I LOVE teaching evolution.
I think it’s so cool to dig down into why there is such an amazing variety of life on our planet.
Now, for sure evolution is a tricky topic. In my early years of teaching, I just thought of evolution as “common sense.” I didn’t think that I needed to go into great detail because my students would just naturally understand it.
My thinking was completely backwards.
Turns out… evolution isn’t just “common sense.” Evolution is one of the topics that needs to be broken down bit by bit for our students.
Once I realized that, I was able to help my students understand and explore evolution with as much curiosity as I had!
Today, I want to share four tips that will help make teaching evolution a delight for you and your students.
Let’s dive in!
1 – Address Evolution Misconceptions Early
When you begin teaching your evolution unit, you will probably find that many students “think” they know about evolution, but what they really have are misconceptions. In order to maximize understanding, it is important to address these misconceptions early.
One of the easiest ways is to pretest students.
This can be as simple as asking students to write down what they currently know about evolution and what questions they have.
Once you read students’ writings, make notes in your lesson plans about where the misconceptions are based on your students. Then, seek to address any misconceptions as you move through the unit.
Some common misconceptions:
- Individuals can evolve (they can’t, only populations evolve)
- Humans evolved from monkeys (nope, we evolved from a common ancestor)
- Evolution takes millions of years (it can, but it can also happen much more quickly, e.g. antibiotic resistant bacteria).
It is also important that we encourage open dialogue within our classrooms, but be sure to be mindful of maintaining a safe and respectful environment.
By having open discussion, we can provide students with accurate information, scientific evidence, and explanations that will challenge their misconceptions.
2 – Use A Lot of Real-Life Examples
Just like any topic in biology, students need real-world examples to really understand evolution.
By seeing clear examples of natural selection, it just makes more sense.
Some of my favorite case studies include:
- Antibiotic resistance in bacteria
- Beak adaptations of Galapagos finches
- Fur color in rock pocket mice
- Wing/body color of peppered moths
We can introduce these various real-life examples using the activities in section 3 (below).
Another way to make evolution more “real” for students is by bringing in guest speakers and going on field trips. What better way to incorporate real-life examples than using real people and real environments? I can’t think of one!
You can invite guest speakers, such as scientists or researchers working in evolutionary biology, to share their experiences and expertise with your students.
If your school is weary about inviting people in, you can take your students out.
Taking our students to local museums, botanical gardens, or natural history exhibits can really immerse students in the world around them. Focus on adaptations and how these may have arisen.
Lastly, we can let students research their own examples of evolution and create presentations on how that trait evolved. This really lets students take ownership of their learning, and discover some cool animal adaptations!
3 – Use a Variety of Teaching Methods
I find that my students need to be exposed to the steps in natural selection and evolution a few times before it clicks.
This can get pretty boring if we are just doing the same activity on repeat, so we want to use a variety of activities when teaching evolution.
1 – Use Evolution Labs
The bird beak lab is a classic for a reason. This is hands-on and fun for students. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s where students use a variety of tools to mimic bird beaks, and determine which kinds of beaks are the best adapted for each food source.
Here are a couple of resources to use for bird beak labs:
2 – Use Evolution Storyboards
Storyboards break down processes into chunks, which can help students focus on one step at a time.
Choose a trait, and have students create a storyboard for it. We can also scaffolded this for them by giving them the pictures, and then have to write the description, or vice versa.
I have created my own interactive Google Slides for evolution that includes a storyboard about the evolution of long necks in giraffes. My students love this unique activity. Check it out here:
3 – Use Digital Evolution Simulations / Games
These are a quick way for students to see the process of natural selection in action.
This one for peppered moths lets students act as the predator, picking off moths from a tree trunk! They see how many of each color moth they manage to eat in 60 seconds. Then they change the color of the tree trunk and repeat.
Play the peppered moths game here.
I love how this game highlights that adaptations are only beneficial for specific environmental conditions: if the environment changes, then the trait may no longer be beneficial.
4 – Use Evolution Doodle Notes
Doodle Notes are a great way to summarize the key points of evolution by natural selection.
If you’re new here and have never heard about Doodle Notes, check out how to get started with them here: “3 Easy Ways to Use Doodle Notes in the Classroom”.
Doodle Notes are super visual and interactive for students. Coloring in moths and describing a rock pocket mouse storyboard really brings evolution to life!
My set of Evolution Doodle Notes covers how Darwin first came up with the theory of Natural Selection, a storyboard example of this, types of selection, and genetic drift & gene flow.
Finally, we can use interactive online platforms, such as Kahoot, Quizlet, or Nearpod.
Some of these have ready-to-go games/quizzes – just search for “Evolution” or “Natural Selection”.
4 – Use Different Sources
It’s important that our students don’t just hear about evolution from their teacher.
They need to hear and read about it from multiple sources, so that they are aware that it is a widely accepted scientific theory.
Some of these alternative sources include YouTube videos, websites, and articles.
Here are a couple of my favorite evolution YouTube videos:
What is Evolution? – Stated Clearly
Natural Selection – Amoeba Sisters
Natural Selection and the Rock Pocket Mouse – BioInteractive
We can also integrate social studies into our evolution lessons. By incorporating external sources, we can engage students in discussions about primary sources and the accuracy of available research.
Some examples include literacy discussions about Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” or Russel Wallace’s writings.
Not only will these provide students with their scientific knowledge, but it really lets students experience what these scientists were discovering during their time.
Teaching Evolution Doesn’t Have to be Difficult
Teaching evolution can be a really engaging topic for both teachers and students.
Evolution is a basic building block for a wide variety of biology topics that occur later in the course. So we need to take our time on it, and help students understand it completely.
I hope you found these strategies useful, and that maybe evolution becomes one of your favorite units to teach!
And don’t forget to check out my ready to use evolution resources to use in your classroom.
I hope you have a wonderful day,