Religion 'still getting in the way of teaching human evolution'

Some teachers tasked with teaching human evolution are failing their pupils, says anthropologist Clarisa Sutherland.
Some teachers tasked with teaching human evolution are failing their pupils, says anthropologist Clarisa Sutherland.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

More than a decade after human evolution received fully-fledged status in the school curriculum, many teachers either don't understand it or object to teaching it on religious grounds. 

“Life sciences teachers in South Africa are opposed to teaching evolution, mainly because they lack the content knowledge to do so, and they are concerned about the controversial nature of the topic, specifically as it relates to religion," said a University of Pretoria anthropologist who examined the progress of evolution education.

Clarisa Sutherland.
Clarisa Sutherland.
Image: University of Pretoria

Reporting her findings in the South African Journal of Science, Clarisa Sutherland added: "Some teachers experience a conflict between their own religious beliefs and the requirement to teach evolution." 

The apartheid education system ignored evolution and "the ‘hidden’ curriculum during the time made creationism, patriotism, race relations and religion part of the everyday school experience of white learners,” said Sutherland.

“This problem is the fact that evolution is an inherently difficult concept to teach and learn. The lack of education, along with sometimes deliberate misdirection, has, regrettably, fuelled the growth of misconceptions in evolutionary theory.”  

For her doctoral thesis, Sutherland investigated other academics' research into evolution education, which found that unscientific ideas and misleading terminology were being widely taught.

“Despite the progress made in South Africa in including evolution in the curriculum, understanding and acceptance of the topic is still low,” she said.

Teachers with misconceptions about evolution were unable to identify and filter out these misconceptions from erroneous textbooks.

“Research has shown that many people nowadays react to the theory of evolution much as they did during Darwin’s time," said Sutherland.

"Many teachers, schools and school systems either avoid teaching evolution or do not teach it appropriately.” 

In fact, these personally held biases might be reinforced by seeing the same misconceptions and scientific inaccuracies reproduced.

In many cases, unscientific ideas were not the result of mistaken interpretation by students, but the misdirection caused by inaccurate textbooks, curricula and teachers, said Sutherland.

"As with the lack in content knowledge, South African teachers are not trained to facilitate the discussion of controversial topics in the classroom.

"Indeed, the complete avoidance of the topic of evolution, along with other controversial topics, such as race, sexuality, sex education, corporal punishment and xenophobia, reflects this inability."


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