The study has shown that until 2000, both in curricula and textbooks for primary education, references to concepts relevant to the evolution of the species were very limited and fragmented. The sentence in the textbook saying that “organisms that appeared later—among whom is man—are more perfect” was a widespread misconception which “can be traced back to the ancient belief that organisms had an innate capacity for improvement, for steadily becoming more perfect” (Mayr 2001, p.150).
In curricula and textbooks used after 2000 to date, the references to evolution are even fewer.
So, while evolution is virtually nonexistent in both the previous and today’s curricula and textbooks (of both teachers and pupils), “adaptation” of plants and animals is mentioned but in a highly problematic way. Despite the fact that one of the aims of the section “adaptation of plants and animals,” found in a teacher’s textbook of an earlier period, was the “Introduction to the concepts of evolution and natural selection,” the meanings of the concepts were confused. The meaning of the word “adaptation” within the framework of evolutionary theory was not given at all.
A similar confusion appears when trying to understand the concept of adaptation in today’s curricula and textbooks. “Adaptation” is not explained at all in the teachers’ textbooks of the lower grades, probably because the explanation is considered superfluous or self-evident, given that the word is used in everyday language as well, or because the writers think that the meaning of adaptation in evolution is the same as the one used in everyday language, or as the meaning the word has in physiologyFootnote 4.
So in the corresponding pupils’ textbooks (pupils of the lower grades), the authors, by the use of a multitude of simplistic phrasings in their explanations, present “adaptation” as an active process undertaken by the organisms in order to achieve their goal.
In the teachers’ textbooks of higher grades, as already shown, there is a mention of the concept of natural selection, without adequate explanations. But in the pupils’ textbooks, “adaptation” is equaled to the acquirement of characteristic features by organisms, and it implied that adaptation is a process realized by every animal so that it survives in its habitat.
Given such ideas, it is obvious that the teleological viewpoint is used by the school itself (via the texts in the textbooks), in order to explain the origin of the features in organisms. Organisms (which are presented as identical and as if represented by one characteristic type) do change but by “adapting,” that is, by acquiring the desired features in order to survive. The concept of the existence of variation among individuals of the same species (a prerogative for the future understanding of natural selection) is nowhere to be found—in either curricula or textbooks--during the whole six years of primary education. These only appear when pupils are taught “natural selection” (i.e., at the end of the ninth grade in secondary school).
Thus, while the study of “teachers’ conceptions” shows that they accept biological evolution and especially that of humankind and that half of them accept the common origins of organisms, a much smaller percentage knows how to use natural selection.
The acceptance of a “common origin” by the educators does not mean that they also understand the Darwinian mechanism, as ascertained by the study of Evans et al. (2010) also. The mere mention of natural selection in the teachers’ textbooks for higher grades is not enough to equip them with a clear understanding of natural selection.
Indeed, it was evident that a minor percentage of teachers actually interprets the origin of adaptations in a scientific way. The ways by which the majority of the teachers replied (to questions for which they had to use natural selection without its being suggested), refer us back to the aforementioned ambiguous, vague, and unclear explanations mixed with teleological connotations in the textbooks, which, notably, are the only ones published and made available to teachers.
If the curricula and the textbooks had different content, the views of the educators and consequently those of their pupils would be different as well.
For the time being, the teachers “trapped,” as they are, in these textbooks, have formed a “novice naturalistic” reasoning (as characterized by Evans et al. 2010) which is similar to the intuitive, goal-directed explanations the pupils offer too. It is obvious that, under these circumstances, no effort is made to question or destabilize the intuitive teleological reasoning of the pupils, and thus the same is carried intact to the next levels of education. Naturally, it also influences the teaching of biological subjects in superior grades.
Finally, from all the aforementioned findings, it is evident that primary education in our country is inadequate to introduce the theory of evolution of organisms to children.
But is the inadequacy of teaching the concepts of evolution in primary education just a “Greek” phenomenon or is it seen in other countries as well? Judging by the following international publications on the subject, it is somehow found in other countries too.
According to a joint letter of the British Humanist Association (supported by many great scientific personalities of Britain) about the teaching of evolution in primary education in Great Britain (June 2010), evolution “is a key concept that children should be introduced at an early stage.” Nevertheless, “there is no requirement for primary schools to teach evolution and natural selection at all, since this was dropped from legislation in the final days of the last parliament, and the new government has signaled its intention not to proceed with it. This means that children may first encounter the theory of evolution only when they are teenagers, when it is included mandatorily and for the first time in the secondary science curriculum.” And according to J. Williams—a specialist in science education who signed the letter, —“misconceptions set in primary will be very difficult, if not impossible, to correct 10 years later” (published in The TES on 3 July, 2009).
Publications that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Κeown 1988, Fisher in Good et al. 1992) called attention to the necessity for the construction of a notional understructure for evolution in the curricula and textbooks of primary education in the United States. When Jeffery and Roach (1994) reviewed American textbooks for primary education, they ascertained that the useful understructures of evolution “are not developed throughout the elementary years and thus do not provide the strong framework necessary for students to construct a scientific understanding of evolution” (p. 515). Also, in a recent publication, Wagler (2010) notes the absence of biological evolution from the national standards of the United States for grades Κ-4 and considers this to affect the students’ “educational success when they are introduced to the complex interactions of organisms and environments” and their “overall long-term biological development, i.e., knowledge and application of that knowledge.”
Simultaneously, a series of publications (e.g., Asghar et al. 2007 in Canada, Nadelson & Nadelson 2009 in the United States) shows various difficulties that primary education teachers have teaching evolution.
It is possible that the aforementioned “voids” in primary education, either on the level of curricula and textbooks or of the educators themselves, affect the difficulties that exist in the learning of evolution in older ages as well. For example, it appears that the teaching of evolution only in secondary education is not enough to make pupils adopt anti-intuitive reasoning and avoid any reference to “need” in their evolutionary explanations. But that remains to be seen by applying in practice a long-term program which will train the pupils from a young age to hold an evolutionary attitude towards organisms. And only then shall we be able to ascertain whether we’ll encounter the same difficulties we have described in learning about evolution by natural selection (see Review of the Literature).
International literature is full of fruitful proposals which, if carried out, may correct the “errors” and fill the “voids” that exist in curricula and textbooks relative to teaching the concepts of evolution in primary education and at the same time, help the educators complete their education. Such proposals are found in, for instance, the publications of Fail 2008; Nadelson et al. 2009; Chanet and Lusignan 2009, Eldredge & Eldredge 2009, Wagler 2010, as well as in the tool Benchmarks for Science Literacy (2008) and the Website Understanding Evolution, 2010.
It is known that, in various countries, the teaching of evolution in secondary education meets with difficulties (Κim & Nehm 2010) evidently affecting its introduction to primary education. But in Greece in particular, we cannot say that there are today “widely publicized anti-evolution movements whose persistent efforts have resulted in state standards that de-emphasize the role in evolution” as there are in the United States (Evans et al. 2010, p.327). It is true that fanatic religious circles, mainly in the past, did openly or covertly react against the teaching of evolution and mainly the origin of humankind (Krimbas 2009). But at least today, this subject does not touch the majority of the rest of the citizens and the educators in particular, who, within the framework of science classes, are the only ones qualified to introduce scientific theories in general and the theory of evolution in particular. What needs to be dealt with is the ignorance of the matter. Given appropriate changes in the structure and content of curricula and textbooks, and appropriate programs for the education and training of teachers, etc., we could introduce the subject of evolution in primary education, a fact that would probably result in the timely and systematic handling the aforementioned anti-intuitive notions of pupils.