How to Tutor Biology with Religious Students

Photo by mmagallan at Stock XChng.

Photo by mmagallan at Stock XChng.

So I’m tutoring a Yr 11 Biology student and it’s turning out to be an interesting challenge. We’re up to Life on Earth at the moment and the student is quite a strong Christian.

As Biology tutors should know, Life on Earth covers things like the origin of life (early Earth and how organic molecules originated), the fossil records and the evolution of life. So last week, as I started going through the topic and discussing it, it was surprisingly difficult!

Not because the student didn’t understand. But because he reacted to everything by scoffing, rolling his eyes or with sarcasm.

I found this quite disconcerting – how am I supposed to tutor Biology, a subject that necessarily conflicts with ideas of Creationism, to a Christian student?

As an agnostic (a fence sitter when it comes to religion), this job is undoubtedly easier for me.

1. Your job is to teach, not convert.

As a tutor, I think it’s fairly obvious that your job isn’t to convert your student towards your own belief systems or what the textbook teaches. It is to get your student to understand the content – they do not necessarily have to believe in it.

In order to avoid conflict, I suggest tutors:

  • Explain the content in a rational way – refer to established facts that are accepted by both scientists and Christians alike.

For instance, my student was rather adverse to the topic of fossils (obviously because it is often cited as proof of evolution). So to get my student thinking about fossils, we started talking about how fossils can be formed and what fossils are used for. These are undisputed facts.

Rather than debate about the fossils of dinosaurs, we talked about how fossils can be anything from dinosaur bones to the bones of the dog that died last year, or the skeletons of the people that lived on Easter Island.

ESTABLISHED FACT: Fossils are remains of life that can provide a record over time of living things on Earth.

DISPUTE TO AVOID: Fossils are absolute proof of the theory of evolution of life on Earth.

  • Avoid saying/implying that Creationism is wrong.

I think it is important in this topic to teach your student critical thinking skills. Get them to question “Why do scientists support this theory?”, rather than think “Scientists are wrong, because the Bible says this…” Ask them “What is the evidence supporting this theory?” and “What are the limits on this evidence?”.

This gets the student to critically assess scientific theories from a scientific point of view – rather than a religious point of view.

SCIENTIFIC REASONING: Fossils are an incomplete record – it supports the theory of evolution of life on Earth, but cannot prove it.

RELIGIOUS REASONING: Fossils are flawed and wrong – they can’t prove that animals evolved from one another and that humans evolved from apes etc.

2. Be sensitive to the difference between theory and fact.

I find that teaching the topics as “theories” makes it easier for students to learn – it also teaches them to assess things sceptically (which is what all scientists should do!).

  • For instance, the “theory of evolution”.

Can animals “evolve”? Is evolution real? YES – it is a FACT.

You need only bring up the example of the black/white moths during the Industrial Revolution to have a modern example of evolution taking place.

BUT, have animals evolved from one another (apes to humans etc), from single celled organisms to multicellular organisms? Can evolution prove that humans evolved from lower life forms? NO – this is the part that is pure theory.

Unlike the modern example, we did not witness those evolutions taking place. We can only propose the THEORY that they happened – from fossils, comparative embryology etc. And these (using critical thinking skills!) can only ever show us frames in time. It is like trying to watch a movie and realise the storyline, while holding a limited number of still frames.

We can’t actually watch the film – we can’t see apes evolving into humans etc.

This is an important distinction to make – and one that some Christians do adopt. Whilst they believe that evolution is possible and it has occured – they believe it can only occur on a microlevel (eg. the moths experienced a minor change over a short period of time). They do not believe that it can occur on a macrolevel (eg.  humans evolving from single celled organisms over an incredibly long time). Their reasoning is that God created animals and humans, and evolution can occur thereafter.

FACT: Evolution can and has occured in the past.

THEORY: Evolution is how life and humans originated on Earth.

Any other tips on how to tutor Biology with religious students?

3 comments for “How to Tutor Biology with Religious Students

  1. Jia
    August 3, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    I did Biology for my HSC as well. I remember some Christian friends talking about evolution being “fake”…LOL. I still have Christian friends. Needless to say I don’t talk to them very often.

    By the way I think your teaching methodology is very interesting, you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it. (I remember tutoring a high school student a few years ago and just making it up as I went along and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about.) Have you had any teaching experience or training? You sound like you really know your subject very well.

    • tutortales
      August 3, 2009 at 9:05 pm

      I had “training” by tutoring in a centre for 2 years before I started private (but that was mainly for Yr 10 and below). Otherwise it all comes down to experience I think and trial/error because each student is different and will learn differently.


  2. June 16, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    I’m a Christian and I’m doing Prelim bio at the moment, and I do love the subject (partly because it’s my best :P)

    I really find this post encouraging, to know that you have respect for students with different beliefs and opinions.

    I admit to finding it difficult trying to match what I’m learning at school with my faith, but in the end, I can always be assured that this mind-boggling knowledge we’re taking in is still subject to change. We learn more and more about the world around us, and our knowledge bank is constantly growing by the second. So maybe this these theories might be wrong, but they’re the best that we can come up with now.

    In the end, learning about how the first organisms came to be provides evidence for me that the creation of life on Earth was possible – making God all the more awesomer, doesn’t it?!

    Without a God, it doesn’t make sense. If our beings were just a cosmic accident, structures made from amino acids and protein molecules and hydrogen bases, what meaning does this give to our lives? The chances of forming such complex multicellular organisms out of just a few random gases are SO SLIM that there has to be something else behind everything. To even consider that a being made things so MAGICAL out of a few atoms is just a mindblowing factor!

    To believe that there was nothing else, that everything derived accidentally from a few molecules takes so much faith… even more faith that I will ever have.

    Our galaxies, stars, forests and oceans all reveal to us the wonders of this Creator’s works, the glory that truly belongs to Him.

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