Tips for Teaching Controversial Science Content

April Maskiewicz CorderoFaith and Science, The CACE Roundtable4 Comments

Evolution. Climate change. Vaccines. Randomness. Just hearing these terms can elicit angst for Christian science educators. Whereas some of these topics are contentious because they challenge certain theological views, others have become overly politicized in the past decade and can be just as tricky to address in the classroom.

Even so, ignoring these important scientific topics is not an option. So how can we help our students engage culturally contentious scientific content while simultaneously maintaining their Christian faith? This is a tall order, but research in science education and psychology provides clues to help us navigate culturally controversial biology topics. In this post I summarize a few leads from the research that help me encourage my Christian students to be open-minded so they can develop a faith-inspired affirmation of the findings from the scientific community.

Listen First. Research on acceptance and denial provides the most valuable strategy for how to embark on teaching a controversial topic: listen first. Studies show that if people feel as if their perspective is heard, they tend to be more open to listening to an alternative view. To create an atmosphere where students are more open to considering data and perspectives that may conflict with their existing understanding, we have to provide space for students to share their thoughts with us, not just with their peers.

Students want to know that we (the person teaching the controversial information) heard them–that we actually listened to their justification and convictions. (Knowing what and why students think what they do allows us to discern their concerns or fears and respond with sensitivity.) The research shows that only after sharing are some students more willing to listen to alternative ideas and consider evidence.

Several weeks before beginning my evolution unit, I explain to my class that I want to hear their perspectives about evolution. I assign a task in which they create a conversation between themselves and an imaginary person who holds a different opinion. I provide the first few lines of the conversation and then ask them to complete the dialogue (~500 words). If they complete the assignment, I give full points regardless of their position or knowledge about the topic. The most important aspect of this assignment is that I write a personalized comment on each paper so that they know I read it and heard their view prior to day one of the evolution unit.

Avoid dogmatism. Strong opinions accompany controversial science topics, both for us as teachers and similarly for students. Research shows that students become closed-minded when their instructors are dogmatic about a particular position if it differs from their own (e.g. whether or not climate change is real). Students want to know where their teacher stands on an issue, but they also want to be able to ask questions and hold their own opinion without judgment or coercion. Some Christian science educators have found it wise to present the data as objectively as possible (free of the instructor’s concluding comments) and allow space for the student to be unsure or even arrive at a different conclusion. I am definitely not suggesting that we adopt an “anything goes” attitude towards data and conclusions widely accepted by the scientific community. Rather, I am suggesting that we adopt a posture of allowing students to ask difficult questions during discussions and to linger in uncertainty.

Complex science and faith issues, such as genetic engineering, biological evolution, and climate change, require one to sift through a lot of information in order to understand different perspectives and their relative credibility. Whereas I require that students answer objective exam questions with responses that align with scientific consensus, I also explain that it is okay to wrestle with their own personal position toward a topic for a few weeks, months, or sometimes even years. (If Jacob could wrestle with God all night long, we can certainly provide some time for students to wrestle with contentious science content!)

Much research from psychology shows that it can be very challenging for an individual to consider adopting a viewpoint that differs from what they perceive to be the position of their in-group because our identity is based on our group membership(s). For example, if a student’s parents and church community are skeptical of climate change, it can be quite difficult for that student to accept the evidence you provide in class. Whereas students need to know and understand what the scientific data shows, when we force them into a corner, we risk failing at our objective: genuine acceptance of the data.

Explain scientific consensus. As science teachers, it is common for us to teach the scientific method in a simplistic way: predicting, making observations, conducting experiments, gathering facts and data, and forming explanations. While acknowledging that these steps are essential, it’s also important to help students understand the process of how the scientific community comes to scientific consensus (the nature of scientific knowledge).

The knowledge that emerges from the scientific practices listed above is considered reliable because it has been subject to rigorous peer review, where experts scrutinize one another’s scholarly work before it is published. Students don’t always realize this built-in accountability, especially today when anyone can publish claims about anything on the Internet. The peer review process weeds out a lot of flawed research. 

For example, when I teach evolution, I explain to my students that if there were irrefutable evidence that could be replicated by numerous research teams that disproved biological evolution, this revelation would be groundbreaking and Nobel Prize worthy. But such work has never been done. In fact, the past hundred years of research findings in anthropology, embryology, biogeography, genetics, paleontology, biochemistry, and comparative anatomy all support the claim that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor and has evolved over billions of years.

This consensus doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution has not been modified as new evidence emerges. In fact, this refinement is precisely how science is supposed to work: new evidence often leads to adjustments to a theory. For instance, the model of an atom has shifted over the past century. Similarly, the biological theory of evolution has been modified and refined over the years; yet, the foundations of the model still hold strong and are supported by numerous lines of evidence.

When teaching the nature of science and scientific consensus, I also recognize that science has limitations. In other words, different types of questions demand different toolkits. For instance, the tools of science cannot be used to answer all of our questions about a creator or higher power; these questions require contributions from philosophy and theology. Similarly, we cannot use solely the tools of science to make value judgments or to understand racial disparities in income and poverty. When we help our students understand the methods, process, and limitations of science, we can help them respect the findings from the scientific community that might initially trouble them. As teachers, there are so many things we want for our students. We want them to experience awe and wonder as they learn about God’s good creation. We want them to develop a deep, personal faith in Jesus. And we want them to become representatives of God’s truth and love as they engage with the complexities of modern life, culture, and science. These are high aspirations, but when we listen first, avoid dogmatism, and explain scientific consensus, we can help our students find harmony between their faith and science.

Author

  • April Maskiewicz Cordero, PhD, is a Professor of Biology and Dean at Point Loma Nazarene University. As a Christian biologist trained in science education research, she is in a unique position to investigate science students’ perceptions of the relationship between scientific issues that evoke controversy and Christian faith. Dr. Maskiewicz Cordero gave a TEDx talk on evolution and faith, and she was featured in From the Dust, a BioLogos-sponsored documentary. She is one of the six authors of the BioLogos Integrate curriculum.

4 Comments on “Tips for Teaching Controversial Science Content”

  1. I appreciate your attempt to help students understand the scientific method, but I find a major flaw in your analysis. You treat the scientific community as “perfected.” You seem to begin with the scientific consensus as “true,” and thus only look for ways to convince students to believe it (until the consensus changes). I believe that along with the scientific method, we must teach students the roles pride, power, short-sightedness, and other sins and limitations play in building a scientific consensus. Depending on the time, place and breadth of consensus needed, perhaps God should have been rejected long ago. Knowing the sins and limitations of all people, I don’t merely follow any consensus – in or out of the Church – especially when topics are embroiled in politics, big money, and values.

    1. I too appreciate the information supplied in the article as I am a science teacher and teach some of these topics to students who are being bought up in households with a Biblical View. So these ideas are valuable in helping to unpack some of the ideas and concerns of the students. One issue I find, is that students do not understand that their science learning does not have to be opposed to their faith system/learning. Some students believe that if you believe in the science then you cannot believe in God. April addresses this in her last paragraph where she suggests that God cannot be understood by science alone but needs faith and thus requires contributions from theology and philosophy. I have recently read a little on post-positivism (in an article put out by the World Meteorlogical Organisation) which shared an idea that science can be seen to answer some questions some of the time but not always completely, as opposed to post-modernism, where there can be no claim of one reality because each person’s beliefs is a result of their own world-view which is based on an individual’s experiences and so each person’s own beliefs can never be completely objective. I think April is correct to suggest that it is helpful to hear the views of her students which means they maybe more open to hearing some other point of views that they can then include in their own worldview.

  2. I appreciate Dr Cordero’s willingness to help us wrestle with the issues involved in being faithful in teaching science authentically in Christian schools.

    She’s so right when she reminds us how important it is to listen well and show genuine respect for positions that embody faith assumptions other than our own. Without that respect, we lose the right to gently challenge and to expect vital alternatives to be listened to.

    I also appreciated Dr Cordero’s affirmation that science should lead us to a sense of awe and wonder about God in both the complexity and the place that God has given to humankind in his creation.

    However, I find that I would like the paper to have given a much stronger recognition to the overarching Christian worldview that must underlie every key learning area in a Christian school. Dr Trevor Cooling and his team in the UK have produced a very clever little video called Nobody Stands Nowhere (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFRxKF-Jdos) that is a great 3-minute discussion starter for students and teachers, to remind us that all our thinking in any area starts from a set of belief or faith commitments.

    Science is no different. I think it’s important for Dr Cordero’s students to gently learn that scientists in fact have a religious commitment to something deeper than “our genuine acceptance of the data”. I refer to one of several examples noted in my book The Cause of Christian Education: as follows:

    Professor David Watson was a world-famous paleontologist of his day. He died in 1975, but for thirty years he was Jodrell Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at University College, London. As a strong believer in the value of the fossil record in supporting the theory of evolution, Watson revealed the extent of his commitment to the religion of science in a paper prepared for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Concerning evolution, he recognized that it was “. . . a theory universally accepted, not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.”

    There is no neutrality. Nobody stands nowhere. My point is that every mode of exploring reality, be it science, history, music, literature, art, drama, mathematics, etc., all have rules and presuppositions that need to be explored and exposed.

    As Christians, and as an important goal for Christian schooling, these modes and their beliefs need to be identified and brought under the shalom lordship of Jesus Christ. Because at its heart, the goal of Christian schooling is to challenge students with the hope and purpose of a celebration of the lordship of Jesus Christ over all of creation as they come to learn about the world and their place and task in it. Thus for example, the scientific method should be seen as a wonderful tool that God has given us to explore aspects of God’s creation but the scientific method is not omnipotent and should not be treated as such. I think that for the Christian school, teaching controversial subjects in science, or teaching controversial subjects in any curriculum area, should be carried out wisely and discerningly in a context that celebrates our Christian worldview standpoint and purpose.

  3. Thank you for the comments. I appreciate your insights. With limited space, I could not properly address a full discussion about the nature of scientific knowledge. But my colleague, Dr. Sarah Bodbyl Roels has an article coming out very soon here on The CACE Roundtable focusing specifically on the nature of science.

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