November 18, 2006

The Feasibility of Introducing Evolution at an Elementary Level

I've been working on a study for my tech writing class this semester examining the feasibility of introducing the specifics of evolution at an earlier grade level. If we could introduce evolution earlier and more effectively to students, perhaps they would absorb the ideas a bit better, and we can move up from the bottom of the international public acceptance of evolution list. So far, my research has overturned some interesting tidbits.

Evolution is not taught directly in Maryland until high school. I expected it from grades K-5, but I thought natural selection would be taught in middle school. I was wrong.

There's no insidious plot behind all of this, it's just the MD Board of Education's Voluntary State Curriculum (VSC). The standards are set, grade by grade, in an idealized list of general objectives per subject, followed by a more detailed objective listing for different fields within the subject.

For example, in Science, grades 3-5:

A. Constructing Knowledge
1. Gather and question data from many different forms of scientific investigations which include reviewing appropriate print resources, observing what things are like or
what is happening somewhere, collecting specimens for analysis, and doing experiments.

a. Support investigative findings with data found in books, articles, and databases, and
identify the sources used and expect others to do the same.
b. Select and use appropriate tools hand lens or microscope (magnifiers), centimeter ruler
(length), spring scale (weight), balance (mass), Celsius thermometer (temperature), graduated cylinder (liquid volume), and stopwatch (elapsed time) to augment
observations of objects, events, and processes.
c. Explain that comparisons of data might not be fair because some conditions are not kept
the same.
d. Recognize that the results of scientific investigations are seldom exactly the same, and
when the differences are large, it is important to try to figure out why.
e. Follow directions carefully and keep accurate records of one’s work in order to compare
data gathered.
f. Identify possible reasons for differences in results from investigations including
unexpected differences in the methods used or in the circumstances in which the investigation is carried out, and sometimes just because of uncertainties in observations.
g. Judge whether measurements and computations of quantities are reasonable in a familiar context by comparing them to typical values when measured to the nearest:
• Millimeter - length
• Square centimeter - area
• Milliliter - volume
• Newton - weight
• Gram - mass
• Second - time
• Degree C° - temperature

In grade 3 specifically:

A. Diversity of Life
1. Compare and explain how external features of plants and animals help them survive in different environments.

a. Use the senses and magnifying instruments to examine a variety of plants and animals to describe external features and what they do.
b. Compare similar features in some animals and plants and explain how each of these enables the organism to satisfy basic needs.
c. Use the information collected to ask and compare
answers to questions about how an organism’s external features contribute to its ability to survive in an environment.
d. Classify organisms according to one selected feature, such as body covering, and identify other similarities shared by organisms within each group formed.

And so on. Evolution is mentioned a few times in the curriculum, and some background information is taught to students (age of the Earth, extinction, diversity, some genetics) but the mechanism is not discussed. It is as if the students are left to connect the dots (postmodernism inherent in our school system; I'll get to that at a later date).

Yesterday I interviewed an official in Allegany County to get some information on what texts are used for science classes. Offhand, I asked him if he thought evolution should be directly introduced earlier:

"No I don't," he said.

"For technical reasons? You don't think young student would be able to absorb the material?" I said.

"That's not the problem. I would say," he paused, "for philosophical reasons."

"Ah. Children couldn't handle the philosophical implications of what they're being taught," I said.

"Correct. But that's my opinion."

He's right, to an extent. The "philosophical implications" of evolution are exactly the reason why it is not taught to children, by which the official meant biogenesis sans God. The board acts like children would be driven to nihilism if evolution were directly addressed. "We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing."

We treat our kids like teetering vases, ready to break at the slightest nudge, the slimmest challenge. Introducing evolution earlier and more directly can only help our science starved society. Our education needs to stop dancing around the issue, toughen up a bit and teach our children the fundamental, unifying theory of biology.

Biology class should be biology class no matter the grade; the evidence is there to be passed on, not bottled up.


  1. The same logic used by the Allegany County official could be used to argue against indoctrinating children with religion. Only religion poses a greater threat to their intellectual development.

  2. Agreed, RPM.

    I have a few more phone calls to make, but I should have the entire report posted after Thanksgiving.

  3. Anonymous9:10 AM

    I agree! Introduce evolution early!

    I'm trying to remember when and how I learned about evolution. I remember my parents bought one of those "Time-Life" book series about nature, and one of the books is in fact titled "Evolution." I'm pretty sure that's how I learned the basics. I'm sure I didn't learn anything in school about it until I got to 9th grade... of course I went to school in a state (Alabama) that now features those stupid "evolution is only a theory" stickers in biology texts.