[Editor’s Note: This blog post is being shared anonymously by a high school science teacher in the Midwest.]
It happens every year. I teach evolution, and I feel as though I am walking on eggshells the whole time. You see, I teach in an area that is rural and mostly conservative, and I know that evolution can be a very controversial topic for some people. The last thing I want is to jeopardize my job or have to design an alternative curriculum for a student whose parents are not going to allow their child to be taught about evolution.
I always begin the unit by trying to soften the topic and explaining that I am not on a mission to change anyone’s views on evolution. The test will not ask if students believe in evolution—they just have to be able to comprehend the subject and answer questions on it. After all, evolution is on the state test.
I also begin every year by hearing a student inform me and the rest of the class, “We didn’t used to be monkeys!” And I quickly agree with that student! Because that statement shows that the student already has misconceptions about evolution, this is my chance to help guide the student towards better understanding of the science. I explain that, no, we were never monkeys, but we instead share a common ancestor with them. I ask who has heard of the so-called “missing link” and then explain that is the common ancestor that we seek to identify. This usually gets the students interested, and after this initial conversation, they have always been more willing to learn about evolution.
Evolution is not the only controversial topic a teacher must tackle; it seems that the list goes on and on. I had a friend contact me about the recent national student climate-change walkout. She asked how it went. I told her it did not go anywhere! I do not think the students in my building even knew the event was taking place. Why? They’ve already been told that climate change is a hoax or that it is not caused by humans. This makes it extremely difficult to teach such a topic. How can we as teachers open our students’ eyes to scientific facts without losing our jobs or upsetting parents to the point that they are contacting the superintendent or school board?
The answer? Very gently.
Discussing Sensitive Topics in the Classroom
The number one thing that can change a person’s mind (once we have gotten them to open it up) is factual information. I spoke with several colleagues who also teach controversial topics in their disciplines, and the consensus was that presenting the facts is the best method for opening students’ eyes. It is important to present a set of well-rounded, scientific, evidence-based facts so students can process that information and build their own opinions based on this factual knowledge.
We do not want to seem biased, so it is best to present as much information about the issue as possible so that students may think, critically analyze the topic, and draw their own conclusions. If we only present a small piece of the argument or our own opinions, the students may immediately feel defensive and think that our main goal is just to convince them that they are wrong. Instead, we must work to create an environment where students feel comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions while being respectful of others who may not agree with them. If we present the various views and invite a healthy debate, students will often come to their own fact-based conclusion without being told what the correct answer is. This is also helpful in building empathy and the critical thinking skills that our young people will need in their adult lives.