Monday, June 25, 2012

Do we really need high school biology?

I'm still recovering from the week I spent going through all of 9th grade biology with my son to help him study for his final. I was going to write a post complaining about high school biology, but my ideas seemed slighly familiar, so I looked back and realized that I'd written a similar post three years ago on 7th grade biology.

Everything I wrote there applies here, except that this time around there was an even higher ratio of memorization to conceptual understanding

So now I ask: is there any virtue to teaching biology at all in high school? What would be lost if we stuck with chemistry and physics, and prepared a stronger conceptual foundation for college biology?

Or is biology at any level mostly about memorizing things on faith rather than understanding them conceptually? (I was so turned off to high school biology that I never took biology again and therefore don't know the answer to this question.)


John said...

My experience of 9th Grade Biology was in 8th grade (was accelerated) and we used the NY State Regents Biology Curriculum.

However, I had the best teacher I've had in my entire life for that class. She taught in such a way that the good-kid memorizers and the smart-but-flakey like me (who relied on forming a conceptual understanding to then paste the memorized terms onto...) were able to learn a ton.

We even got into the chemistry of cellular respiration somehow... and we had extensive lab experience. It was an amazing class.

So my thought is perhaps you and your son have not yet experienced a good Biology class. (But then again, I suppose maybe most people haven't either.)

Anonymous said...

There certainly is a lot of memorization in Biology -- and I would go so far as to say that if there isn't, it's a Biology lite class that doesn't prepare you for the next step. The morphology of the tree of life is complicated, there's no way around it, and without the morphology, where exactly are you? The stuff that has to be memorized is part of a larger schema, and that must be taught as well, but memorizing is going to have to happen.

Another factor is that some students love the living world, and Biology is the only way to get them interested in Chemistry and/or Physics. I would have been happy to quit science once I had had Biology. Fortunately did not.

And, at the next level Biology is about chemical reactions, but you can't take that level until you've had both the beginner biology and then some chemistry.

Paul Bruno said...

As the previous commenter says, memorization is crucial to biology. More than that, though, I think the memorization/understanding distinction presents a false dichotomy. See, e.g., these few pages from John Sweller:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I was turned off on biology back in the 1960s, when it really was a memorization field. It really isn't any more, though it is still a data-driven field, not a model-driven one like physics.

Incidentally, I'm now a bioinformatics professor, and see biology as one of the more exciting fields in science, though they are still overproducing BS and PhD degree holders, relative to the number of jobs for them.

Barry Garelick said...

I didn't like the first part of biology which was cells, plants, fungi, etc. I started to like it when we got to physiology/anatomy. There was lots of memorization but it was tied to how digestion works, how respiration works, how the circulatory system works, etc.

I noticed in my daughter's biology class that there was even more memorization than I had when I was taking it in the 60's, particularly about DNA and how it works.

Katharine Beals said...

I agree that there's often a false dichotomy between memorization and conceptual understanding. But there are situations in which facts are presented in ways in which it's difficult or impossible to deduce the underlying concepts. I found this especially so in my son's textbook's treatment of cell biology (especially photosynthesis and mitosis). There were too many missing steps in the descriptions, and too many unanswered questions about how it all worked.

Like Barry, I found the anatomy --and the evolutionary biology-- chapters much more satisfying. But the bulk of the year was spent at the level of the cell.

ChemProf said...

Often, how it works is only poorly understood, and requires an enormous amount of chemical knowledge to explain. At the level of middle school and high school science, biology is basically an exercise in vocabulary that they will use later, so there isn't much to be done about the memorization.

Even at the college level, a lot of molecular biology is black boxes: this black box converts this kind of molecule to that kind of molecule. Although, I say this as a chemist!

Anonymous said...

Too much emphasis is put on cell-level chemistry in Middle School! Even at the high school level, this trend is not helpful. I think this has happened because industry wants people who can do the cell-level stuff, and it is seen as more sexy. Agriculture, health care, and pharma are the employers that hire lots of biology majors.

Anonymous said...

There were 2 kinds of memorization in Biology courses I took in middle and high school.
On one side we had to remember hundreds of Latin names of species and families and groups etc. We also had to remember many bone and muscle names. Those were not very easy but I enjoyed learning them.
On the other side we had to remember very poorly explained theories. I remember struggling mightily with ATP reactions. I am pretty sure the thing that bothered me the most was that the teacher seemed oblivious to the fact that there were so many holes in the theory.
But I still loved Biology. Would take again if given the chance. Would like it more with a better teacher.

ChemProf said...

And ATP is a great example of a place where biologists (and biology textbooks, up to upper division) don't really understand what is going on. Students usually get taught that breaking the phosphate bond releases energy, which isn't really right. Breaking a bond takes energy (enthalpy), but because the free phosphate is solvated, the net reaction is energy neutral and because entropy increases as more pieces form, there is a release of free energy. But that's way too much for middle school students (or their teachers!) so they just get taught misconceptions that the chemists need to clear up later.

Agreed that middle school should really focus on "critter biology", but that isn't where the newest research is, and it isn't where the books are focussed.

Roger Sweeny said...

Funny you should say this. At my high school, the top third of freshmen take biology and the rest take a sort of physics lite. But even physics lite involves a fair amount of abstraction and math, which most of them are not very good at. Ninth graders are much better at memorization, and are usually more interested in living things. I would like to see all ninth graders do a lot of "critter biology."