Evolution is more difficult to observe than, for example, Newtonian physics. Thus, we often conduct activities in the classroom that are intended to be analogous to evolution and to the scientific enterprise, but which can lead to misconceptions.


Making fossils
A very common activity for young children is to have them make “fossils” by pressing shells into clay or plaster of Paris. While this clearly shows how a rock can contain molds and casts, it may well mislead children about the process by which fossils are formed in nature. In most cases, shell fossils are formed when shells are covered by sediment and over time the sediment hardens. This is very different from the process of squashing shells between two slabs of clay. It may be well advised to only conduct this activity with older students who can recognize how it contrasts with actual processes in nature.

Design an animal
When we ask students to design an animal to fit an ecosystem, on paper or out of pipe cleaners, we may be sending the message that living things are designed or that an individual animal can “adapt” to its environment by choosing to do so. This is far from the scientific view that living things are adapted over time to their environmental situations through genetic variation and natural selection.

Voting on scientific issues
Asking students to vote on a scientific issue misleads them about the nature of science. Scientists don’t vote on issues—they debate, discuss, argue and compete. But, in the end, answers to scientific questions are determined by consensus based on inference derived from evidence. Science is not democratic.

Having students hypothesize (guess) before they know anything
Hypotheses are based on prior knowledge. It is a meaningless exercise to ask students to guess the outcome of an investigation or the answer to a question without possession of adequate information.

Debating creationism vs. evolution
There are some topics that youngsters should be encouraged to think about, but not to debate in school. Conspicuous examples include evolution and abortion. Young people have very limited experience in such topics and tend to take whatever position the most influential adults in their lives take. The role of teachers is to provide information and opportunities to build conceptual understanding. The detached perspective necessary for sorting through information is not promoted by a contentious climate. Educate, don’t debate.


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Spanish translation of Understanding Evolution For Teachers from the Spanish Society of Evolutionary Biology.