Teaching Geosciences in a Religious Country: A Discussion

Ron Schott, who is the geoblogosphere’s Bora Zivkovic, hosts Geology Office Hours on Google+ every Monday and Thursday. It’s a time for geo professionals and the geocurious to get together, chat about whatever topic comes to mind, and sometimes show off our rocks. Anybody with a webcam and a G+ account can get in on the fun.

I’m not as good a talker as writer, so don’t join one of the Monday sessions expecting especial brilliance. I’m mostly there to eavesdrop. Didn’t really expect to do so today – I had a ton of stuff I should be doing, and I hadn’t even got out of my pjs, but I’d just got done shooting the cat with some particularly lovely little hand samples, and jumped on to see what Ron thought of them. You know how that goes. You’re all like, “Hey, I’m not really dressed, but quick, look at the pretty rock!” and the next thing you know, a lot of people you admire particularly (like Chris Rowan and Harold Asmis) have joined the conversation, and they get on the topic of geologic timescales and religious students, and you suddenly forget you’re sitting there in your jammies with a head of hair that might frighten small children.

Biology gets all the attention, due to the insane amount of resistance to teaching evolution in this country, but none of the sciences are immune to religious pushback. Geology doesn’t get a free pass because we have awesome rocks. We’ve got this geologic timescale thing going on. And when you have students who’ve been told by their church and their religious families that the Earth is something on the order of 6,000 – 10,000 years old (depending on how you calculate all those begats in the Bible), you get a lot of very confused kids when you start talking in billions.

Ron mentioned that he’s discovered, over his years of teaching, that if he emphasizes the geologic time scale up front, those religious kids shut down on him. If he built up to it, they engaged more. That’s not to say that he danced around the subject: the Earth is billions of years old and there’s no getting round that. But the impression I got from what he said is that kids rejected the idea of geologic time out of hand if it was foisted on them up front.*

My impression is this: these kids have been fed a steady diet of religious lies, all their lives. They’ve not been taught to think scientifically, nor critically, and in those first few days of class, all they’ve got to go on is authority figures. Here’s one authority telling them, authoritatively, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, plus or minus a few hundred thousand years. On the other hand, they’ve had a lifetime of authorities – their preachers, their parents, their faith community – telling them it’s only a few thousand years old (give or take a few begats). Who are they going to believe? And the decision’s easy, when they haven’t yet learned to think for themselves: the authority figures they were raised to trust.

But if you show them how the world works, introduce them to the scientific method and the lines of evidence and teach them how science is done rather than merely recite the findings at them, they can see for themselves that the Earth must be very old indeed, and they engage more. And the teacher has never had to compromise reality. Never has pretended the Earth is anything other than ancient.

And this brought to mind what I’ve heard in a lot of deconversion experiences I’ve read about: people who left their fundamentalist faith, who discarded Biblical literalism and accepted science, usually didn’t do it in a flash. There was resistance at first, but once they’d got a taste of critical thinking, once they’d learned something of how science works and what it says, they started questioning. They started trying to reconcile what they’d been taught to believe with what they were learning out here in the real world. And it can’t be reconciled without some pretty extraordinary mental contortions.

Not everyone’s willing to tie their brain in painful knots, so they stopped trying. They may not have left the faith completely – there are plenty of people out there who didn’t abandon Christianity, only the Biblical literalism. But they learned to accept and appreciate science. They learned how to think, investigate, and discover. Whether it was evident at the time or not, a seed got planted when a professor taught them a fact at odds with their faith, and showed them how that fact was established. It’s no wonder so many fundamentalists choose to home school: giving kids that information and showing them how to do science is like pulling a card out of that elaborate house of cards they’ve got built. It can bring the whole house down.

You all know I want that house of cards to fall. Fundamentalist religion is this country causes an immense amount of harm, both to the people within it and to the rest of us. As Chris pointed out during the discussion, America’s almost unique among industrialized nations for the influence religious people have on politics. And when that religious contingent includes people who despise science and believe every word of the Bible is literally true, even the ones that directly contradict each other, then you’ve got a disaster.

Not to mention, people from more enlightened countries laugh at you (hi, Harold!).

And that means I’d very much like to see science education succeed. I want these kids to know what science is, what it does and what it teaches us about this crazy wonderful universe of ours. I don’t want them denied that extraordinary beauty. And I want them to learn how to think.

So, when faced with religious kids who may be deeply invested in the truth of their fundamentalist faith, or who have never really given it much thought, but just accepted what the adults around them believe, how do you handle it? Do you start slow and build? Do you go in for the short, sharp shock? How do you reach these kids?

The floor is open, my darlings. Professors, profess!

*See Ron’s clarifying comment.

Teaching Geosciences in a Religious Country: A Discussion

11 thoughts on “Teaching Geosciences in a Religious Country: A Discussion

  1. 1

    I just passed the link on to two geoscience teachers at my university who teach upper division general education courses, one on Prehistoric Life, the other on Volcanoes and Earthquakes. They might find it helpful. Upper division GE courses get a fair number of YEC students, even here around San Francisco Bay, California.

  2. 2

    I’m not a darling, I’m a nasty troll… and proud of it… well, mostly.

    I maintain that children have the very same reasoning abilities as any adult but they lack experience. It is the garnering of experience that shapes their lives. In my experience you don’t have to tell a child they are wrong, you simply have to explain why you believe as you do. They will, as all people do, make up their own minds. If you are able to explain WHY you believe as you do, everyone else will have to explain why too. If the others do not then the decision is not very difficult. It really is that simple with kids. The reason is because they WANT to learn, and they will learn from you no matter what you say. If you can defend and explain your views it will be YOUR views that will affect them.


  3. 3

    Very good overview of the conversation, Dana. I just want to try to clarify one point. You said “Ron mentioned that he’s discovered, over his years of teaching, that if he emphasizes the geologic time scale up front, those religious kids shut down on him. If he built up to it, they engaged more.”

    The fact is, I always put the concept of geologic time near the front end of the course, rather than at the end of the course where many geology textbooks put it. And I always built up students’ understanding of the concept through exercises on relative age dating (e.g., http://hays.outcrop.org/GSCI100/homework3.html) prior to moving on to discussion of absolute age dating.

    The difference in how I taught the material was whether I began the discussion of geologic time by highlighting the controversy surrounding geologic time as understood by geologists vs. the interpretation of a young Earth embraced by some religions, or whether I de-emphasized the controversy initially. My experience has taught me that when students are presented with the concept as controversial off the bat, many feel compelled to take sides, even before they have considered the evidence. When they’re less attuned to the controversy they’re less likely to put up mental barriers to evidence based conclusions.

    I didn’t mention it in the hangout, but this sort of issue is even more pronounced when discussing issues surrounding global climate change for political rather than religious reasons. It’s not easy to get many students to look at the evidence in a neutral, non-politically charged manner. At least with geologic time fewer are initially aware of the controversy. Also, the distinction between a scientific controversy (disagreement among scientists) vs. a political or religious controversy with science (disagreement between a particular religious or political viewpoint and scientific consensus) is completely lost on many students, at least in my Kansas teaching experience.

  4. 7

    Great website you have here. I enjoy reading. I thought you’d be happy to hear the latest report (read it in the Boston Globe, will have to dig up the name of the article) from people who ponder these things: some are saying that the current religous extremism is just a symptom of what’s happening worldwide. Religion is going out of style and will overwhelminly die out in favor of secularism and reason. Let’s hope so.

  5. 8

    I used to be a curator at a state museum that had an exhibit “Blocks of Time.” The device used was to have the gallery walls lined with a series of wood blocks of diminishing size. On one end was a large block with a label stating that it represented the formation of the Earth. At the other end was a very small block with a label stating that it represented the first evolution of humans. A time scale in years before present was given on each label as well as the significant event/epoch. It provided a good visual for visitors to grasp time scales.

    Our curator of education told me that a number of home schools wanted education programs that did not include that gallery as it was “wrong.” She would ask if they wanted to see the dinosaur exhibits, and they invariably did because dinosaurs existed alongside humans. I suppose the Flintstones was an animated documentary for them. It can be very difficult for a museum to reach the home schoolers with information they don’t want, but for those willing to look in the gallery, at least the topic was broached. Since museums are not classrooms and we don’t get the same students everyday, we always hoped that we were at least serving as an introduction that visitors could build on.

  6. 9

    I saw a similar method to the block model at the Johnson Geocenter in Newfoundland. They had a case containing 70something sand grains, each representing a year. Then a larger case next to it with grains representing a million years. Finally there was a case that went from floor to ceiling representing the entire age of the earth. Very cool, and drives home the immensity of Earth’s age.

  7. 10

    So I replied to this on my own blog, but then I thought I should’ve just commented here. This post reminded me of a time in grade school when we were learning about dinosaurs. [please forgive copyandpaste]I was talking with a friend about how dinosaurs were millions of years old. He replied with “but the Earth is only 6,000 years old.” Being in elementary school, we weren’t given a proof of how we know the age of the Earth. I accepted it on faith that the teacher was telling the truth, and probably on the fact that dinosaurs and rocks are really old and really COOL (thanks, Dad and ,uhh, probably Bill Nye, too). So how then can we give young kids the lines of evidence when teaching geoscience, or science for that matter?

    What evidence can we present to show how we know rocks are really old? Show pictures of zircons? Well, then you’re talking about radioactive decay and isotopes, way too advanced for elementary school. Maybe show a sedimentary rock and talk about how it formed into it’s present form? Any elementary teachers out there with experiences/insight they’d like to share? [endcopypaste]

    Should we even bother with proofs when teaching young children?

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