Biology Education: Under the Microscope: Examining the History and Current State of Biology Education

By McComas, William | The Science Teacher, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Biology Education: Under the Microscope: Examining the History and Current State of Biology Education


McComas, William, The Science Teacher


Let me begin by making a statement that will undoubtedly challenge some readers: Biology is the most important science subject taught in school! I say this, not because I am a prior biology teacher and wish to defend my prior vocation, but because of some compelling conclusions that may be derived from a review of educational statistics.

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Consider the results of the High School Transcript Study (HSTS) (2002), which examined the actual coursework completed by a representative sample of those finishing high school in 1982, 1990, and 2000. If we focus on the science classes illustrated in Figure 1, a number of trends emerge. To start with the encouraging data, we see that virtually every graduate completed at least one science class before finishing school. Also, with the exception of the Earth sciences, the percentage of students taking any particular science has increased in each of the three decades. Not so encouraging is the fact that only 59% of graduates in 2000 took both biology and chemistry and fewer still, 25%, completed the "big three" science classes before finishing high school.

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Perhaps the most interesting conclusion we reach from the HSTS is that one discipline stands out as the dominant and almost exclusive science class for the majority of high school students. That class is biology, a course taken by 91% of high school graduates in 2000. As a universal, lab-based high school science experience nothing else approaches the importance or dominance of biology. For many students, high school science is biology and our best--and sometimes only--opportunity to impact students' knowledge of and interest in science generally will remain linked to the quality and nature of biology instruction in U.S. high schools.

Biology instruction in the United States: A quick history

It may surprise many that the structure, if not the content, of the U.S. biology curriculum was established almost 100 years ago and really has not changed since in any consequential way. At the end of the 19th century, biology was not taught in the relatively few high schools that dotted the landscape at that time. What is now biology was included within courses in zoology, physiology, botany, and other life sciences such as agriculture. At that time, such disciplines were seen as descriptive rather than rigorous scientific pursuits. We still retain the vestige of this distinction when discussing the "hard" and "soft" sciences. Even though evolution by natural selection was known at the time, it had not yet become the organizing principle for biology it is today. The only "true" sciences at that time were considered to be chemistry and physics, relegating biology to step-child status within the study of natural history.

The Committee of Ten of the National Education Association (NEA) through the Commission on the Reorganization on Secondary Education made recommendations in 1920 for curriculum reorganization that effectively stand today (DeBoer 1991; NEA 1920). These groups made the determination that biology should be a free-standing science subject and recommended that biology come before chemistry and physics in high school programs of studies. The additional recommendation was made that inquiry-based laboratory work should comprise 60% of instructional effort. Further, the basic purpose for the study of biology was "not on memorization but on the acquisition of knowledge and intellectual growth from careful observation of nature" (Vazquez 2006, p. 29). In addition, the Committee believed that science itself should occupy 25% of all instructional time. Even a century later, despite conversations about the most effective sequence of courses, such as those involving "physics first," who would argue with these generally enlightened views of science instruction?

Of course, biology instruction has matured in the intervening decades through the involvement of organizations such as the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the National Science Teachers Association.

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