“Overhauling how we teach science…”

blood sample overview

A colleague of mine sent me an email that I thought I would attempt to crowd-source some responses to in advance of our conversation sometime in the next week.

I would enjoy talking to you about how you think science classes could be taught differently, especially biology. I ask my students to refrain from asking questions that Google could answer, yet, I’m teaching content that they could Google for themselves. I’m not sure if I can re-vamp my system to keep them busy for a semester though. I think that Chem and Physics are pretty much dialed in because you need to go through the process of problem-solving with the students but in Biology, it’s so much memorization. What do you think?    

And, really: what do you think? How would you revamp / rebuild / and revolutionize a biology classroom? How have you moved away from the Google-able, and delved into higher levels of thinking beyond memorization?

We would greatly appreciate any love and input you might offer in the comments.




  1. Quirien Mulder ten Kate

    When I taught biology 11, I had students choose a local habitat near their home that they could visit at least once every two weeks for the entire semester. They kept logbooks, brought samples (not endangered species) back to class for identification, classification, microscope work, drawings, covering all major kingdoms. They completed quadrant studies on the school ground or at a local beach! I took them on local boat trips nearby for observations and recordings of field data (plankton, birds, harbour seals, local industry etc.). We walked through a local stream, when salmon had left, turning over rocks looking for macro-invertebrates and sampling water quality. We built miniature ecosystems (with abundantly available plant species-surprised when other things appeared in the soil samples under the microscope!) in very large jars, observing for the entire semester (e.g. succession; life cycles, cycling of water, decomposition). We removed invasive plants with the city and planted native trees. Now, I must admit it does help teaching at a school that is close to so many green spaces! Quirien

  2. I am not, by any stretch, an expert on education or biology. That said, without knowing the plausibility or difficulty of undertaking such an enterprise, my impulse would be to use the required science curriculum to examine the philosophy, history, and rhetoric of scientific thought and language. I think particularly here along the lines of Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” and the extensive interdisciplinary research being done at UBC on how the way we talk about and teach biology influences the direction and shape of new research in medical, technological, and scientific fields.

  3. Both of those suggestions bring excellent pieces to the conversation – thanks for the input! Combined, they bring two major elements of science out of the shadows in the classroom:

    • Exploration and discovery: realizing that science – biology especially – is messy, and doesn’t fit inside the neat lines given to us in textbooks (this is where my own scientific career petered out: identifying what was under my microscope as something that was in my lab manual).

    • Appreciating the drive, and struggles, of those who make significant contributions to scientific knowledge: science is the mostly tedious pursuit of demonstrating proof of the existence of an elusive pattern or explanation in the apparent chaos of nature. Similar to realizing that Shakespeare was just a man writing at a desk (and not a magically endowed superhuman), the Einsteins and Newtons and Curies of science were merely people dedicated to realizing a unique vision of the universe.

    If each of these elements were added to “how the way we talk about and teach biology” we would undoubtedly be looking at a different “direction and shape of… research in medical, technological, and scientific fields.”

    Inspiring stuff, thanks for sharing!

  4. As an undergrad, I had to take a science course to fulfill my breadth requirement. My Oceanography teacher was all too clear that this was a service course for non-science students and, thus, perhaps the last chance to put any scientific thinking into the heads of his students.

    He was valiant in his efforts and somewhat successful. He began each class with a brief science current event, trying to demonstrate to us that science has something to do with life outside the classroom. He encouraged us to bring in anything we saw or had questions about. He said it didn’t need to be strictly ocean related – any science would do. We also had several field trips that allowed for hands-on learning. My favourite was one to the beach, where we collected sand samples which we studied from which and drew some sort of conclusions. OK, it’s true I cannot remember quite what we concluded but it was 29 years ago now and at least I remember collecting the samples.

    High school science makes me think a bit about grammar. If one already has a love of writing, the inevitable tedious need to learn grammar will be more evident and more bearable because it will make the good bit (writing) better. If one hates writing, grammar has nothing to offer but seemingly pointless torture. Similarly, what I understand about high school biology and the memorization-based curriculum is that these facts are needed as an underpinning for future understanding and – one hopes – eventual arrival at a more creative level of learning. One should also make room for some of the pleasurable bits, whether or not they serve the grammatical / fact-based curriculum, in order to make it relevant and intriguing. Tying it in to life outside class (as did my prof.) seems like a good idea.

    It was too late for we first year Arts students to turn towards the sciences for our studies but I certainly instituted a very hands-on, experiential science curriculum for my own children, which seems to have had an effect. I am really intrigued by the new Reggio Emilia program SD43 is proposing for next fall, where the environment is treated as a “third teacher” for primary students.

    Every discipline has its grammar: the nasty boring bits that must be memorized. Learning a new language, one must memorize long lists of vocabulary to reach a level of speaking creatively. One must learn to recognize and combine letters to read and, thereby, to access all the ideas found in print. One must memorize arithmetic tables in order to get fast enough to be more creative and analytical with math.

    The error in teaching is when either the grammatical procedures overwhelm the link to more creative aspects – or where an emphasis on the creative pushes aside the time and attention required to properly learn the fundamentals. Both solid grammar and a love of literature are required to produce good writing; both biological facts and time spent with sand between the toes, contemplating the movement of the tides and the power of the ocean, are needed to inspire science.

  5. I’ve introduced the idea of inquiry learning in my English classroom this year and I think it could work really well in a Science classroom. There are so many deep, inspiring questions your students could explore. What I love about the inquiry model is its authenticity – it would train your students to think like a scientist (or in your specific case – biologist). If you haven’t heard of the Calgary Science School you should definitely check out their site – the entire school is based on an inquiry learning model – they have tons of different resources available online! http://calgaryscienceschool.blogspot.com/

    Good luck!

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