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Improving the preparation of science teachers can strengthen the entire curriculum of a biology department.
In some institutions, a dichotomy has developed separating science from science education. This is most noticeable in schools where teacher training is moved out of the content department and into a department or college of education; but even where responsibility for teacher training is housed within a discipline, a “second class” status is often associated with the education curriculum. Furthermore, many biologists perceive that the “current trends” in science education weaken the content preparation of their students and this reinforces their negative attitude towards science education.
Teaching biology content and science process throughout the curriculum should be synergistic, not antagonistic. This article proposes ways that a biology department can contribute to more effective teacher training by integrating new approaches while improving student learning throughout the curriculum.
Integrating new approaches
In recent years there has been a renewed push to emphasize the process of science (i.e., science as a way of knowing) in science teaching.2,6,8 This emphasis has grown from recognition of two factors:
- Too many students view science as simply a collection of factoids to be memorized.
- The fact-driven lecture style of teaching, with only multiple-choice examinations, reinforces students’ perception of science as a collection of known facts.
Simultaneously a “less is more” movement has grown among science educators. Numerous reports describe U.S. science education as “a mile wide and an inch deep” and suggest that a lack of depth of student understanding is due to our attempt to “cover” the breadth of facts in the discipline.1,12 Some of the work of me and my colleagues has demonstrated the efficacy of reducing the number of topics covered in a single course to improve students understanding of basic concepts in a single course.13
What content should be covered?
In June of 2002, the U.S. Department of Education produced a report that challenges current methods of teacher training and places a new charge on discipline-specific departments “… the only measurable teacher attributes that relate directly to improved student achievement are high verbal ability and solid content knowledge.”7 This reaffirms previous recommendations that scientific knowledge and educational pedagogy should be blended when it is presented to pre-service and in-service teachers.10
Given the breadth of biological science, what content should be covered?
A de facto biology core has developed which has remained remarkably consistent through the decades.4,5 This core includes:
- cell/molecular biology
- organismal biology
The major change during the past half century placed increasing emphasis on cell/molecular biology and the consequent reduction in organismal biology:
- In the 1960s, half of a typical undergraduate core curriculum consisted of organismal-types of courses (including morphology, physiology, life histories, and taxonomy) and only one-quarter was cellular and molecular in emphasis.
- Today this is reversed. Both cell/molecular biology and organismal biology are essential for teacher preparation, and a person can effectively argue that both are critical for all undergraduates. The biology core for all majors, pre-teaching and otherwise, should include both cell/molecular and organismal courses.
Cell/molecular and organismal biology
The trend toward a molecular emphasis is most apparent at research institutions and selective colleges.
- Molecular biology is modern, cutting-edge science and provides good funding opportunities for researchers and high market-place demand for students.
- Molecular biology is expensive.
Colleges and universities are hiring many molecular biologists, and therefore it is not surprising that the biology curriculum now includes much more molecular biology than it did in the past. Prospective teachers must understand the fundamental concepts and techniques of cell and molecular biology to help their students
- become informed citizenry, who increasingly face public issues related to genetic engineering, biotechnology, cloning, etc.
- realize that molecular evidence provides some of the strongest support for evolution, a perennial hot-button topic in the school curriculum9
As college curricula increase their emphasis on cell/molecular topics, they simultaneously decrease coverage of organismal biology.
Organismal biologists are becoming an “endangered species” at many of those institutions with molecular emphasis.
At some schools, courses that examine the diversity of living things are disappearing from the biology curriculum.
The comprehensive universities and smaller colleges may become our primary resource for learning about organismal biology.
It is just as important for all students, but particularly for prospective teachers, to develop a strong organismal understanding. Even a molecular biologist benefits from an understanding of the biological perspective in which her/his system works.
An organismal diversity course in the core is the minimum content necessary to provide this perspective.
Living organisms engage students at all levels since:
- They can be handled and manipulated with concrete, visible results.
- There can be a direct relationship between the biology learned and care of pets and houseplants.
- “A feeling for the organism,” as exemplified by Barbara McClintock, facilitates a better understanding of ecology and evolution as well as molecular genetics and development!
The process of science: student-active learning
One of the great ironies of science education is that the public perceives science as a collection of static facts that one only has to identify and memorize, whereas scientists view science as constantly changing as new information accumulates and new techniques are developed. We perpetuate the former with the traditional, lecture-dominated teaching approach.
- Public perception of science as a process of discovery is one of the goals of the science education reform movement. This is as important a goal for our majors, particularly pre-professionals, as it is for pre-service teachers and non-majors. Most of us need only reflect upon our own experience of not learning how to think scientifically and “do science” until we were in graduate school. All of our students benefit when we teach the process of science, along with the core content, throughout their educational experience. Pre-service teachers will learn that to learn science is not to memorize, it is to do science. Biology majors will begin to hone their scientific skills at an earlier stage in their careers.
- Melding content and process has an additional advantage. Teaching does not necessarily lead to learning, but the latter is an active process on the part of the learner. Inquiry and investigation are the hallmarks of effective teaching and student learning.3,11 Inquiry demands a foundation of prior knowledge (content) upon which to build; the teacher’s task is to discover the current level of student understanding to use as a starting point. Of course, inquiry and investigation are the hallmarks of the process of science, thus this pedagogical approach complements the goal of teaching “science as a way of knowing.” While some scientist may argue that the decrease in time spent on content coverage necessarily will decrease the amount of information students learn, this is not supported by data. As noted above, teaching students to think critically and to develop a depth of understanding of core concepts leads to greater student learning.13
Promoting high standards
A final example of the benefit of promoting teacher education in the discipline seems almost contrary to a common perception of education by scientists. This perception is that education is a field that attracts our less qualified students and serves as a “safety net” for those who will not make it into graduate school or another profession. In self-fulfillment, courses specifically designed for pre-service teachers may be less rigorous than those in the main stream of the core. Whatever the reality of this perception, there is currently a “push from the top” to reverse this perception.7
“The most talented prospective teachers might also be discouraged by the lack of rigor of the courses offered in many schools of education.”7 The call is to challenge our pre-service teachers by raising their standards for achievement. This statement should serve as our call to reexamine our curricula and our level of expectation for all of our students.
- One can argue that the performance standards we set for teachers should be even higher than those for the rest of our majors. This was certainly the case in the past (recall that Gregor Mendel did not pass his qualifying exams for teacher certification!)
- By raising the bar for pre-service teachers, all of our students will be challenged and our standards will more accurately reflect the difference between adequate understanding and exceptional achievement.
- Undergraduate science and science education can be synergistic. Improving the preparation of science teachers can strengthen the entire curriculum of a biology department.
- Core content should include both cell/molecular and organismal course work to provide an adequate foundation for advanced studies.
- Student active learning, through inquiry and investigation, effectively teaches content and process.
- Standards and expectations should be high, with support to help students achieve these goals.
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