hypotheses from cultural constructivism.
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