Eight big challenges for effective student learning of biology.
Article Type: Editorial
Subject: Biology (Study and teaching)
Sciences education (Methods)
Education (Methods)
Education (Analysis)
Author: Leonard, Willim
Pub Date: 05/01/2011
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: May, 2011 Source Volume: 73 Source Issue: 5
Product: Product Code: 8522100 Biology NAICS Code: 54171 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 265291886
Full Text: A few months ago, there was a call for an editor of a new ABT department, Classroom Materials Reviews. We received over a dozen applications from very qualified candidates, resulting in the appointment of Chris Monsour. Applicants were asked to describe what they believed to be one or two major challenges for teachers of biology. I would like to share some of those in this editorial. Thank you, CMR applicants, for giving me a rich source of thoughts. The challenges essentially factored to the eight listed here. The challenges were also in two groups: three that are probably common to all of K-16 education and five that were more specific to the sciences and to biology in particular. You will see that many of these challenges are interrelated. Here they are:

** Challenges Common to Most of K-16 Education

* Trying to balance the time needed for students to learn through inquiry against the pressures to cover too many content standards & over-test for them

This was by far the most common challenge mentioned. At one time, this was fairly simple; lesson plans could be edited and changed at will to suit the interests of the students in a particular time. Unfortunately those days have passed. With the advent of academic standards and state testing, schools have begun to limit classroom curriculum and enforce "testing practice" to satisfy these requirements. There is not enough time in the school day to meet the standards and cover the content in an understandable way. This reminds me of the cartoon where the child tells his friend that he taught his dog Spot to lie down and roll over. He tries to demonstrate this to his friend, but when Spot does not respond the child says, "Well, I told you that I taught him, not that he learned it." We all probably spend too much effort thinking about the teaching process rather than about what students are actually learning. Just lecturing, assuming that learning follows, and then testing for knowledge is leaving out valuable efforts to observe and respond to students' responding to the learning process.

* Integrating technology that is appropriate to the content & also cost effective

Effective integration of technology is critical to any course, and it may be most important for science instruction. The challenge is to use technology that is appropriate to the content and to the pedagogy. Today, there may be many different technologies for teaching the same concepts, and new tools are constantly becoming available. Cost and quality are both important considerations in choosing technology applications. In addition, the prior experience of both faculty and students is an important consideration in choosing technology to use in engaging students in the concepts. Some students may be more sophisticated than faculty in the use of some tools. However, they are likely to have very little knowledge of how to evaluate information when using the Web as a research resource. The ability to apply technology to solve problems and find reliable information is an important skill that all students need, both in the classroom and in the workplace. Methods to evaluate the authenticity of information from the Web are especially needed.

* Offering sufficient professional development for faculty

In order for faculty to integrate content and pedagogy, it is important that the administration of school districts and universities commit the time and resources needed to allow faculty to continuously learn best teaching practices and new knowledge in their field. Change can't be sustained without a supportive environment for faculty to continuously grow their content knowledge and new methods for their students to learn both content and thinking skills. An effective professional development model must go beyond single-topic events and provide resources that allow faculty to research and evaluate changes in their teaching that result in matching content objectives and learning activities to student outcomes. This requires the commitment of time and resources that can result in continual improvement in student learning of content and thinking skills.

** Challenges More Specific to Teaching K-16 Biology

* Making the biological sciences accessible to youth & the general public

Hearing the phrase "recombinant DNA technology" is enough to cause most people to quickly try to change the subject. Science can intimidate many who think that it is too complex or mystifying to relate to or understand. Most of the public have no idea how much the biological sciences affect their everyday lives and would be shocked to learn how much current research and advances will likely transform our society in the future. Many of our citizens do not adequately understand the process of how new discoveries in biology are acquired. Much more emphasis on applications of scientific knowledge and methods of learning science is needed.

* Fostering the next generation of educators & scientists

We need scientists who are not just technically strong but who are also great mentors. Mentoring goes beyond just conveying information or subject matter. We've all had mentors who have pushed us and who have believed in our potential. Mentors are people who invest the time to treat each individual as a unique human being, not a student ID number. We need to foster the next generation of not just scientists but also K-16 science teachers. Remember, it is precollege education that feeds the pipeline into science majors as well as research scientists. Science is not about multiple-choice standardized tests. It is about discovery, innovation, and exploration. We need to support each other as educators at all points of the curriculum (elementary school teachers to university professors).

* Resistance to the teaching of important biology concepts such as evolution & global climate change

There appear to be continuous attempts to erode the integrity of scientific methods and challenge major science concepts that some segments of society find contrary to their beliefs. The effectiveness of strategies for teaching and learning core biological concepts is challenged by initiatives that undermine both the understanding of the process and outcome of evolution and the recognition of the consequences of global climate change. Addressing these two issues requires a thoughtful approach that not only invites students to discover evidence for the forces that explain natural phenomena but also awakens in them a sense of responsibility to act boldly. Although the roots of these two impediments to schools providing highquality biology education are political and religious, the circumvention of such obstacles should be another series of opportunities to reacquaint students with the methods and nature of science.

* Finding or developing curriculum that engages students in the learning process in a manner that allows them to relate the science they learn to real-world problems

General biology courses are where students and prospective teachers learn to love or hate science. Students come to the classroom with a variety of experiences. Advances in technology have surely made traditional science instruction unappealing to students who live in a digital world. The instructional challenge is to engage students in activities that lead them to understand concepts and principles and also include the appropriate use of technology. In addition, there must be connections and applications to real-world problems and issues. Matching curriculum to active student learning is difficult, time consuming, and sometimes expensive. High-stakes testing and the tendency (or even the mandate) to teach to the test are barriers to providing high-quality programs. Effective models of inquiry and hands-on activities for the lengthy list of concepts in standards are not easy to find and are hard to implement without resources and administrative support.

* Affording & adapting classroom learning materials that meet the needs of all students

Increased heterogeneous grouping of students, although socially and politically encouraged, has added more challenges for the teacher. Multiple lesson plans, individual education plans, mainstreaming, English-language-challenged students (and teachers), and increasing class size all bring special pressures to lab and field-based inquiry learning. Too many commercial classroom materials are difficult to modify so that they meet the needs of all students. Some require many steps to set up and contain background information that is absent or inaccurate. This can be especially frustrating to new teachers who do not have the experience to easily adapt materials. Many kits that claim to use inquiry methods are really using traditional cookbook methods. With the economy the way it is, school districts are trimming budgets, which results in having to become creative and frugal in purchasing materials and equipment. There is additional frustration when one orders a kit and there are additional costs to implement the kit. Evaluation of the learning success of kits is needed, and the ABT Classroom Materials Reviews department can be of great help here.

We can all help to address these challenges. There is still a need for inquiry curricula and activities in which students can learn concepts in national and state standards. This is particularly true for very diverse student populations and increasing class size. Please submit your creative ideas to The American Biology Teacher.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.5.2
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.