Researcher Svante Paabo with a reconstructed Neanderthal skull. (Frank Vinken)

An increasing number of policy debates involve basic scientific ideas and findings – the effectiveness of vaccines, the causes of global climate change, the risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms are just a few of the public debates that challenge the capacities of citizens.

In this environment, we place considerable demands on teachers and the schools in which they work. Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, we expect newly certified science teachers to be “highly qualified” – including that they majored in science rather than education when in college. All states require science teachers to keep up with new developments though continuing education.

Even so, teaching science effectively is difficult. And it is especially challenging when a scientific topic is central to a politically charged conflict. In such cases, teachers not only have to get the science right, but need to be wary of students, parents, administrators or members of the community who have strong feelings about the topic.

In our previous work, we found that new and experienced teachers alike found teaching evolutionary biology especially challenging. Some observers focused on our finding that a small number of public school teachers were explicit in their rejection of evolutionary science and instead emphasized some version of creationism, and others noted that only 28 percent covered evolution in a manner consistent with recommendations of national science bodies.

But a much more important finding was that the large majority of teachers were not creationists, but nevertheless taught such a watered down version of evolution that they inadvertently provided some legitimacy for non-scientific alternatives in their science classes.

But we also had some questions. As we recently wrote,

How is it possible that young people who major in a scientific field and desire to be science educators lack confidence in their understanding of a central principle of modern biology? Where do teachers develop their belief that they are obligated to be “fair” to nonscientific accounts of creation? And how critical is personal faith in the development of the pedagogical choices that they will make over many years in the classroom?

To help answer these questions, we decided to talk to future science educators – college students at various stages of their science education program – to see whether they have begun to reflect on possible tensions between science and faith, how they anticipate dealing with non-controversial science that is politically controversial, and how we might better prepare future teachers for navigating controversies in their classrooms. That is the subject of our new research.

We conducted structured focus groups at four different kinds of colleges. One institution was a large state university with a well equipped labs and an enormous budget for scientific research. One was a smaller, regional public university that has a long tradition of educating future teachers. One was a private liberal arts college associated with the Catholic Church. The fourth was a historically black college. The education students came from a wide range of social, economic, geographic and religious backgrounds. Although our results could have differed if we had selected different schools, we think our students were typical – in terms of values, background and motivation – to young people everywhere who want to be science teachers.

The focus groups reveal how biology teachers develop pedagogical strategies actually support as the “three pillars of creationism.”

How does this happen? The most important reason is that these future teachers were not focused on mastering science. This emerged most clearly when we asked what would be their most important asset in covering a controversial topic such as climate change or evolution: understanding the science, or having classroom management skills to deal with the controversial topic.

All four focus groups emphatically came down on the side of classroom management. One student summed this up this way:

I think education in general, no matter what the content, is probably about 90 percent classroom management, the style of teaching, and about 10 percent content. Largely, especially because of the fact that you have so many teachers’ manuals, and other resources, and stuff like that, you can learn content fairly easily. It takes training and skill to actually be able to teach that content.

Why is this so important? Our earlier work, based on a survey of over 900 high school biology teachers, showed that content knowledge is critically important. Compared to teachers who taught evolution in a straightforward, unapologetic and scientific manner, the teachers that hedged or otherwise legitimated non-scientific alternatives had fewer science credits overall, were less likely to have completed a course focusing on evolution, and rated their own knowledge of evolution lower. Knowledge and the confidence that comes from that knowledge translated directly into teaching that came closer to matching the aspirations of excellent state science standards and of the Next Generation Science Standards developed by 26 states.

In short, for controversial subjects like evolution, classroom methods can’t compensate for shaky knowledge of the underlying science.

Unfortunately, increasing teacher expertise is hard. Classroom science teachers have enormous demands placed on them – not the least of which are ever-changing standards and assessment tests. A small number of science teachers can increase their expertise through professional development, but few are able to take advantage of such opportunities and the effectiveness of these programs is mixed.

If it is difficult to develop scientific mastery while teaching, it’s not that easy beforehand. College students aspiring to be teachers not only have to complete their major, but also many classes required for teacher certification. Just as they are getting into upper division science classes, they need to secure student teaching opportunities whose travel and time commitment can conflict with their basic science learning.

Nevertheless, college offers perhaps the best opportunity to lay the groundwork for our science teachers to develop a deeper understanding of the practice of science and the richness of fields of inquiry such as evolution. Even as aspiring teachers struggle with issues of values, faith and science, their views have not yet crystallized, they are open to learning, and study in institutions with large numbers of bench scientists. Finding ways to allow more education students to take advantage of this learning environment will not only provide enhanced content knowledge, but a firm understanding of science that will enhance their lifelong learning too.

Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman are political science professors at Penn State University. They are the authors of “Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle for Control of America’s Classrooms.”

This post is part of a series on politics and science.  Other posts in the series include:

“A scientific perspective on politics and science”

“You can change the mind of climate change skeptics. Here’s how.”