by Michele Drucker
When Dr. Leslie Jones told friends ten years ago she would be moving to Georgia to teach evolution at Valdosta State University, she got ribbed. “You can’t teach evolution in Georgia,” they curtly announced. It turns out, her friends were largely correct.
“Ten years ago the kids were freaked out about learning evolution, “ Dr. Jones recalls. “They didn’t know the official position of their churches and were somehow led to believe that evolution will take you away from God. In Georgia, people wear their religion like a badge. Going to church is seen as a necessary credential to being a nice person.”
When she came across students, they would have their arms crossed in front of them and displayed a very loud and clear “just say no to evolution” attitude.
Then, in 2004, the state of Georgia revamped its teaching standards. The core curriculum required that evolution be taught across grade levels. Although certain groups tried to get evolution removed from the teaching standards, the standards stayed.
This has led to very positive changes in Georgia’s classrooms. The concepts of evolutionary science are introduced grade by grade. Third graders learn about fossils. Fourth graders learn about extinction. Fifth graders are taught the basic tenets of evolution. By middle school, students learn that the evidence for evolution comes from various disciplines and how natural selection can act on species over time. The result: the resistance Dr. Jones initially felt has started to break down.
“When standards are put in and the children are exposed to the common features of evolution from an early age, they say, ‘there is so much evidence for evolution,’ they can’t deny it,” Dr. Jones says.
To counter the tack of creationists, which is to plant seeds of doubt as to the legitimacy of evolution, she teaches about the social controversy in the first week and assures her students that there is no scientific controversy over evolution. Dr. Jones also reassures her students. “I’m not trying to take you away from God. There are different religious stories around the world regarding origins,” she says.
Dr. Jones has learned to introduce evolution without starting with Charles Darwin, as is the case in most classrooms. “Darwin has been too vilified,” she says.
Instead, Dr. Jones starts with the evidence for evolution, concepts that students can understand. For example, they understand artificial selection. Wolves were domesticated to become dogs 30,000 years ago through selective breeding. She explains artificial selection versus natural selection.
Most of her students have been exposed to the agricultural revolution and they understand artificial selection in terms of farming. “It’s not such a leap to explain to them artificial selection with domesticated animals. Artificial selection is natural but it’s been under human control. Once they see the logic, they realize that they can’t deny evolution.”
Over the course of her ten years of teaching in Georgia, Dr. Jones has encountered many curious students who immensely enjoy learning about evolution. In fact, she says they are dismayed and angry that they were denied access to the material in their younger years. “Why did teachers refuse to teach me about evolution? It’s fascinating and fantastic! Everything makes so much more sense with an understanding of evolution,” is a common comment she hears from her college students.
It’s encouraging to know that resistance to evolution is fading, at least in the college classrooms of Georgia. Dr. Jones’ experience highlights the importance of projects like the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) and the impact of teaching young students evolution as part of a spiraling curriculum, with more and more concepts added each academic year. Exposure at an early age to evidence and observation can lead to open minds and critical thinkers as more complex evolutionary topics are taught in high school and beyond.
Leslie Jones is a biology professor at Valdosta State University. She spoke with TIES volunteer Michele Drucker about teaching education at the college level. Dr. Jones has seen a positive shift in students’ attitudes towards evolution over the course of her career at Valdosta State. She highlights the need for evolution to be taught to younger students, an idea that “ties” in directly with the focus of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES).