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Stanford Report, April 15, 1998

Evolution critical to learning science: 4/15/98

Evolution critical to learning science, authors of new teachers' guide say


A group of prominent scientists and educators headed by Stanford's Donald Kennedy has produced a new guidebook to help teachers re-establish evolution as a key part of science education in elementary and secondary schools.

The theory of evolution has fallen by the wayside in many public school classrooms, said Kennedy, the Bing Professor of Environmental Sciences, partly because of political pressure from some religious groups and partly because science textbooks have become overstuffed "compendia of facts."

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The National Academy of Sciences held a press conference in Washington, D. C. on Thursday, April 9, to announce the publication of 30,000 copies of the guidebook, which is intended to be a practical guide to teachers at kindergarten- through 12th-grade levels. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science can be downloaded from the world wide web at or copies can be ordered from the National Academy for $19.95 plus $4 shipping charges by calling 1-800-624-6242.

The guide is the latest attempt to improve K-12 science education by the academy's Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education. The center, which Kennedy chairs, first published voluntary national standards for science education three years ago. It may publish more teaching guidebooks on other topics that are important to scientific understanding and public policy decision-making, Kennedy said, although no definitive plans have been made.

Evolution theory is critical for understanding science, he and other scientists say, but teaching it has become a particularly knotty problem for teachers in recent years. A few religious groups regard it as contradictory to their beliefs, and candidates with that point of view have won elections to local school boards around the country. When Kennedy recently reviewed the proposed science education standards of one western state, he said he found that "they had steered around the e-word." Alabama's board of education took a different approach ­ requiring science textbooks to include an insert on the cover saying that evolution was a "theory," not a "fact."

"The term 'theory' has sown a lot of confusion because the popular culture's meaning of theory is 'an idea I have,' but in science it means something that has been repeatedly demonstrated by experiments and supported by a variety of observations, " Kennedy said.

The guidebook's authors want students to understand how "theories" are developed by conducting their own scientific inquiries. They provide eight sample projects for teaching about evolution, as well as some sample responses teachers can give to colleagues, students or others who question the status of evolutionary theory among scientists. The book gives a brief summary of what is known about evolution and addresses some of the differences of opinion among scientists about the details, but not the main substance, of evolutionary theory.

The guidebook points out that most religious denominations in the United States do not view evolution as being at odds with their understanding of human origins. The idea that the entire universe was created all at one once some 10,000 years ago, an idea inherent in "creation science," is not supported by scientific data, it says.

Kennedy said he has reviewed a number of high school textbooks and found them to be mostly compendia, with little attention to the scientific process.

The worst books, he added, may be those intended for the best high school students in advanced placement biology. "They have all the modern stuff, every new fact about cell biology and biochemistry and so forth, but they are often regrettably devoid of anything about how scientific discovery is accomplished, how research is conducted."

"This leaves students in a poor position to evaluate reports about science," Kennedy said. "One of the things we want to teach people who are not going to be scientists, but lawyers or police chiefs or restaurateurs or whatever, is how to bring intelligent judgment to their evaluation of scientific and technological claims."

"The real issue is not so much whether students have been taught evolution or not, but have they had the best teaching that we can help teachers provide," Kennedy said. "You can't create something that's really useful to teachers by simply getting the best scientists around to tell them what to teach, because they are not apt to know that much about what works on the ground. On the other hand, you can't take the best teachers, either, and say, 'Well, this teacher can read a book and teach about science.' It took a real partnership among some quite senior academic scientists who are researchers and some teachers at the K-12 level and [other educators] to produce this guidebook." SR