Everybody agrees that education is important. Likewise, it has become a commonplace to say that we aren’t educating the nation’s children as well as we should. Improving education is an exceptionally complex task, but one part of the problem is that we’re having trouble as a society defining what a “good education” actually is. This is a particular problem in subjects that are politically and emotionally charged. One of the most acrimonious areas of education is the one that is also nearest to my own heart: biology. Allow me to lay out some thoughts on what a sound education in biology ought to look like, and what the benefits of this might be on both the individual and the societal level.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it is critical that all sciences, including biology, are taught as a process and a way of thinking, rather than a set of facts that are “true” and must be memorized. For example, one of the more startling ideas in biology is that much of the weight of an oak tree has actually been pulled out of thin air. If someone just told me that, and I had no idea where the information came from, I’d think they were a bit loopy at best or trying to sell me a bill of gods at worst. Equipped with an actual understanding of the scientific inquiry that went into this discovery, I not only believe it, but more importantly I understand and remember it as well. Now, replicating even the simplest of the experiments scientists used to unravel the question “How do plants gain weight?” would be difficult in the average classroom and probably not the best use of precious time. But looking into case studies like this one is a fabulous way to learn about both scientific facts and scientific thinking.
Once we start thinking about biology as a process of acquiring knowledge about living things and biology education as an opportunity to understand that process and hone critical thinking skills at the same time, we will be in a much stronger position to improve science education than we are in now. At that point, we’ll be well placed to reliably turn out scientifically literate high school graduates and also to tackle teaching more politically charged aspects of biology education.
Without question, the most politically charged aspect of biology is evolution. It is also among the very most important scientific ideas ever elucidated. If we present evolution in the classroom as “great man, Charles Darwin, discovered evolution, and now we know that people descended from apes without the help of God” we have only ourselves to blame if 65 % of American citizens are creationists . Evolution education might not be quite that bad in most schools, but I’ll warrant that it’s not too much better. What do we lose if evolution is understood by only a minority of Americans? Well, from an aesthetic point of view, it seems a shame that so many of us don’t understand one of the big ideas about how the world works. From a practical perspective, it’s just plain scary that most of the farmers who use antibiotics to help their livestock gain weight and most of the patients who don’t follow their doctor’s instruction when it comes to taking antibiotics don’t understand the role they are playing in promoting the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
One frequent complaint I hear from students in high school biology classes is that there is so much memorization. This is more closely linked to the failures of our educational system than you might think at first. True, there is a significant amount of new vocabulary that students must learn if they are going to be able to speak, think, read, and write about new concepts. However, a biology class should never feel like a pile of memorization to slog through. The most important thing we can do to change this is to focus on the how’s and why’s of biology rather than just the conclusions that biologists have drawn over the years. In this way, students will be making connections and developing big picture concepts rather than just memorizing niggling little facts.
An important result of this type of education is that years after high school is over, a student who actually developed a genuine understanding of biology is far less likely to be the person frivolously abusing antibiotics.
Another way to greatly improve this situation is to eliminate pure survey classes and require students to study one or two areas in much greater depth. One model that I have seen work quite well at the introductory high school level is to have a traditional survey-style class supplemented by two significant research projects. One of the research projects was a hands-on experiment (or series of experiments), much like a traditional science fair project. The other was an in-depth library-based research project, much like a term paper more traditionally seen in history classes. These types of projects are not without costs. Most notably, they are very hard on the teacher. It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to coordinate a hundred (or usually more) projects, each on a different topic. This is daunting for a teacher even under the best of circumstances and can be impossible in more difficult situations. Nevertheless, the benefits are clear and significant. Not only do these types of projects give students an opportunity to develop a real understanding of scientific thinking, but they also give the students a library of interlinked facts to refer to when they are trying to make sense of the big picture in biology.