It's time to take out the teleology March 03 2021, 3 Comments

At the elementary level, Maria Montessori made it clear that the teacher’s goal is to introduce children to the universe and ignite their imaginations, inspiring them for further learning. The stories teachers tell are the heart of this cosmic education. Ideally, these stories are not fairy tales or just-so stories, but real information of amazing and wonderful events.

Fortunately, there is plenty to inspire in the natural world, which removes the need to go beyond it. If our lessons about the natural world include supernatural beings, there are two dangers. One is obscuring the nature of science, and the other is excluding children whose belief systems differ. If your lesson is “God with no hands,” then the question of which god or gods arises. That question cannot be answered with science. Children and their families must be allowed and encouraged to answer it for themselves.

The second Great Lesson, the Coming of Life, tells of the emergence and development of life over time. The story, as traditionally told, has many instances of teleology. What is teleology? It literally means “study of purpose or end result.” If an organism is said to change because it wants to accomplish a goal, or it is acting on a predetermined plan, that’s a teleological explanation. If one attributes change in living organisms as becoming “better” or “more perfect,” that’s a teleological idea.

For life, there is no such thing as perfect. Organisms can be well-adapted for the current conditions, but Earth is a changing planet. Tectonic plates are moving, and volcanos still erupt. Climate change has had a big effect on the biosphere from the time of life’s origin. It continues, currently at a greatly accelerated rate because of human activities. Please do not portray humans as the pinnacle of creation. That means that there is no place to go but down. It also obscures the vital relationships between humans and the rest of the living world.

Here are some examples from the Coming of Life lesson that I found on the Internet. I’ve added a less teleological version underneath the quote.

“Some plants wanted to live on land”

Life continued to experiment, and variations arose. A few of the plants that lived near the water’s edge were better adapted to live on land. They gradually developed waxy outer coverings that kept them from drying. Those that could live out of the water survived and multiplied there.

NOTE: You should make it very clear that living things do not change because they want to have different characteristics. A fish didn’t decide to grow legs and move onto land. (If we could bring about changes in our bodies simply by wanting them, no one would be ill or out of shape!)

 “They got hot blood so that they would have energy even when it wasn’t sunny, and fur to keep them warm”

Mammals that had thicker fur and were able to produce a bit more of their own heat had a survival advantage for living at night when it is cooler. They were able to avoid dinosaur predators, which were active during the day.

“Some animals wanted to move farther onto land so that they could get more insects to eat.”

Over time, some of the early tetrapods developed skin coverings that were resistant to drying. Some of these developed eggs with shells, which enabled them to live farther from water. They survived there because there were arthropods that they could eat.  

A side issue here, but still important:  Make sure that you have removed the name and idea of “mammal-like reptiles” from your lessons. The accepted scientific idea is that mammals and reptiles descended from the early amniotes. The lineage that led to mammals is called the synapsids, and they were never a part of the reptile lineage.

Why is it important to remove teleological explanations from our lessons? If children hear these stories, it will make it harder for them to learn the scientific ideas that underpin biology. I believe that it is not only possible, it is imperative that we inspire children with scientifically valid ideas. Doing otherwise is dishonest. If children understand natural selection, it will be easier for them to learn today’s biology and use evolutionary tree diagrams that are central to the subject.

As Maria Montessori said in her book, To Educate the Human Potential, the seeds of interest for children’s minds are easily transplanted from the teacher’s mind, provided they are in the teacher’s mind first.

If you would like to learn more about teleology and lessons for children that promote valid ideas of natural selection, see this paper from May 2020: Teaching natural selection in early elementary classrooms: can a storybook intervention reduce teleological misunderstandings? by Sarah A. Brown, Samuel Ronfard & Deborah Kelemen.

Another study looked at teaching evolutionary concepts in elementary school. It was published in the journal, The American Biology Teacher, in February 2021.

I hope you will examine your stories for the coming of life critically. If you have questions, you are welcome to send them to me.