Making biology education more contemporary

L S Shashidhara

The Indian education system, like many other facets of our society, is at a cross-roads trying to find a way to enhance the number and quality of future academic as well as industrial researchers of the country, while still trying to make education accessible to all sections of society.

The need of the hour is to transform the examination-oriented education system to a learning-oriented education system. We need to excite students to learn basic sciences and motivate them to ask fundamental questions and to think creatively.

While this is true for teaching any subject, what specific methods would one use to teach biology?

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Famous evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky made this profound statement in his article on pedagogy aimed at biology teachers. Indeed, biology is all about understanding evolution. It tells us that (i) new form of life evolves from a pre-existing form, (ii) variations/diversity between and within species makes the biological world more complex than the chemical or the physical world and (iii) unlike in physics and chemistry, variation between individuals is key for the survival of a species. This understanding of the biological world will help students in life, irrespective of what profession they take up after school. They will learn to respect diversity. This is the essence and purpose of real education.

What to teach?
A biology teacher should be aware of the continuity of physics-chemistry-biology. The understanding of biology, therefore, requires some knowledge of physics and chemistry and awareness of the mathematical tools that help in conducting quantitative studies. While molecular biology is important to understand the mechanism of biological systems, that itself does not represent biology in its entirety.

Biological systems are complex, and often they cannot be reduced to their individual parts. The statement, “The whole is not the sum of individual parts” aptly applies to biology. Biology will be more useful and meaningful if it is taught at different levels of organization and function.

How to teach?
Considering the diversity of topics, there is no one recipe for teaching biology. In our effort to excite and motivate students, sometimes we tend to be superficial. However, details are often important for better understanding. How can we balance the two? One way is to describe or demonstrate a fascinating biological phenomenon and then explain the mechanism. For example, in a school one could demonstrate and discuss (i) the evolution of drug resistance in bacteria, (ii) water uptake by plants, (iii) animal behaviour, (iv) inheritance of traits (using fruitfly Drosophila) and many such phenomena.

There are other interesting and exciting exercises that school children could do without involving any expense. For example, measuring the angle at which different twigs of a branch originate and its relationship to the intermodal length (the distance between two twigs). Similar measurements can be done for leaves on a twig. Students could then be asked to identify the patterns in which leaves and twigs are arranged and their relationship to the nature of the plant, i.e., tree or a shrub or a bush, etc., and their surroundings.

Some of the other fascinating discoveries students could make is on the regenerative capabilities of Hydra, symmetry-breaking in biological systems, patterns in asymmetry, negative phototaxis in earthworms, correlation of butterfly wing decorations to the flowers on which they feed in a given region, etc. Examples are plenty. One needs to simply look beyond the classrooms and the standard textbooks.

Biology, being the study of life, is inherently interesting and exciting. The key to making it more interesting for school children lies in providing appropriate training to schoolteachers in modern understanding of biology. It is important to periodically organize pedagogy workshops for schoolteachers. Our universities and research institutes should take an active role in this and organize training sessions all over the country to improve the quality of biology teaching. This has already begun in a small scale in India. In collaboration with research institutes and universities, Science Academies have initiated programs aimed at training schoolteachers. There is, however, an urgent need to expand these activities all over the country. Well-trained and motivated teachers will be at ease with flexible curricula and can adopt a concept-based and inquiry-driven model of education as opposed to the current content-based models.

Acknowledgements: I thank my biology colleagues at IISER Pune, for active discussions on pedagogy.

L S Shashidhara is Professor and Coordinator (Biology), Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, Maharashtra 411 021, India. He can be reached at [email protected].

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