Teaching evolution has always been one of my all-time favorite topics! It’s crazy to even type that because I was incredibly intimidated teaching this unit my first year. What if I explain it poorly? What if I further reinforce someone’s misconceptions? What if I offend a student in my class? These are all questions I asked myself, and I’ve learned a LOT over the years of trial and error to avoid making these mistakes, and have learned to love teaching evolution! So here are my top 6 tips for teaching evolution in a high school Biology 1 course:
1. Expose misconceptions straight away.
And by straight away, I’m talking DAY ONE. Just go ahead and clear the air! No matter where you teach you WILL have students walking in with trepidations to this unit. Go ahead and expose misconceptions, fears, and questions from DAY ONE!
How? I give students a pre-survey with 10 statements. They are to mark on their sheet if they believe the statement is true or false. ALL 10 statements are false – and each statement addresses 10 of the most common misconceptions my students have had over the years.
I learn so much from doing this survey. Sometimes I even use it again at the end of the unit to see how perceptions have changed! I NEVER call out a student individually, but I do like to see where most of the class has misconceptions, and where I need to really work on their understanding. If you want to use the survey with your own students, you can access it here!
I also give them a chance to share anything they have heard about evolution or any questions they have starting before we start. You can do this as a class and write them on the board, or you can just have students write their questions down on the bottom or back of the pre-survey sheet (you know your students best and what will best suit their personalities!) I keep the list on my demo table to reference throughout the unit to make sure I answer all questions, if possible, before the end of the unit. It helps so much!
2. Emphasize that individuals do not evolve.
THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. I think if students can understand this one concept, then it clears up so many other misconceptions. Individuals do not evolve, POPULATIONS DO! This is because natural selection acts on heritable traits. No individual can change their genes, but the frequency of alleles in a population’s gene pool can change over time. I say this so much that it becomes the refrain of the unit. My students can repeat it on command because they hear it 24/7 from me. You cannot emphasize this enough!!
Do you have “refrains” in your evolution unit or another unit that you say over and over again? I always love hearing these! If so, shoot me a DM on Instagram and let me know some of yours!!
3. Help students SEE evolution in action. Simulations are your friend!!
I truly don’t think teaching evolution is possible without using simulations. I LOVE THEM for giving students an opportunity to really SEE how it works – and better yet, EXPERIENCE it. One of my all-time favorite visual representations of natural selection, specifically, is the classic bird beak simulation. You can find a copy of my personal version of this lab here. Yes, it can get a little wild, but it is SO FUN and SUCH a CLEAR VISUAL of how natural selection works.
Teaching virtually, or just want something less chaotic? Check out this peppered moth online simulation. It’s a great way for students to see evolution in action without actually having to get out of their seats and semi-attack each other with various utensils (again, see one of my favorite labs here to find out more!).
4. Give them ALL the real-world examples.
Teaching evolution should be one of the easiest units to bring real-world examples into. There are SO MANY! Evolution is such a fascinating phenomenon that occurs in our lifetime! Don’t miss out on the chance to show your students examples of how it occurs. I don’t show a lot of movies or films in my classes, but I LOVE to show PBS’s Evolutionary Arms Race video every year (it is an oldie, but goodie, if you can find a copy of the DVDs floating around! Liam Neeson narrates, too!) It is a great length and packed with real-world examples of evolution.
I love the peppered moth example I referenced above as well, but I think the most impactful real-world example for our students is the evolution of diseases. In particular, I love to teach about the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although this can be a tricky topic for them to understand. Because I love simulations, I of course had to make one to teach this topic! You can check out my antibiotic resistance lab simulation here.
5. Let them hear it from someone else.
Teaching evolution is not something I do solo. This is a topic that again, a lot of your students are coming into carrying misconceptions. Because of this, I like to use LOTS of different voices in this unit to get the key points across. I don’t want them just hearing it from me. I use a variety of outside videos and resources for support. In fact, I have an entire stations activity that sends students to different sources to hear and learn about topics related to evolution.
6. Don’t shy away from hard conversations.
Last but not least, I think it is incredibly important to create a classroom culture in which students feel comfortable vocalizing their questions. Don’t shy away from hard conversations with your students on this topic! You do NOT need to have all of the answers. In fact, I think one of the most important things we can teach our students is humility and NOT having all the answers. You can still provide value to them by offering a listening ear to their concerns, and pointing them to sites to do their own research to try to find answers for themselves, even when you don’t have them.
I love this site because it covers a lot of common misconceptions that have come up during my years teaching evolution. If you teach in a private religion-based school, conversations about religion and evolution will undoubtedly come up as well. I share some of my experiences as a high school science teacher at a private Christian school here.
I hope you have found these 6 practical tips for teaching evolution helpful! Have your own tips? Feel free to share them with me here! I LOVE to learn from other teachers, so I’d love to hear from you!