Following the positive feedback we received for our special issue on mathematics teaching last summer (Teacher Plus, May-June 2009), we decided to bring out another subject-specific special issue this year, and one of the ideas thrown up was biology. To bring a fresh perspective to the process and the product, we invited Geetha Iyer to help us with the issue and play the role of guest editor. Geetha has had a long and varied experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer, with a deep commitment to making science teaching more relevant and creative. With a very sketchy brief from us, Geetha worked on this issue, planning the content, identifying contributors and coordinating with them to bring in the material, and making a final judgment on suitability and presentation. For us at Teacher Plus, it was an enjoyable and satisfying collaboration. We were able to draw in new contributors, and therefore introduce to our readers a new set of voices. Interacting with Geetha, and working through editorial decisions together has also led us to look at our approaches differently. The cover, for instance, was settled on after nearly 15 iterations, with each of us throwing in our ideas and objections to the various options developed by Kumar, our designer. Ultimately we arrived at a design that pleased all of us, and one that we hope will please our readers, too! We trust that our readers will enjoy and gain from what’s inside the cover, too!
Re-conceptualizing biology teaching
Geetha Iyer is a Consultant for Science and Environment Education
“In scientific work, those who refuse to go beyond fact rarely get as far as fact.” – Thomas Huxley
Why do we need a special issue on biology? What can one find in a special issue that could be of interest or importance?
If the 20th Century belonged to physics, the 21st Century is the domain of biology. We live in an era where manipulation and duplication of life and its creation in a test tube is considered progress. Living organisms from the virus and bacteria to human beings and their parts have become materials for technology, to tinker, modify and mass produce. Is it ethical to create life in a test tube is a question that humanity is struggling with. How will young minds consumed with scientific curiosity address such dilemmas?
If a whole generation of students would choose biotechnology over biology as an elective in their high school years, one needs to examine why and what is happening in biology as a field of study before it is too late and we start to lament!
Is the biology education given to these impressionable minds equipping them to make an informed decision on ethical issues that confront them? Do students leaving school go with enough experience – to mature into sensitive doctors or epidemiologists; to evaluate the concerns of disappearing biological diversity, be they in the forests or oceans, whales or elephants; to know the significance underlying debates such as tiger vs tribals, or pesticides vs pulmonary deaths; to hear, recognize and enjoy the call of a cuckoo, or a kite that might still thrive amidst our chaotic urban environments?
The answers to such questions begin with the kind of experiences biology can offer in schools. Hence an issue such as this assumes significance. It hopes to awaken the minds of teachers to the urgent need for a paradigm shift in biology education.
There is an unshakeable notion that biology is a science full of facts and drawings that at best needs a good memory and drawing skills to score well. It is not a concept-based science such as physics. There is also this mistaken notion that the only activity possible is one of dissections which has over the years either fascinated students, or else driven them away in disgust, the latter being more frequent! But any knowledgeable teacher will tell you that there can be no science without concepts! There can be no learning in any subject without memorizing certain facts, be it biology, physics, maths, or English. In learning it is the process that matters, the concepts are learnt, facts are remembered because of fascinating concepts; facts+concepts+understanding makes knowledge. This holds good for biology as well. I believe that biology can actually be of assistance to those who find subjects such as physics difficult. The abstract concepts of physics are best learnt and understood in the context of biological concepts.
Why then this notion? It is because of a tradition that most educators have failed to shake off. In this issue of Teacher Plus we present a variety of activities and resources that we hope will inspire biology teachers to move from a fact based approach to an active learning process.
But what about the syllabus? True, the way the biology syllabus in different boards has been designed, executed and assessed may be justifiably irritating! But there are ways and means to skirt around the monotony of the syllabus. What do we do with a syllabus that we have to complete? Simple, look at the syllabus, not at the textbook. The problems in teaching biology lie more with following the diktats of a textbook than with completing a syllabus. No syllabus highlights facts! If you want to complete your syllabus in a meaningful manner then the first thing you should do is to ignore the textbook. As the character played by Robin Wlliams advocates in the film ‘Dead Poets Society’, burn the books! They are the biggest hurdles to learning biology (or for that matter any subject) meaningfully. Then start planning your lessons by highlighting the concepts. To do this you must draw upon different resources. Lessons are the creative compositions of a teacher, the more interesting and interactive they are, the greater the learning will be, facts included, for you would have lit the fire of curiosity in the child.
This is why this issue is important. The first section provides examples to teach so as to gain the active involvement of students. These and other resources will help you design lessons differently. Understand the syllabus and its objectives and you will find a new world opening out to both you and your students.
Along with deconstructing your syllabus and recasting it in a more systematic manner, you also need to look at different ways of teaching children. The basic biology course has remained unchanged over the years not offering opportunities for learning in a challenging, interactive manner in our schools. If a child has to learn the same topics – (for e.g.) a plant from class 5 to class 12 then the onus is on the teacher to give it life! The Teacher Plus team has provided you materials not merely on activities but also on pedagogy.
There is mystery, wonder and sacredness in biological sciences, in what it can offer to students in schools and colleges. From a pedagogical viewpoint, it is useful to choose one of the many perspectives available to teach this subject. Most people believe that the evolutionary perspective is the best one; justifiable too, as some of the authors here maintain. I believe in a perspective that is most suited to the context of my students and to the topic under consideration. So biology could be taught from an ecological perspective, sometimes from physiological, at times integrated and functional, behavioural, developmental or taxonomical too. But it is important to be aware of the perspective and hence not remain bound to the textbooks. The second section in this issue deals with integrations and perspectives that should prove useful in planning differently.
How do chemically organized structures (forming an organism), driven by the principles we learn in physics, breathe life into the otherwise inanimate molecules and direct developments and behaviours? In order to understand this question we fragment biology into plants, animals and humans, their parts and functions, classification, evolution, ecology so on, so forth. A perspective will help unify the fragments into an analysable picture.
This is the International Year of Biodiversity, there is a separate section on Natural History. Natural History is the backbone of biology. Ethology is a fascinating field. The path breaking discovery of various facets of insect life by Henri Fabre was a result of field studies in his garden! We do not need large campuses or jungles for studying natural history. We can make use of the outdoor spaces we have available to us, no matter how small or seemingly limited.
The propositions that Suprabha Seshan puts forth in, ”Learning from looking can be fun” is food for thought. A rich education in biology rides on the back of observation and field work. The section on natural history features animals that share our everyday existence such as frogs, spiders, lizards and sparrows who we never think of as ‘wild’ since they share our environment. Whether it is classification, adaptation, mimicry, predation, nutrition, reproduction or development, these animals would eminently serve the purpose of learning the concepts meaningfully.
Some of the activities given in the first section coupled with information in this section should assist teachers in setting up interesting activities; challenging work that will develop skills of observation, analysis and inquiry.
There is a lot that needs to and could be done in the field of natural history. Those who face difficulties with field work, I would suggest the following. Associate yourself/students with or introduce them to programmes by others like Migrant and Season’s Watch, Sparrow conservation or Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. Most cities and larger towns have such organizations; find them and partner with them in learning.
Biology learnt well can make a difference to the quality of life. It is the science of life, life on earth, so unique and enigmatic that we search for it in the Universe. It encompasses within it not merely other sciences but resources for everything a child learns in school. All learning starts with biology, that first ‘cry’ for oxygen.