Monday, September 14, 2009

Must secondary school biology be boring?

I wondered this last night as I helped my 7th grader study for his first biology quiz last night.

Over and over again, we went through the organelles and their functions. Lysosomes "digest food particles and foreign invaders;" ribosomes "make proteins"; mitochondria "break down nutrients and makes ATP." Most forbidding-sounding of all, the Golgi Complex "packages proteins and sends them out of the cell."

Why was all this so unsatisfying?

It's not just the memorization, but the meaninglessness of it all. These facts raise more questions than they answer: how/why do lysosomes digest food, ribosomes make proteins, etc.? At this microscopic level, inaccessible to daily experience, what does it mean to break things down and make energy? What *is* ATP?

In other grade school subjects, the how's and the why's are more transparent. When we multiply together two polynomials, we have some sense of why we use Distributive Law; when we learn about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, we learn not just the names and the dates involved, but why and how they came; when we discuss the digestive or the circulatory systems, we have real-life observations at our fingertips.

But with 7th grade cell biology, we get little more than a bunch of labels and associated sentences. Because the why's and how's are so nontransparent, because we can reach them only at a great depth of analysis, I'm wondering whether cell biology has any place in middle school, or even high school biology. Why not wait until after chemistry and molecular biology, and even physics? Only after mastering these subjects, I suspect, are students ready to get something more than a list of spelling words and dictionary definitions of the Golgi Complex et al.

After all, with a very few exceptions, things in life only get really interesting after some serious left-brained analysis.


Beth said...

My daughter told me the other day that one of the reasons she likes the Quaker school better than the public school is because of science. In public school, "science" consisted of memorizing vocabulary words. At the Quaker school, the kids actually do stuff. For instance, they studied the basic machines (lever, ramp, etc.) and then built complex machines using the basic ones.

Hainish said...

I'm observing a middle school biology class now, and I've worked with middle- and high school standards from various states, and my perception is that the middle school content is really just a watered-down (to put it politely) version of what's learned in high school.

I wouldn't want to teach it at that level. No real depth you can get into until they've had a little more chemistry (and maybe physics). No wonder so many students characterize biology as "just a lot of memorization."

I recently read about a university wanting to "revolutionize" the way it teaches intro bio by having both majors and non-majors take a one-semester intro course, and then requiring majors to take a second course that (you guessed it) goes into the same concepts but in more depth.

It's the same formula used throughout k-12. Revolutionary my ass!

Anonymous said...

I was denied access to AP Chemistry in high school based on mediocre grades in Biology (read: memorization of context-free definition as written about above) even though I had a PERFECT average in honors chemistry because chemistry actually made sense.I am so sick of memorization-based classes
(eg. biology, geography) being the gate-keepers to prevent students from getting to courses that involve higher level thinking.

PhysicistDave said...


All students should read Mahlon Hoagland's brilliantly whimsical "The Way Life Works" before taking biology: Hoagland explains the basic ideas with clever little cartoons but integrates it all into a broader context of general ideas such as feedback, etc.

For whatever it is worth, a lot of the public-school textbooks in biology now, as bad as they may be, are better than what I had in the late '60s.

Dave Miller in Sacramento

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Dave. I agree with you about the earlier secondary school biology textbooks; the one I used in the 1980s was no better than this one.

Anonymous, I'm appalled that 9th grade biology, rather than honors chemistry alone, was used as a filter for AP Chemistry.