Darwin in the classroom redux

I’m gettin ready to start teaching a unit on ecosystems to a fourth-grade class (as a student teacher). We use a published science kit for our lessons–not my choice, but the kit’s overall pretty good, so I’ve not got many complaints.

I was reading through some of the child-sized literature that accompanies the kit, and was delighted to see that it contained a page-long biography of Charles Darwin. Awesome! I thought. Sure, the unit deals in part with how animals adapt to their environment, but I wasn’t sure whether evolution would be mentioned. But here it was, the biography of Darwin.

It wasn’t bad. It talked about where he was born, the HMS Beagle, his observations about finch bills, the Galapagos, and so forth. It ended by mentioning our debt to Darwin for noticing the rich diversity of life on earth.

Guess what words weren’t mentioned?

No “evolution.” No “natural selection.” No On the Origin of the Species.

Yep: a biographical sketch of Darwin that doesn’t mention evolution! I read it several times, and it definitely wasn’t there. This is my first punch-in-the-face encounter with the insipidification of textbooks, something I’ve heard so much about and discounted as hysterical exaggeration akin to the War on Christmas.

I firmly believe that discussion of natural selection is integral to teaching about biology, as I’ve argued here before. As part of the unit, we’ll be taking care of anoles in the classroom; certainly I should talk about how they’ve adapted to live in warm climates, to be primarily insectivorous, to grasp trees with their barbed paws (at least, I think they’re barbed–more reading is necessary for me on this front!) I’ll need to talk in other parts of the unit about traits predators have adapted to catch prey, and traits prey have adapted to escape predators. This stuff is pretty basic to an understanding of biology at the organism and ecosystem level.

I wonder, though, to what degree I should go into either the specific mechanism of natural selection (and especially speciation), or into the reason for the textbook’s egregious oversight. Part of me wants to make it clear to students that the textbook has left out something vital for political reasons; the more sensible part of me thinks that I don’t need to go there.

What do folks think?


I’m a college student in biology now, and I wish that I had been taught more evolution as a kid. I didn’t really get exposed to it heavily until college – it was glossed over to a great extent in my high school. As a student I think I would have appreciated it a great deal for my teachers to stand up and teach the facts.

Also, regarding how anoles stick to things, I recall reading this paper with great interest. Van der Waals interactions may be the force that geckos use to adhere to walls, which I think is just incredibly cool.

So why the hell is there a page on Darwin at all? Did the authors think finches were neato? Ugh.

I’m not sure your fourth-graders will get what you’re talking about if you start going into the political side of the Science vs. Stupidity debate. It’s the kind of thing they might appreciate later, but it could be confusing at the time. You’d do the world a big favor if you teach them what “theory” means, though.

As a point of reference, here’s a grade-by-grade description of the science curriculum used in CA schools.

Basically, in grades 1-5 the kids get exposed to all the sciences each year and it looks like it’s only in 3rd grade the evoluiont is touched on-- and then only briefly:

You really don’t get exposed to evolution until Gr7 where science concentrates on “Life Science” completely (as opposed to Earth and Phsysical sciences). But that curriculum looks quite extensive. Oddly enough, that’s what I remember from waaaaaaay back when I was in Jr. High-- 7th grade was all biology and we leanred about the Binomial Classification and evolution and genetics and all that stuff. Then you learned a bit more in HS Biology class.

Anyway, I wouldn’t be too worried about your 4th grade class. Wouldn’t hurt to add the missing pieces about Darwin, though. Kids that age are usually crazy about dinosaurs, so work it from that angle.

Absolutely! Once you work in how lots of us think the birds that they see every day, perhaps in their own homes, are for all intents DINOSAURS! you’ll have them for life.

A quick aside on your opinion of other contributions Mr. Darwin has made to science seems easy enough to squeeze in.

LHoD, your location says right hand of cool. If it was the left hand of cool, I’d say go for it.

Seriously, the political and religious demographics of your location might give you an idea of how bold you should be. No sense losing your job and teaching no kids, when you can slyly slip in some fact and reach some kids.

Well, to be fair, On the Origin of Species never uses the word evolution either.

More seriously, while I am totally behind your desires, I wouldn’t sweat too much about 4th grade. You have an opportunity to teach natural selection and evolution. I would do that but without pushing any of the political stuff.

At my son’s school, his 7th grade text book mentioned neither evolution nor Darwin. I called the county persone responsible for science teaching who was initially very wary until she discovered I actually wanted more evolution taught. I was the first person who had ever called her to complain that way round.

I think y’all are right–I might have them read that, then ask whether anyone has heard of Darwin before and knows what he’s most famous for, and move into a discussion of natural selection from there. It’s not something I can go into tons of detail on, but I can address it on a basic level, and it ties in really well with the NC 4th grade Standard Course of Study:


Well, first I’ll just note that the biography might not have used the “specific words” simply because the authors of it figured that regardless of anything a 4th grader barely has the idea that there is anything in the world besides cats, dogs, and all those funny things in the zoo. If there’s a place called Africa, they have cats and dogs, and if they have any funny animals, those are probably in their zoo. Anywhere in the world is just like the area within a 20-mile radius of where the kid is.

So the goal may be less to teach Evolution, and more to just get over the idea that there is diversity, and there’s this one fellow who thought, “Isn’t that odd.”

But anyhoo, to get on with the body of my post.

Personally, I think that repetition is good for learning. Building up to more complex ideas over the years is also good, but there really needs to be a pretty good sized overlap of information so that when you come back to the topic, related memories can surface. So, for instance, rather than:

Topic amount covered
Year 1: |=====|
Year 2:       |=====|
Year 3:             |=====|

It’s better to do something like:

Topic amount covered
Year 1: |==     ==     ==     |
Year 2: |====   ====   ====   |
Year 3: |=====================|

I.e. rather than building to a whole, you cover the whole topic at each level, but go into more depth each time. Obviously it’s not that easy (and potentially impossible given a particular topic), but so it goes.

But to give an example, if you wanted to teach everything there is to know about computers, no one starts with transistors and bits, working their way up to programming languages, and finally in the last year teaching how to use a mouse. They might do the reverse order, which at least starts off with stuff that at least the student can visualise–but unless they have an interest in being a programmer or an engineer, they won’t be interested in any of the subsequent courses and won’t memorize it.

But if you can break it down to there being three topics like that, you can do a brief overview of each as the first lesson. Then the next pass through you cover each more extensively. And then the final pass you cover everything from hardware to basic operations. The person might still glaze out on stuff they’re not interested in, but having seen the same material multiple times, and having had one that was a complete “For Dummies” version, will at least have a basic idea of how that part goes and what the highlights are.

So, overall my point is, go ahead and teach natural selection. But remember that your goal is to A) make it so simple that a 4th grader can take it in, B) make sure that they understand the “concept” rather than the keywords or the minute technical stuff, etc.

Personally, I would say you’re just as well to never use the word evolution nor “natural selection.” They don’t need to be able to talk the lingo, they just need to understand how the whole deal works in a few simple sentences.

Probably the key things you want to teach them so they’re ready for more in depth stuff would be:

  1. There’s lots of different kinds animals!
  2. They used to be different! And they’re different in different places!
  3. Breeding for traits - like breeding dogs to be herding dogs, or racing dogs
  4. Filtration by traits that work – for instance, just taking a box full of pebbles and rocks with some holes in the bottom and shaking it to show how that whole bit works

You’d probably be better to leave off:

  1. Genetic mutation
  2. “A million monkeys on a million typewriters”-type solution to life and evolution
  3. Terminology
  4. Politics

Looks pretty similar to the 3rd grade stuff I posted above for CA. I guess we’re a year ahead out here. :wink:

Personally, I’d go with a “descent with modification” angle, rather than “natural selection”. NS, properly formulated, can be a lot more complex than most people give it credit for (especially since it’s more of a logical syllogism than anything else). Descent with modification is an easier concept to grasp, especially for 4th graders, I would think.

Use dinosaurs as examples.

I’ve not read through the unit entirely, but I think that the best place to discuss it might be in the context of predator and prey behaviors and especially body characteristics. They’ll be observing terrariums (terraria?) with anoles, crickets, and grass, and will be talking about what traits the anoles have that help them as predators and what traits the crickets have that help them avoid predation. It seems pretty easy to discuss here how the crickets’ ancestors may have had shorter legs, but that the ones who couldn’t jump as well got eaten faster, whereas the ones with better jumping powers survived to breed, or something like that.


Or, you could talk about the shrinking habitat for polar bears and touch on cimate change as well. Kill two birds with one stone!

The birds that fly faster are harder to kill, of course, and so they’re the ones that reproduce.


No animals were harmed in the generation of that post. :wink:

Personally, I’d go with natural selection. Be sure to include the notion of survival of the fittest, and how the strong and cruel survive, and how the weak will be killed off until the are extinct.

You might want to invite the 8th grade footbal team in to share in the lecture. The 5th graders will love it!

I think it was the Jodie Foster character in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane who said:

“Birds are reptiles from way back.”

You could work the movie into your curriculum too. It has good life lessons for children. :dubious:

So before Darwin, people didn’t notice the rich diversity of life on earth? I realize that he expanded on it, but that is pretty disappointing that it says this is the notable thing he’s remembered for.

I agree it would be a good time to add your own $0.02 in discussing it. When I’ve tried to discuss the concepts of evolution to my boys in the past, I realized the problem that they don’t really have a concept of deep time. My older is in fourth grade now, so I think I’ll try it again. Maybe a good way for you to discuss it is to take for an example some animal that you’ve had in the class, for example crickets, and ask the kids to imagine what would happen if you kept raising them, generation after generation, and throw in some artificial selection pressure.