But even in the U.K. the rise of publicly funded free schools allow alternatives to state-approved science curricula. And in some Muslim-majority countries, such as Pakistan, many teachers tell students to disregard the evolution unit entirely because the theory is incorrect.
Allowing creationism into schools in the U.S. or beyond, many argue, does not just undermine educational integrity but also threatens to "hamper the advancement of science and technology as students take their places as leaders of future generations," as the Geological Society of Australia asserted in its 2008 statement on science education. Member states of the E.U. have cited the need to effectively tackle medical problems rooted in the process of evolution—such as AIDS treatment and antibiotic resistance—as real-world reasons to bolster its instruction in biology classrooms.
"We've got to have teachers who understand the nature of science—what makes science a science and what makes theories so strong and robust," says James Williams, a science education instructor at the University of Sussex in England.
When evolution is challenged as "just a theory," he notes, even well-informed teachers and curriculum designers sometimes neglect to counter that theories (such as the theory of gravity or electromagnetic theory) are not hypotheses in want of further evidence, but rather the sturdiest truths and descriptions of how the material world works that science has to offer. In many places, though, the rise of more fundamentalist belief systems—and the politicization of those beliefs—is jeopardizing progress toward stronger science instruction. The landscape of evolution instruction around the globe is a varied and rapidly changing one, impacting students from Canada to China. Here is a look at where the issue stands in the U.K. and E.U., and in some countries with majority Islamic populations.
A late introduction to Darwin in the U.K.
Even as the home country of Charles Darwin, the U.K. leaves formal evolution education until ages 14 to 16, which, Williams says, is "very late to start thinking about it." And when evolution is introduced in biology classes, it is kept as a relatively separate topic. "To me that's odd—it's like trying to teach chemistry but not putting atoms at the center," he notes.
Introducing the concepts of evolutionary theory at an earlier age and keeping them more central to the curriculum could help to solidify the topic in students' minds and minimize the opportunity for misconceptions to arise, he notes. "When somebody has a misconception in science, if it's embedded, it's incredibly difficult to change."
Williams says that he has noticed a slow increase in the quantity of creationist teaching in the U.K., but it is still mostly at parochial schools and newer "free schools" (which are similar to U.S. charter schools in that they are government-funded but free from many of the regulatory strictures applied to public schools). But that does not mean that the issue does not come up in the public school classroom. In one survey around 40 percent of teachers reported being challenged by students about evolution, suggesting that there needs to be solid training for U.K. teachers whose general "understanding of evolution is very, very poor," Williams says.
Some U.K. pro–intelligent design (ID) groups are also pushing to include "alternatives" to evolution in the country's national curriculum. One group, known as Truth in Science, calls for allowing such ideas to be presented in science classrooms—an angle reminiscent of "academic freedom" bills that have been introduced in several U.S. states. A 2006 overhaul of the U.K. national curriculum shifted the focus of science instruction to highlight "how science works" instead of a more "just the facts" approach. Although the update has been positive in some respects, it also creates more room for purportedly science-based groups that back ID to try to introduce alternative viewpoints of life's origin—in the name of critical thinking and classroom analysis. A healthy classroom debate about alternative energy sources or even the mechanisms of evolution, Williams suggests, is a great use of the newer approach to teaching science. But framing a biology classroom discussion about whether evolution occurs should not be allowed, he says.
And the country is not out of the reach of U.S. based pro-ID organizations, including the Discovery Institute. Copies of(which offers "the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism"), authored in part by Discovery Institute members, were sent to many U.K. school librarians—bypassing science teachers altogether.
Although the country boasts a relatively robust national science curriculum now, until 1988 the U.K. had national requirements to teach only one subject in its state-sponsored schools: religious studies. And that subject remains in the publicly funded schools.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Williams says, it might be the persistence of religion classes that has kept more of the creationist push out of science classrooms in the U.K. compared with the U.S. "I think that this lack of separation of church and state meant that parents who do hold Christian values are very happy that schools are going to be teaching from the religious standpoint."
The religion classes offer a more comprehensive cultural introduction to various theologies around the world than strict Anglican instruction, but, Williams says, that does not mean they have kept out of the creation game entirely. "In science class we would never look at the evidence against the existence of God, but it seems to be perfectly acceptable to challenge the scientific standpoint in the religion class," he says.