Civil conversations can emerge from contentious topics

A UAB professor says evolution talks in the classroom could teach kids how to get along.

Conflict dominates the daily news — countries at war, politicians assailing each other, religious zealots dueling to the death — often for little more than a difference of opinion.

What if there was a way to teach people when they’re adolescents to converse civilly? One University of Alabama at Birmingham professor believes the world would be a better place.

Lee Meadows, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Education in the College of Arts and Sciences, has devised a way to teach middle- and high-school students to have civil conversations, even if they strongly disagree.

How? Let them talk about evolution.

Talk of evolution in the classroom, especially in the Bible Belt, can end in battles about creationism versus scientific theory, Meadows said. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“It seems kind of strange to think that a science classroom, especially on a tough topic like evolution, can be a place to teach students how to be better citizens. But it can be,” Meadows said.

“During discussions about evolution, kids talk about what they believe and arguments can get started,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for the science teacher to say, ‘Let’s talk about how to have a conversation.’ It’s really a chance to teach civil discourse, the kind of discourse we hope adults would have.”

In his book, The Missing Link, Meadows shares ideas on approaching evolution in a way that may avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings that can arise. He suggests an inquiry-based approach in which students become scientific investigators rather than debaters seeking to win a fight. From that, they learn to still their inner conflict enough to see someone else’s point of view.

Instead of battling about whether God or a Big Bang created the universe, students review scientific facts and work to uncover the methods used to arrive at the conclusions. They don’t have to fully accept it, Meadows said. Their role strictly is to examine ideas that can be proven scientifically.

“Inquiry causes the student to research and understand the topic, make sense of it for themselves and create a story or a conceptual understanding that will stick with them beyond the classroom,” said Raven McDonald, a biology teacher at Parker High School. She’s a graduate student in the UAB School of Education and uses Meadows’ methods in her lessons on evolution.

Don’t misunderstand, Meadows hasn’t always been a free thinker on the subject of evolution. He said as a kid growing up in a fundamental Christian home in North Mississippi, he dreaded the day he’d have to learn about it from his ninth grade teacher.

“It scared me to death,” he said. When he became a science educator, Meadows never forgot that feeling, and now he works to ease the anxiety of evolution-shy kids.

“Evolution can be an iffy topic,” McDonald said. “Some students say, ‘The minister said, ‘God created Adam and Eve; we didn’t evolve from monkeys.’ And others will say, ‘Well I don’t believe in evolution. I don’t believe in anything.’ And the rest will say, ‘Whatever you tell me, I’ll believe.’ And there is a great mix of opinions.”

“Kids feel turmoil, and teachers feel it, too,” Meadows said.

Before delving into evolution, teachers may tell their students to “check their religion at the door” or avoid teaching the topic altogether, Meadows said. Neither is a good idea, he said. Not teaching the subjects robs students of the knowledge; telling them to put away their religion prohibits them from being a whole person in the classroom.

In Meadows’ inquiry-based program, “Evidence is the leveler on this playing field,” he said. This teaches them to be objective thinkers and tend to the task at hand.

On a recent Tuesday morning, McDonald posed a series of questions about HIV-resistant drugs to her students. She’s using one of Meadows’ methods: Pick a contemporary issue to capture the students’ attention and use it to explain evolutionary principles.

“Based on your research, how can evolution explain the evidence of anti-resistance?” McDonald asked them.

One brave student answered.

“Do you agree?” she asked the class. “Give me some evidence. Back that up with some science.”

The students — who are sitting in small groups — huddle in and flip through their science book. Discussions begin as they use the evidence to ascertain the way the scientist reached the conclusion.

McDonald knows students hold differing opinions about whether or not evolution conflicts with religious teachings, but in this classroom they are high-school scientists trying to crack a code.

“If kids can have tough conversations about evolution in a classroom with the coaching of a good, skilled teacher that cares about them, they might learn to have conversations about a lot of issues, and that excites me,” Meadows said.