Evolution education has traditionally been confined within the bounds of the biology classroom. This need not be the case and may actually contribute to the persistent challenges in public understanding and acceptance of the science itself. In this collection of essays, curriculum designers Susan Hanisch and Dustin Eirdosh explore the challenges and opportunities presented by teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science that transcends the boundaries of traditional school subjects. These essays examine the practical, scientific, and cultural aspects of leveraging evolutionary perspectives on the human condition as a centerpiece of interdisciplinary learning across the general education curriculum. By calling for an evolution education without borders, the authors illuminate a new landscape for curriculum design as well as a more integrated approach to supporting the needs of overburdened teachers and students. The collection ends with a call to action: empowering students around the world with the tools for understanding the evolutionary processes that drive learning and school organization such that they can take on authentic leadership roles in evolving the future of education itself.

Finding purpose in evolution education

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Evolution educators are united by a deep sense of purpose about the need to support the public understanding of evolution science. Despite this widespread agreement, there is one area in which evolution educators are somewhat divided. There remains significant disagreement over the question of if and how classroom teachers should engage students in understanding the role of our human sense of purpose in evolutionary processes. We want to briefly outline the challenge here and open a discussion about a possible avenue for addressing this persistent challenge.

It’s time to fix evolution’s public relations problem

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Evolution has a public relations problem. By that, we do not so much mean the well-known problem of evolution acceptance on religious grounds - a problem that the evolution education community has been grappling with for decades and which is still a major focus of much research and discourse. Instead we refer to another evolution acceptance problem, one that includes not only religious, but secular and scientific communities alike. This is the problem of accepting the relevance of evolutionary theory for understanding the human condition. This acceptance problem comes both in moralistic and scientific varieties. Some deny the relevance of evolutionary theory on the grounds that it implies or promotes an immoral social code, others deny the relevance on the grounds that evolutionary theory is not capable or helpful in explaining the complexities of our species. We argue here that both strains of denial are rooted in deeply held misconceptions about the current state of evolutionary anthropology, and that current practices in evolution education are not adequate to address the chronic public relations disaster facing our field. The only way forward for evolution education is to systematically engage with the 21st-century science of cultural evolution and generalized conceptions of the evolution of cooperation.

Evolving minds: learning as evolution, evolution as learning

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The National Center for Science Education proclaims “Science education is constantly evolving!”. Leading evolution education researcher, Deborah Kelemen, runs the Evolving Minds project for teaching evolution in elementary school. Educators across disciplines and around the world routinely describe the ‘evolution’ of their own and their students’ understanding of concepts. What all of these examples have in common is the invocation of a concept of evolution by well-educated educators and scientists, many of whom are charged with advancing the public understanding of evolution, without engaging students in explicit clarification about what this use of the concept actually means in the context of human cognition and culture. This article explores the relationship between the scientific and vernacular use of the evolution concept as it relates to individual and social learning processes. We argue that systematic exploration of learning as an evolutionary process, and evolution as a learning process holds untapped educational potential, a potential that is hampered by systemic conceptual biases among mainstream evolution educators.

Transfer of learning in evolution understanding: a challenge not just for students

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One of the “holy grails” of education is to develop in students the ability to transfer their learning of concepts to new contexts and, most importantly, to the world and their lives outside of the classroom. After all, only through this transfer is it possible that the concepts and skills that students learn at school are actually going to be useful for solving real-world problems.

Perhaps ironically, such transfer of learning does not come easy for many educators and scientists as well. Many debates and disagreements in science seem to be about the appropriate understanding and meaning of terms and concepts that make up a body of theory. This can mark a healthy scientific process of conceptual clarification, but only if the debating scientists are clear about the nature of analogical reasoning and transfer of learning. In evolution science, debates over the ability to generalize core concepts of evolutionary theory are hampered by this lack of clarity. Is the concept of evolution ‘merely an analogy’ when transferred outside the context of biological populations? In this vein, is the concept of inheritance an analogy when transfered to evolutionary explanations in culture, or is it rather an analogy when transferred from culture to evolutionary explanations in biology? The lack of clarity on these questions at the level of scientific discourse has led to an absence of practical engagement in these issues at the level of mainstream evolution education. We argue that advances in teaching for transfer of learning can provide not only practical pedagogical guidance, but also supports for more productive scientific discourse.

Elinor’s classroom: developing a transferable concept of the commons

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Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom is well known for her important work advancing the theory of collective action that now informs an impressive diversity of research into how human communities can work together on issues that matter. She is less well known as being a passionate advocate for improvements to civic education, yet her views in this area could be equally as valuable to society. This article draws on Ostrom’s vision for advancing a civic education grounded in teaching the theory of collective action as a conceptual framework that transfers from the everyday lives of students to the global dilemmas of the modern world. Educational advances since Ostrom’s passing only further illuminate the prescience, need, and value of her thinking.

Education is an evolutionary science, why don’t we teach it that way?

Mainstream and alternative perspectives in education science have been deeply influenced by evolution science, yet this fact remains obscured from mainstream teacher education and the public understanding of why schools teach in the diversity of ways that they do. This article clarifies what it means to claim that education is an evolutionary science, and outlines how and why the education science community should explicitly embrace this fact.

Teach the real controversies: can evolution education engage with 21st century evolution science?

Opponents of evolution education often claim we should “teach the controversy” - meaning that if students should learn about evolution science, they should learn “both sides” of the “debate” and therefore also learn about creation “science”. Clearly, we do not believe there is a controversy here, nor are there two sides of reasonable debate, nor is creationism a branch of science. Educators should not teach that “controversy”. Still, we do think evolution education could do well to “teach the controversy” - so long as we are clear about which controversies we are referring to.

Genuine scientific controversy abounds within evolution science, and in general terms - these debates offer a trove of learning opportunities for students to better understand the nature of science and nuances of evolutionary theory as an evolving body of knowledge and human understanding. For the purposes of this article we want to focus on one controversial area we argue is of particular import for general education to engage with, and this is the question of what lies at the center of an evolutionary analysis of change in populations.

Teach genetics first? How education research is not helping evolution educators

In 2017, an educational research study in teaching evolution gained significant press attention and subsequent research investment around the catchy and simple guidance “teach genetics first”. The research is fairly unique in the field of evolution education as it meets the gold-standard evidence of large-scale randomized control trial (RCT) design, and the intervention it tests is easy and essentially cost-free to implement: simply teach genetics before teaching evolution and expect deeper understanding (though not acceptance) of evolution science. This article takes a critical closer look at how this educational research was conceptualized and communicated, and argues that evolution education research needs to adopt a more interdisciplinary, proactive, networked, and systems view on the improvement of evolution education if educators are to be empowered to address the persistent problems facing the field.

Engaging complex causality in evolution education

The world of evolution education and of education for systems thinking share a persistent challenge - namely that students have trouble understanding and applying complex systems dynamics. According to conventional logic, it appears that systems thinking is just an abstract and complex skill that challenges students’ intuitive reasoning patterns.

In this article, we highlight that teaching for complex systems thinking in evolution need not be a complex matter in itself - a number of teaching tools and conceptual frameworks can help educators and students make sense of the reciprocal, multi-causal, multi-level nature of change in evolving systems.

Rather than progressing from the “simple” to the more complex evolutionary phenomena - as is the current received wisdom in the design of evolution curricula, it might be more fruitful to “lead with complexity” in intuitively plausible ways, such that students can evolve scientifically adequate conceptions of current evolution science.

Evolution education is sustainability education

Evolution and sustainability may seem, at first glance, to be unrelated concepts, yet there are core relationships that can be explored between these ideas that provide a diversity of potential learning opportunities. After all, biological evolutionary fitness is itself merely a measure of the ability for an individual genetic lineage to sustain itself. In the realm of human culture, the questions of how (or if) our species can work together and learn together to sustain those aspects of society we most value, is centrally a question of cultural evolution at multiple scales of social organization. In this article we outline core conceptual relationships between evolution and sustainability science and argue that evolution education should be considered a component of sustainability education, and vice versa.

Can the evolution education community “adapt”?

In a sense, one can say that science educators aim to achieve two broad aims, that of maximizing factual realism - developing in students the knowledge, skills, and understandings that are in line with modern science; as well as maximizing practical realism - developing in students those kinds of knowledge, skills, and understandings that are functionally useful for their own lives and for becoming a positive influence in the world. Of course, these factual and practical beliefs may or may not overlap or compete with each other. If we define fitness in the education landscape as the degree to which an educational field or subject is reaching this sweet spot of maximizing both factual and practical realism, supporting belief systems that are in line with current science and of applied value to students, we can ask where the evolution education community is in this landscape, where it is heading, and how it is adapting to a changing world. In this article, we explore the metaphor of the educational fitness landscape further to argue that the evolution education community might be climbing the wrong mountain.

Evolving minds, schools, and societies: towards a student-led educational design and research agenda

This collection of articles has argued that evolution is an interdisciplinary science, that this interdisciplinary conceptualization offers important educational potential that remains untapped, and that evolution education research structures must be re-evaluated to take advantage of these facts. The practical steps that educators, curriculum designers, and researchers can engage to make progress on these fronts are diverse. In this concluding article, we want to argue that a student-led educational design and research program not only offers enriched value, but may be central to navigating the complex conceptual and socio-cultural landscape we have attempted to illuminate. Only by explicitly engaging students in the cultural evolution of education systems themselves can evolution education truly tackle the conceptual and cultural challenges it has been thus far unable to robustly address.