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Science education

Clouded visions

A recent study says that young Brazilians look to cultural and religious sources to explain the evolution of human beings because they are poorly educated on the subject

From Ape to Human, a permanent exhibition at Catavento Cultural Science Museum in São Paulo: learning about evolution outside of the classroom

Léo RamosFrom Ape to Human, a permanent exhibition at Catavento Cultural Science Museum in São Paulo: learning about evolution outside of the classroomLéo Ramos

A study comparing the level of scientific knowledge of students in Brazil and Italy reveals a number of problems in teaching the theory of evolution and its impact on the education of young Brazilians. The study suggests that the reason Brazilian high school students fall back on their cultural and religious backgrounds to explain the evolution of living things and the origin of the human species is an inadequate science education. By contrast, Italian students receive a more solid education on the subject. The study was performed by teams led by Nélio Bizzo, a professor at the School of Education, University of São Paulo (FE-USP), and Giuseppe Pellegrini, a professor at the University of Padua, Italy, and is based on the results of a standardized questionnaire answered by 15-year-old students of the two countries. In Brazil, 2,404 students from 78 public and private schools from all Brazilian states participated in the survey, randomly selected and based on a plan with statistical rigor, comprising a sample of national and regional representation. Graciela da Silva Oliveira, who is a professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso, presented these findings in her doctoral thesis, which she defended in August 2015 for the graduate program at FE-USP under the guidance of Professor Bizzo.

The study shows that there is a clear difference in the way students of the two countries think about the theory of evolution. In Italy, a country with a strong Catholic tradition, scientific and religious worldviews coexist in the minds of students and may only come into conflict for certain students who reject the scientific approach to the origin of human beings and species. But these students, however, are familiar with scientific knowledge and, if they do reject it, this can not be explained by a lack of understanding. In Brazil, the reality is quite different. Most young people have not mastered the concepts. Therefore, many students responded that they “did not know” when asked whether certain statements about the existence of a kinship between humans and other primates were true or false. “They consider the most basic concepts as valid, for example, that living things change over time and that biological evolution occurs in nature, but are confused by issues related to common ancestry and human origins,” says Oliveira.

The main explanation for the marked difference in performance by students of the two countries is related to science education. “In Italy, the basic principles of evolutionary theory are presented to students in the early grades of elementary school and the more sophisticated concepts in classes as they progress in school,” says Professor Bizzo. “Italian children from the age of 9 study the origin of Homo sapiens both in science and in history classes.” In September 2015, the Ministry of Education proposed that a National Common Core Curriculum (BNC) be initiated for basic education in Brazil, a topic that will be discussed in the coming months. “This initiative proposes to include the evolutionary history of the species in the curriculum of the 6th year of education. It would be a breakthrough. The history of life on earth is missing from the curriculum. If, for example, paleontology were included in the science curriculum, it would be less of a problem for students,” says Bizzo, who coordinates the Center for Research in Education, Communication and Epistemology of Evolution (Edevo-Darwin), linked to the Dean’s Office of USP Research, within which the bi-national survey was conducted. The work will be complemented by comparative studies done of students of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, the place where Charles Darwin made the observations that would inspire him to formulate the theory of evolution. Data from the Ecuadorian team will be part of a master’s thesis at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO), and are being analyzed by Adrian Soria, with Professor Nicolás Cuvi serving as adviser. Data processing, done at USP, has revealed that young people living on the Galapagos Islands, who have daily contact with the observations that influenced Darwin, are much closer to young Italians in their knowledge of evolution than are young Brazilians.

Apart from the friction between creationism, the belief that attributes the creation of living beings and humanity to a supernatural agent, and Darwin’s theory, which proposes a common ancestry between living things and their evolution through natural selection, understanding complex concepts is also difficult and that is aggravated by poor education. “Misconceptions are common among students. Many think that species evolved quickly and that, from one generation to another, significant changes occurred,” says Marcelo Motokane, a professor in the Department of Biology of the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, a specialist in biology education. “They also have difficulty understanding that changes occur at the population level and are unable to conceive of time spans very different from their own,” he says.

Elementary school students interact with cave drawings...

Léo RamosElementary school students interact with cave drawings…Léo Ramos

Frequently asked question
Mistaken views on evolution are part of the everyday life of biology students, according to Moisés Bezerra da Silva, 28, who works as a monitor of the permanent exhibition From Ape to Human, on display at the Catavento Cultural Science Museum in São Paulo. Silva says that one of the most frequent questions asked by student groups who visit the museum during the week, and by the general public of all ages who are more likely to visit on weekends, is: if humans come from monkeys, why do monkeys still exist? “When we show them fossil replicas of the ancestors of Homo sapiens, as they were found and the span of time in which they lived, many people are surprised and fascinated,” says Silva, who always starts the 50-minute guided tour with a warning. “I explain that the exhibition is based on scientific knowledge about the origin of species, and the goal is not to challenge anyone’s religious beliefs. And I jokingly suggest they invite me to lunch after the presentation if they want to discuss faith and religion. But it is common for some to argue that evolution is a hoax and that man is a work of God,” says Silva, who is very familiar with the clashes between science and religion.

Silva was raised in a very religious family that attended only the Assembly of God church. He grew up listening to biblical explanations for the origin of man, learning about the theory of evolution only when he enrolled in a night course in biology at a São Paulo private college; the primary and secondary public schools he attended did not address the subject. “The course opened a new perspective for me,” says Silva, who will graduate this year. In order to guide visitors through the exhibition, Silva trained with other monitors and took ​​a short course with archaeologist and anthropologist Walter Neves, creator of the exhibit.

Professor Motokane believes that, in addition to enhancing the curriculum, degree courses in the biological sciences need to be improved. “Teachers often do not adequately understand the concepts of the theory of evolution. And even when they do, many find it difficult to dissuade students from their own distorted interpretations,” he says. Research in science education, according to Motokane, has found ways to address these problems, such as education through research, based on recognizing a problem and trying to solve it using scientific knowledge. “But we still have instruction based heavily on the mere transmission of concepts.”

According to statistics, 17% of Brazilian students say they “would like to be scientists” and 29% say they are interested in “working with science.” According to Oliveira, there are indications that student interest is greater in schools more committed to science classes. Qualitative studies will investigate the subject in more depth.

One disturbing factor captured by the survey is that the quest for scientific knowledge outside the classroom is rare in Brazil. “There are few television programs on scientific subjects and even doing science-related research on the Internet is not widespread,” says Oliveira. She says the responses of most Brazilian students do not reflect a dogmatic perspective, in which religion radically changes young people’s perception. But they do seek in culture what the school does not provide. “Religion is not the only source of resistance. There are also cultural and social factors, such as the educational level of the family, which influence a student’s worldview,” she says.

The idea that religion does not exert an influence in isolation has been shown in other studies, but the survey had the advantage of mapping it within the scope of Brazilian education. Socioeconomic status and access to information at home seem to have some relevance. One example: given the statement that fossils are evidence of organisms that lived in the past,” students who reported having more books at home answered “true” more often. Among those who reported having a home library with over 250 books, the percentage rose to 93.9%. Among those who reported having between 10 and 250 books, the rate varied between 82% and 84%. Yet among those who reported having no books, it was 71.6%, rising to 79% among those with between 1 and 10 books.

...and a reconstruction of the tomb of a man who lived 28,000 years ago in Russia, at the Catavento Cultural Science Museum

LÉO RAMOS…and a reconstruction of the tomb of a man who lived 28,000 years ago in Russia, at the Catavento Cultural Science MuseumLÉO RAMOS

Formation of the planet
Similarly, the level of parental education seems to play some role in student performance. To the statement “The Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago,” the distribution of responses to the “true” option varied according to the mother’s level of education. If the mother did not attend school, the rate was 34.6%; if she attended primary school, 42.7%; secondary school, 47.9%; higher education, 53%. Regarding the origin of plants and animals from species found in the past, the response rate “true” was 54.6% for young people whose mothers did not attend school and 73.9% when the mothers had a university degree.

And there is also the influence of religion, but the kind of belief makes a big difference. In the statement “The human species is descended from other primate species,” young Catholics most often selected the “true” option (47.6%). This means that a little less than half of young people who declared themselves Catholics rejected creationism. They are followed by the non-religious (47.4%) and those of other religions (35.5%). The students who most often rejected the statement were Pentecostal evangelicals and traditional evangelicals (31.5% and 25.4% for the “true” option, respectively), who also most often chose the “false” option, with 48.1%. “The results indicate that, among those young people who do not recognize the change in living things over time, religion is perceived more intensely as an important component in their worldview,” says Oliveira. Professor Bizzo believes that high-quality teaching of science would help to prevent this number from increasing. “We need to stay on top of things. There are bills moving through Congress proposing the inclusion of creationism as valid content for science classes. One of the goals of our research center, which was created in 2012, was to create a scientific reference for discussing such proposals,” he says.