What Is Taught in Biology? Why Does It Matter?

By MacKenzie, Ann Haley | The American Biology Teacher, May 2008 | Go to article overview

What Is Taught in Biology? Why Does It Matter?


MacKenzie, Ann Haley, The American Biology Teacher


May is here. Biology courses are ending for this academic year all over the nation, at the university level and in secondary schools. Lectures, labs, investigations, inquiries, and simulations captured our students' attention. Biology concepts from homeostasis to Hardy-Weinberg, from natural selection to cellular respiration filled our classrooms with the stuff of biology. Our students listened, participated, and questioned. What was accomplished in terms of moving our students forward in their understanding of the nature of science, developing a healthy skepticism of biological issues presented in the media, and enhancing their scientific literacy?

The National Science Education Standards (1996) separate science curriculum into various areas of emphasis. Our students are to be actively involved in the following content areas:

* Science as Inquiry

* Content of Life Science

* Science and Technology

* Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

* History and Nature of Science

Looking back over the academic year, did we, as biology educators, address each of the content areas of the National Standards regardless of what biology class we taught? Did genetics professors include instances of genetic engineering in the classroom? Did botany professors bring in historical information as to how botany has been studied over the years? Did biology teachers engage their students in inquiry in both open-ended and close-ended ways? Or, did most students experience biology in content only?

In the 2002 report, The Status of High School Biology Teaching in the U.S. (Wood, 2002), we can examine what a high school biology classroom looks like according to a random sampling of 549 teachers from all over the country. I predict similar findings would occur at the collegiate level based on observations of university biology courses across the nation.

Biology teachers reported that the majority of their emphasis was on learning basic biology concepts (81%). Only 46% of the teachers reported placing emphasis on increasing students' interest in biology. In terms of helping students to communicate ideas in biology effectively, only 39% of the biology teachers emphasized this objective. Twenty-seven percent of biology teachers encouraged students to experience the relationship between biology, technology and society while only 23% stressed evaluating arguments based on scientific evidence. A mere 12% emphasized the history and nature of science in their classes. When asked about their most recent biology class, 72% of the teachers reported lecturing, and 81% reported that discussion occurred. Just under 50% reported a laboratory experience as the activity of the most recent biology lesson. Across all biology lessons, 26% of instructional time is spent "working with hands-on, manipulative, or laboratory materials." Although labs, inquiries, and investigations are a part of high school biology classes, these activities seem to be short-term rather than long-term investigations. Only about 33% of biology classes work on extended projects more than a few times a year. The National Science Education Standards recommend moving from "cookbook" types of investigations to those of open inquiry. Students need experience with devising a problem, setting up the experimental design, and conducting the experiment. Students were provided this experience in less than half of the classrooms. Computer use is infrequent and was part of only one in ten of the most recent biology lessons taught. Only 36% of high school science classes ever use computers to collect data with sensors or probes, and only 50% ever use computer simulations to solve problems. This infrequent use of computers as a regular tool in biology classes is an indicator of the change that needs to occur. Our students today are computer savvy and find computer simulations, Internet research, and the use of probes in data collecting intellectually stimulating. …

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