29 July 2010

Need to Know Basis

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.


David Korfhage said...

I'm a history teacher, not a science teacher, but the question "What do students really need to know"? applies there as well. And of course this connects with the question of what do people really need to have in their heads when we can look so much up on Google anyway.

But I think your second to last paragraph raises a key point. Yes, I can be a "functional adult" without knowing lots of this stuff--but can I be a fully human adult? Shouldn't the ability to make the sorts of connections you describe, to experience the world in a richer and more transcendent way, be one goal of education?

That doesn't really answer the question "what do students need to know?" and frankly I'm not sure the answer to that question will be the same for everyone. I loved learning the Krebs cycle when I was a high school student. I can still recall the opening lines to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Both were meaningful to me. But it's impossible to say in advance what any given student will find meaningful. That's the difficulty in deciding what to teach and what to cut.

I agree that we shouldn't cram it all in. Just please don't make "functionality" or "utility" to final measure of what we should know.

The Science Goddess said...

Agreed that "functionality" is not the best word choice here.

However, we still have a time problem. In the limited access we have with students, we can't possibly teach all of them everything that would be useful, cool, necessary, or any other adjective, to know. What's more, I'm not sure we should.

I would much rather help students learn to think scientifically about content than emphasize what is listed in the example learning progression.

Whether we want to or not, we need to make some hard choices about what is most important.

doyle said...

Dear Science Goddess,

Something gets lost in the standards, perhaps even science itself.

The folks putting them together need to draw lines, I get that, but subtle points in the language make me fear that the committee lost its soul along the way.

The energy is not ultimately derived from the sun, as you know. It may ultimately be derived from something that happened over 10 billion years ago, maybe not.

Organisms do not "deploy" a variety of chemical reactions to live and grow--posing it that way destroys the concept of emergent properties.

Plants don't use the energy "in light"--they use light/energy.

And so it goes. The committee-speak is beyond fixing.

I should comment, I know this, but I just spent the afternoon watching butterflies, and may spend the next few doing the same thing.


Linda Fox said...

Too many times, in science, the standards get stuck on the details of the process (the various cycles of the photosynthesis/metabolism process), rather than being able to logically think through/interpret a diagram or flow-chart. Bio shouldn't be just a matter of memorizing the steps, but of being capable of using reasoning/analysis skills in context.

I recently had to take a Biology Content Knowledge Praxis, not having had a bio class in years, and being more comfortable with Physics/Chemistry. I studied, and, for the first time, understood WHY the citric acid cycle uses up all the C in the process. I felt excited to finally understand something I had previously memorized.

That notwithstanding, most of the standards are overpacked with Whats, Whens, and Wheres, and scarce on Whys and Hows.

For what its worth, the Praxis was fairly easy.

The Science Goddess said...

Agreed that standards often get stuck in the details rather than the application. I had really hoped for better with this version. It's disappointing.

I haven't taken the bio Praxis...but have taken 2 others. I agree with you that they are easy. Not sure what that means. In some ways, I think that people that have a solid instructional background can get up to speed on content. Many states handle certification this way.

hschinske said...

I think it's important for students to wrestle with the details of *something* in each subject. I don't think all students need to memorize the *same* details, but if you learn nothing but overviews, quite likely the overviews won't stick, either.

In history, certainly, there's no way to have everyone learn everything that might be appropriate, even once one's specialized in a particular period. But if you delve into a lot of details over the years, you retain *enough* details (again, it doesn't have to be the same ones for everybody) to be able to put other things you learn about into context.

I'm very wary of lists of "things everyone should know." I would just like educated people to have broad overlaps in what they know. It doesn't have to be the same overlap between any two people. Just as when you go to a familiar grocery store, you know where lots of items are kept and can figure out the rest -- you don't have to know the exact location of every single item to be able to narrow down your search pretty quickly, and it's probably rare that you need to ask a clerk where something is. A friend of yours might know the locations of 90% of the things you buy, but have no idea about the other 10%, and still be just as familiar with the store as you.