Graduate Chris Hatcher on teaching evolution in schools

Chris Hatcher, one of our recent graduates, writes about his job at the University of Reading as part of a research team working on the introduction of evolution to the curriculum in Primary Schools. 

I am helping to implement the statutory “Evolution and Inheritance” module in primary schools for the first time.The aim of the project is to equip primary teachers with knowledge and resources so they are confident to teach evolution to Year 6. Excellent teaching of evolution has the potential to build children’s enthusiasm for life sciences and encourage more people into careers in bioscience. Poor teaching of these concepts leads to misconceptions, misnomers and acts as a deterrent to delving further into the subject.

 Primary teachers are in the position of having to teach their students something that they were not taught themselves at that age. Furthermore, most primary teachers do not have a scientific background, let alone one in biology. On teaching evolution, primary teachers have been asking me “Where do I even begin”?

 Over the last month or so I have been putting together a systematic approach to teaching evolution to Year 6. I instantly realised the extent of the challenge.  The first concept I identified was that the Earth is billions of years old. Most adults struggle to actually fathom a billion of anything, now try explaining this amount of time to a child who considers anything older than their parents as ancient!

Another particularly challenging aspect of explainingconcepts of evolution to 10 year olds is the language you use. Do they know what multicellular means? What an organism is? Ecology? Fitness in a biological context?A major benefit in having to meticulously think about how to explain evolution in its simplest format is that you develop a much stronger understanding yourself, and gain the confidence to explain it to others. 

 I have found that the best way to explain the ‘Evolution and Inheritance’ module to teachers is in a way that they would teach it to their students. We are working with primary teachers and academics to develop Year 6 level activities and lesson plans that will engage students as well as making them easily understandable and transferred from teacher to students. One of the curriculum requirements is that students understand how fossils are formed and that life has evolved over millions of years. I designed a fossils jelly that can be made in the classroom to explain how palaeontologists understand what life was around millions of years ago, and that geologists can tell you what times these organisms existed based on the rock layers they were found in. This is just one of many activities we are designing to cover all the topics in the module.

 I am also helping deliver CPDs to teachers as well asproduce educational videos for primary schools which includes interviews with current bioscience professionals. Recently we have been in Bristol filming Prof Alice Roberts in which we go through the evolutionary history of the horse and the process of evolution by natural selection. The idea is that as well asteaching the concepts, we are also showing that research on evolution didn’t stop at Darwin – research is ongoing in many diferent areas of specialism.

 This is just a snippet of the very diverse range of undertakings I have been working on. It is fundamentally a research based project in which we are also surveying and interviewing primary teachers and Year 6 students.

 Please take a look at our fledgling website and if you have any expertise to offer, feel free to leave a comment!

Chris Hatcher BSc



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