Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science Goes to Brian Alters

The Royal Society of Canada regularly presents the McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science to deserving educators. This year the award was given to Brian Alters of McGill University for his contributions to the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities.

Professor Alters is a member of the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education [see Brian Alters honored by Royal Society of Canada]. He has some wise words about teaching evolution.

The following excerpts are from Brian Alters' book Teaching Biological Evolution in Higher Education: Methodological, Religious, and Nonreligious issues.
Critical thinking—most faculty want students to be critical thinkers. Many students, however, are epistemological duelists, viewing the academic world in terms of true or false, right or wrong, credit or no credit. Instead of analyzing evidence that contradicts their erroneous conceptions, students often just passively receive knowledge from authorities—professors. To become active learners, students need professors to use methods that involve them in grasping the important concepts; but, only 10%-30% of professors use methods other than traditional lectures as their primary pedagogy.
Do these sound like motherhood statements? If you answered "yes" then you aren't paying attention.

Alters is saying that students will readily cope with "information" in a course even if it contradicts their misconceptions. They'll simply make it part of their worldview or, even worse, ignore the fact that it conflicts and spew it back on the exam.

Whether or not students have taken courses in biology or evolution, they come to the science classroom with a variety of memories, knowledge, experience, and evolution conceptions. Often, some of those conceptions are different from scientific concepts. Students develop these conceptions from what they read in the popular press, find on the Web, and see on television and from their interactions with "nature," their peers, and their parents and other authority figures. Instructors at all levels have a complex task: to tap into what students know to assist them in building on their scientific knowledge, to help them replace their misconceptions with scientifically useful conceptions, and to help them construct meaning from their learning experiences.

Helping students construct meaning from their learning experiences is a daunting task. Only the students can do it; instructors cannot "fill" them with knowledge. All instructors can do is to provide learning experiences that facilitates students' generating links between relevant information they already know and new information. From such a constructivist perspective, learning is a social process in which students make sense of experience in terms of what they already know. But how does the professor engineer lessons to help students link the new information with the old in useful, accurate, and appropriate ways? And what happens when the "old" information consists of one or more scientific misconceptions?

What many instructors know from their own classroom experience is that student misconceptions (also called native conceptions, alternate conceptions, intuitive use, prior conceptions, preconceptions, or undesired understandings) are not easily changed. What many people do not realize, however, is that the process of conceptual change takes a long time, perhaps years, depending on the concept, and appears to be an incremental process. In learning evolutionary concepts in particular, students appear to need an extended exposure to and interaction with these concepts for growth in their understanding to occur. Instructors, therefore, may think of the learning experiences they provide for students is only one stepping stone towards the goal of more complete under standing.

To facilitate a constructivist approach in the classroom, an instructor should provide situations in which students examine the adequacy of their prior conceptions, allowing them to argue about and test them. The contradictions students may face during this testing process can provide the opportunity for them to acquire more scientifically appropriate concepts.
What this means is that students carry a lot of baggage into the university classroom. You're not going to change their conceptual understanding of evolution by just presenting the facts are you see them. You're also not going to be successful if you think that just giving them the right concepts—such as the importance of random genetic drift—is all it takes.

In order to start down the path toward changing their misconceptions, you need to directly challenge those misconceptions and bring the conflict out into the open. You need to do this even if you think the misconceptions are based on non-scientific issues.

In other words, teach the controversy.

I agree with Brian Alters on all these points. I disagree with him about some other things and, in one case, I think he makes a big mistake. In all his writings he assumes that student misconceptions need to be addressed and university instructors only need to learn which methods are most effective. In my opinion, he doesn't pay enough attention to the fact the instructors also have misconceptions that need to be corrected.

[Image Credit: Project X]


  1. All of that is very nice, but to me it seems like the university is a little too late of a stage for misconceptions to be changed. That doesn't mean that if they exist, the university shouldn't try to fix things, but in the best case scenario, proper epistemology is developed in children much earlier, preferably in their very first years in school. That's where the big effort should be directed

  2. Do these sound like motherhood statements?

    What does this mean?