Among science educators it is almost gospel: the way to have students improve their understanding of the natural world is to have them confront their own misconceptions. I fully embraced this pedagogy myself as a high school physics teacher. Aside from potential efficacy, it is just fun to surprise young people with demonstrations and experiments.
To the extent I now teach principles of evolutionary biology to college students in southwest Virginia, I felt I was encroaching on ideology -- and instead of getting progress I was getting blowback. Anecdotally my students reported that my lessons helped to strengthen their prior and deeply held beliefs.
So this semester I worked with one of our biology professors to put the potency of confronting misconceptions to the test. We administered pre and post surveys to an entire cohort of our sophomores who took a "Becoming Modern" class that had the express purpose to help students think about progress in scientific understanding of the natural world. The course was inquiry-based and required students worked on four basic questions: By what means was ancient wisdom concerning motion and the heavens challenged? What is life? What is the relationship between the individual and the group? and What is a scientific model and how does it change?
The life question was addressed through an exhaustive unit we called "The Darwin Game." It is a published role-playing game in which students become members of the Royal Society and ultimately determine if Charles Darwin should receive the Copley medal. Because students are assigned roles that give them a stake on one side or the other of the debate, and because making the best case depends on understanding natural selection, they are quite likely to confront their own misconceptions about evolution. So we wanted to know: will students agree more strongly with a statement like "Humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas share a common ancestor" after taking this course?
Well, the data are in! I wish I could report those data, but alas, we plan to write up our investigation and report the results to a proper journal. Still, I wanted to launch Above Grade with something inspiring, so I will say that to at least a small extent my hopes for science education have been restored. More to come.