Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator Palaeontology, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

Evolution became part of the national school curricula in 2008, taught at grade 12 level. Although it would have been a new topic to grade 12s, some aspects of evolution have been part of the grade 7-9 Natural Sciences/Social Sciences curricula since 2004. Although evolution is not an entirely new topic in South African high schools, it did not seem to generate much concerns or controversy among teachers or parents until such a time that it became externally examinable. It was only in 2008 when it was included as part of an externally examinable curriculum, where it made up 25% of the final matriculation examination, that concerns about lack of knowledge and beliefs started to emerge.

The following are some of the quotes that indicate the depth of concerns regarding evolution as a subject matter in South African schools. “I cannot see why it should be introduced at school. It will cause confusion”; “because it is not suitable for people who believe in God”; “evolution is a racist theory”; “it terribly undermines black people, everything bad gets a black colour. It means that we are apes” (Mail and Guardian, 2007).

Irrespective of whether teachers are creationists or not, they might not teach evolution effectively. This could be because they do not want to undermine the values and beliefs of the learners and parents.

In addition to these concerns from the public, teachers and scholars face challenges relating to the subject, such as  teachers’ inadequate background knowledge, inadequacy of teacher training by the Department of Education, and teachers with strong religious beliefs.

  1. Teachers’ inadequate background knowledge

Teachers often lack extensive knowledge regarding evolution. They face their own concerns regarding the subject. Teachers grapple with concerns such as:

  1. a) What to teach learners;
  2. b) At what depth to teach it;
  3. c) What would be assessed; and
  4. d) Where to start.

These concerns usually contribute to teachers to be less confident in teaching the subject. Most teachers have never studied evolution themselves, and do not understand the subject. One teacher was quoted saying “I am scared to teach something I am not sure of. I have never done evolution at school even in college training” (Ngxola, 2012).

  1. Inadequacy of teacher training by the Department of Education

Lack of resources such as textbooks and teaching aids for both teachers and scholars, as well as the misconceptions surrounding the subject, add to the challenges of the subject being accepted in schools. Teacher training regarding evolution seems hardly co-ordinated or sustained over time. Long term in-service training is required, as compared to once-off training events. Too much information is usually provided as hands-outs for self-study. This means that teachers are left on their own to study these materials, and try to grasp it on their own. For a complex subject like evolution, more extensive training is required for teachers to guarantee their understanding of the concept.

  1. Teachers with strong religious beliefs

Teachers’ personal views on a topic or subject matter will heavily influence or determine how the topic is treated in the classroom. Scott (1999:8) indicates that a “teacher who does not accept evolution is unlikely to teach it, or will mislead students”. Presenting evolution workshops in Taung in 2016, I realised how teachers are conflicted between executing their duties as teachers, teaching evolution and observing their religious beliefs and practices.

Current status of affairs

Many teachers have started to admit their limitations and request help, although the training of teachers still needs to be prioritised by the Department of Basic Education. Subjects such as Palaeontology, Archaeology and Anthropology are still not presented extensively as career opportunities to scholars in South Africa. These subjects, especially Palaeontology and Anthropology are evolution oriented, and have the potential to change the current status of affairs regarding evolution in the country. There are still misconceptions at schools and the general public regarding evolution. These are mostly fuelled by lack of knowledge about the subject. Addressing these requires a joint effort from all stakeholders involved; these being museums curating natural sciences collections, institutions of higher learning, the Department of Basic Education and the general public at large.

Figure 1: Depiction of a possible scenario in the South African education system.

The picture in Figure 1 could easily be compared to the South African educational system in a way that there is no adequate distribution of resources to schools across the country. The question is, how do we assist all learners to climb the tree? In the case of evolution, how do we do away with misunderstandings and misconceptions, and introduce it to learners as a science concept, with scientific evidence to support it? Figures 2-7 depict some of the ways in which museums and higher education institutions can play a role in educating and demonstrating scientific evidence to support evolution teachings in South African schools.

Figure 2: A local school attending the announcement of Homo naledi at Maropeng a Afrika.

Figure 3: Evolution lecture presented in the Broom room at DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

Figure 4: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 5: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 6: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 7: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

References

Ngxola, N. 2012. Teaching evolution in a new curriculum: Life Sciences teachers’ concerns and needs. A research report submitted to the Faculty of Science in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science.

Scott, E.C. (1999) Problem concepts in evolution: cause, purpose, design, and chance. The evolution–creation controversy II: perspectives on science, religion, and geological education. Paleontological Society   Papers. 5, 169–181.

Mohlala. T. Religious backlash expected as evolution forms part of curriculum. Mail and Guardian. 26 October 2007.