I was recently helping someone with a few molecular biology concepts. Aerobic respiration? Um, sure, why not. I haven't had to access that particular information since I taught AP Bio 5 years ago---especially at the level of detail this person needed help with. I was surprised at how much remained nestled amongst my neurons.
The thing is, I "learned" about glycolysis-Krebs cycle-electron transport chain of respiration more than once during my academic career. I have my high school and college biology notebooks---I can see that cellular respiration was part of the curriculum. But until I had to teach that topic about 10 years ago, I knew nothing about it. I would have sworn to you that I had never heard of it...and yet, there is evidence tucked away on paper that on more than one occasion, the information had been taught to me.
This is not going to be a post about the difference between "teaching" and "learning," but a reminder to you to go and comment on the draft Science Framework (last day for comment is Monday, August 2). What's the connection to the aerobic respiration? This:
I mentioned in my initial observations of the Framework that "learning progressions" like the one pictured above are going to set up some awful science teaching.
My problem is not with how they're set up. As concepts go, I think there's a nice flow here. Most of the information is developmentally appropriate and there is a nice connection from one grade band to the next. My real beef is that there doesn't appear to have been any consideration as to whether or not this information is truly critical for everyone to know---instead, there are nearly 1000 ideas stuffed into the document. A few will stick in a student's head...and most will not. Do we really want to take a chance on that? If you had approximately 2 weeks to devote to helping all students master the content at a particular grade band level---could you do it? And do it will enough so that they would be able to draw from that basis a few years later when the next 2-week shot to extend the learning would arrive?
As I think about the person I was tutoring last week, much of what we talked about could be situated in the grades 9 - 12 box in the graphic above. And yet here was a person, well into their 40's, going into the medical field, and who had lived their life quite well without those concepts (and will probably only remember them for as long as the test). In fact, I could say the same for myself based on how many times I was faced with the content before it stuck.
It's not that the topics in that box aren't fascinating. If you can wrap your mind around what is happening at a molecular level, you understand what it is that's being done with the oxygen you take in with every breath (and why you die without it). You can explain why hibernating animals don't starve to death during those sleepy months. You realize that you are made of materials formed by stars and you are just recycling this "dust" that was used by living things for billions of years before you---and you will give it to others. There are all sorts of insights to nature and physiology that make for great little a-ha's. But I have to admit that they are not necessary in order to be a functional adult.
So what is? When you look at the graphic, what do you see that is absolutely essential for everyone to understand? (Remember, this is only one of 49 such graphics.) Time is ticking. Be sure to tell the National Academies before Monday what they need to know.