Religion and Science

How I navigate evolution (and creationism) in a second-grade classroom

Evolution isn't part of the first and second grade curriculum, but the issue comes up in my class year after year. I often begin a history unit on exploration with the open-ended question, "How did we get here?" We grapple with the questions: Who are we? Where is here?

The first time I asked this question, I had five different answers in less than a minute. One child said, "We came from God." Another said, "We came down from the monkeys." Another disagreed, "No, we came from apes." Yet another said, "I think we came from fish, but it was after the dinosaurs." And finally, "It was Adam and Eve who were here first. Then all of us came from them."

I visit all of my students at home before the school year begins. I know from being in the homes of my students that some families only own one book, and it's the Bible. The students who answer, "We came from God," or "It was Adam and Eve," are answering from their prior knowledge as much as the children who say we came from monkeys, apes or fish. As their teacher, I need to know what they are thinking as we begin, but then where do we go with it?

I answer, "Wow! We have a lot of different ideas about how we got here. Let's think about how we could find out. What kind of evidence would we look for as scientists and historians to help us decide which idea we think is most likely?"

Next, I pull out a book about evolution. We keep our focus on the evidence. We talk about what a theory is: an idea based on evidence. We talk about the varying quality of evidence and how the discovery of additional evidence may support or disprove a theory.

When children talk about humans coming from apes or monkeys, I tell them it is called Darwin's scientific theory of evolution, based on the law of natural selection. When children talk about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, I tell them that is the Biblical story of Genesis. One difference is a scientific theory has predictive power, whereas a story more often has explanatory power and is often an effort to teach the values of a culture in a memorable way.

Consider the case of Galileo. In the Bible, Psalms says, "God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved for ever." In 1610, Galileo published The Starry Messenger, full of observations he made with the telescope he constructed, to offer evidence the planets revolved around the sun. In 1633, the Catholic Church tried him for heresy. They found him guilty of holding and defending "as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to the Holy Scriptures." More than 300 years later, in 1992, the Catholic Church pardoned him.

This example reminds us religious beliefs and scientific evidence sometimes conflict. We cannot definitively say we know and understand everything about science, so we have theories. Creation stories serve a different purpose and have different characteristics than scientific theory because they explain our beliefs.

When beliefs make certain topics unsettling or controversial, those topics become taboo. If we can talk civilly and openly about scientific theories and religious beliefs, hopefully neither will become taboo in our schools.

My goal as a teacher is to help children develop as critical thinkers. Across disciplines, in science, history and philosophy, I want them to be discerning judges of the quality of evidence as they practice the habit of constantly asking questions. I also want to educate my students as well-rounded human beings who respect and understand different cultures. Part of that education includes learning the stories, legends and epics of many world religions and cultures. They learn stories are different than theories.

Mary Cowhey is a contributor to Teaching Tolerance and the author of Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades (Stenhouse Publishers ISBN# 1 57110 418, $18).

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