August 1, 2011
I drove back to Nairobi today for a morning with Kenyan teachers who are charged with teaching human evolution in secondary school. Human evolution is a required teaching assignment in Kenya for the Form 1 (9th grade) history course and the Form 4 (12th grade) biology course. I gave the opening keynote speech, and I was asked to relate our experiences at the Smithsonian in presenting human evolution to diverse public audiences in our Museum’s exhibition, website, and public programs. The workshop was held in the National Museums of Kenya auditorium, and was convened by Dr. Kyalo Manthi of the NMK’s Paleontology Division. Kyalo is also the founder of the Prehistory Club of Kenya.
It was interesting for me to hear that the teachers face many of the same concerns and roadblocks to teaching human evolution in the U.S. In some cases, the teachers may teach evolution by assigning readings to their students but avoid classroom discussion in order to sidestep challenges from students who’ve been taught that science and religion can never see eye-to-eye when it comes to evolution. In other cases, teachers may struggle with how teaching evolution may conflict with their own religious understandings, even while they appreciate that fossils, genetics, archeological finds in their own regions of the country are tremendously exciting in how they contribute to the science of human origins. Some teachers, however, teach the subject without ever thinking about the wider social impacts or the ways in which students may come from religious backgrounds that are at odds with the scientific narrative of human origins.
At the same time, the teachers were intrigued in the idea that they could create a ‘discussion mode’ in the classroom, enabling students to voice their interest in learning about evolution and any qualms they might have. At the Smithsonian, we’ve found that this conversational avenue is important in uniting people’s natural curiosity about scientific discoveries with the many diverse perspectives on ‘humanness’ that arise from religion, science, art and literature, philosophy, and every-day experience.
It was a great opportunity to participate in the workshop, and I had interesting conversations with a team from the Kenya Institute of Education, which is dedicated to curriculum development in schools. Open discussions like this workshop, and bringing this discussion mode into the society at large, are critical steps in exploring how science and religion can have a productive relationship rather than one that narrows the mind when learning about science. Kenyans, of course, live in a special place for this type of workshop – the investigations of human evolution take place almost right in their backyards.