02 May 2008

The Evolution of Biology

My hunch is that for most adults, memories of a high school biology class conjure up memories of major groups of living things and some dissections. Times have changed---mostly increasing the amount of molecular biology (proteins, DNA, genetics) and decreasing the emphasis on a survey of living things.

As I finish up the year with my students, I am discovering that this may be the first year in which I do not actually talk about living things in a holistic way. I don't think we're going to talk about plants, animals, fungi, and protists---and only have a cursory look at bacteria. Imagine biology without snips, snails, and puppy dog tails.

Part of the reason for this is simply the standards themselves. Believe it or not, phylogeny is not part of the science standards here in Washington. As I've focused this year on getting kids to meet the standards that we do have, there isn't going to be time for "extras." I've been reflecting on this, wondering if it's still biology without whole living things. I've decided that I'm okay with this. We're spending nearly all of the last quarter of the school year on human biology---and perhaps an understanding of body systems is more important in the long run than being able to tell the difference between three phyla of worms.

I've also been thinking about something I heard at WERA. The keynote speaker was Dean Fink and he was sharing some of his ideas around Leadership for Mortals. The part which really resonated with me was how we (educators) have confused standards with standardization. They are not the same thing. Although we expect all students to reach the standards, they do not all have to follow the same path to get there. Perhaps that is a good reminder for me, too. There can be many pathways to "biology." As our understanding of the field evolves on a daily basis, maybe the classroom needs to as well.


Clix said...

I think it depends on what you mean about not studying the holistic aspect. I don't think you can have an understanding of the parts without understanding their relationship to the whole... but I don't know that you have to study the whole critter, separately, as a critter. I *think* that's what you're saying, too. :)

Roger Sweeny said...

Unlike chemistry and physics, knowledge in biology has exploded in the last few decades. The biology teachers at my high school complain that they can never cover everything they want to in the year course.

At one point there was some talk--largely abetted by me--of splitting into two full year courses the way many universities have split their biology departments into micro-biology and macro-biology. Or of rejiggering into half-year modules, with a potential total of three or four.

But it would have meant too much change, and the state still thinks in terms of the traditional year-each-of-biology-chemistry-and-physics, so that's where we still are.