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Mile wide and inch deep, or the other way around?

Anil Kumar Challa, University of Alabama Birmingham

Under the State Board of Intermediate Education we had to choose between Mathematics and Biology after our tenth standard[1].  The majority of my classmates chose mathematics because they saw biology as mere memorization of facts, and devoid of any logic or reasoning.  Knowing a little about how biology was taught, I couldn’t quite disagree with my classmates.  My own reality in high school and junior college was that most of biology was about memorizing facts.  Those with better memory or memorizing abilities/strategies ‘won’ the competition.  The trend continued even during my undergraduate days, be it in the classical subjects of botany and zoology, or the more ‘modern’ subjects of biochemistry, genetics and microbiology (to name just a couple of examples)[2]. The situation does not seem to have changed much in majority of schools and colleges even today.  In fact it only gets more challenging with increasing published knowledge and scholarly understanding of biology.  Somehow the practice of biological investigations and the process of biological knowledge acquisition never seem to come to the fore.

One of the reasons biology is perceived, learned and taught as a compilation of facts is because of the way most textbooks are written, all the way from the secondary education level and beyond.  This is even more important in the wake of information explosion and a consequent need for better instruction towards effective student learning.  Authors and publishers feel compelled to include new and latest facts in vogue.  Deciding on what needs to be included and how much detail is relevant becomes a challenge.  Should the focus be on breadth or on depth?  Should we go a mile wide and an inch deep, or the other way around?  These questions, and the ensuing efforts to find answers, are part of the evolutionary process in the teaching & learning arena.

To capture the recent advances that have been made in biological sciences, the National Research Council (USA) commissioned and published a report on “A New Biology for the 21st Century”[3].  While acknowledging the fact that “biological research is in the midst of a revolutionary change due to the integration of powerful technologies along with new concepts and methods derived from inclusion of physical sciences, mathematics, computational sciences, and engineering”, a question about biology education was posed - “Are changes needed in biology education—to ensure that biology majors are equipped to work across traditional subdisciplinary boundaries, to provide biology curricula that equip physical scientists and engineers to take advantage of advances in biological science, and to provide nonscientists with a level of biological understanding that gives them an informed voice regarding relevant policy proposals? Are alternative degree programs needed or can biology departments be organized to attract and train students able to work comfortably across disciplinary boundaries?”

Three undergraduate biology teachers made a serious attempt at directly addressing this question by creating a course on “Integrating Concepts in Biology” (ICB), with an eye on ‘big ideas’ in biology, and taking a new approach to organizing concepts and materials[4].  The textbook that resulted from this effort can be a valuable resource that many teachers can adopt.

In formulating the textbook the authors focused on certain key aspects of science and science learning[5].  The amount of material that can be effectively understood, given a limited time frame, is small.  In other words, students cannot achieve mastery over widespread and disparate ideas within a short duration.  The volume of information has to be optimal so as not to overwhelm the students and enable them to assimilate the central themes and ideas of the subject.  The optimal volume has to go in conjunction with an emphasis on unifying concepts that are shared by all levels of biology. Moreover, it is highly valuable (and effective) if these concepts are taught in contexts that are familiar to students and have relevance to their lives.  All of these have to ensure that students gain transferable skills, which will help them become problem solvers and not mere information crunching machines.

ICB focuses on college-level introductory biology courses in the American system.  Since there are no equivalent courses in most undergraduate colleges in India, the ICB textbook can serve as a good reference for teacher-authors in India to create more locally relevant material for immediate consumption.   Regardless of the specific paths taken, the guiding principle should be to help students gain deeper understanding using integrated thinking towards answering authentic questions and solving real problems.  Taking young minds a mile deep, even in a small area, will equip them with valuable transferable skills to explore vast landscapes beyond the visible horizon.

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