EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions for … Educational Psychologist Gale Sinatra, on Tennessee’s “Monkey Law,” Teaching Evolution, and Why Science Literacy Matters

Tennessee’s so-called “Monkey Law,” — which provides guidelines for teachers when discussing controversial topics such as evolution and protects them from sanctions if they challenge the underlying scientific theory — became law by default when Gov. Bill Haslam opted not to veto it. EWA spoke with Gale Sinatra, an educational psychologist and professor at the Rossier School of Education at USC, who specializes in science teaching and learning.

1. The bill’s supporters say the only goal is to protect teachers who allow students to criticize scientific theory. Why is that a problem?

The problem is when bills name specific topics, such as evolution and climate change. That creates an illusion that they are more controversial. In reality, all scientific topics have a core of knowledge that’s more certain at the center than at the fringes.

2. Should schools be focusing on that core, and avoiding the fringes?

It’s on the fringes where scientists do their cutting-edge work. It’s not very interesting to do research on whether gravity exists. We know it does. It’s more interesting to study how that affects our everyday lives.

3. Does the new law reflect a trend nationally?

Tennessee is not an outlier. Just look at the Dover trial in Pennsylvania a few years ago. Teachers were being forced to teach intelligent design, they went to court and science won. This has come up in other states – Kansas has a history with this issue, as does Nevada. This isn’t just about a problem in Tennessee. It’s that people across the United States are not being given a good enough grounding in the nature of science and how it works.

4. Is it fair to put public school science teachers at the center of this debate?

This is actually causing teachers stress. My colleagues and I have done research on teacher anxiety about teaching topics like evolution and climate change. It’s a stressful situation because they want to represent science correctly. That’s one of the reason my colleagues and I got a grant to explore this topic and we developed the Web site www.evolutionchallenges.org. It explores the obstacles we can face when teaching and learning about evolution, and provides support to educators and students.

5. Shouldn’t we expect teachers to be aware of the controversies and be prepared to answer students’ questions?

It sounds great to teach what the controversies are, but teachers aren’t evolutionary biologists. They might be responsible for 40 students in a classroom. They should be relying on the well-grounded evidence provided in their textbooks and other reliable resources, because that’s the strong core of knowledge. To expect teachers to be well versed in the cutting edge research, that’s a high bar. We’re putting them in an uncomfortable place in an unnecessary way.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.