Essential Topics in Biology?

For the past year or so KABT’er, Scott Sharp, has been asking me if I can help him generate a list of essential, core concepts that every biology student should learn–something a bit different than just a re-visitation of the science standards or a TOC from a text book. As we have carried on this discussion Scott usually seems to focus on trying to identify those little kernals of knowledge and understanding that open an entire realm of new exploration in biology understanding. At any rate, I’ve usually been a bit evasive on the subject; indicating that, yes I have a pretty good idea of the “essentials” in my mind but that varies each and every year that I teach and is highly subjective to who I am as a biology teacher. I suggest that he will develop his own as he continues to reflect upon his teaching.

Generally, for me the “essentials” of biology content probe the big questions in biology and how to answer them. The big questions have lead to big theories—evolution, cell theory, genetics, development, ecology. Scott, rightfully so, is not satisfied with this answer so he continues to explore which is exactly what I hope he does.

Recently, Scott found a paper by Robin Wright that has really got him thinking. Here’s how Scott introduced her paper in his email to members of a PLC:

“Here is a very interesting article from Dr. Robin Wright, Associate Dean and professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota. She makes a series of very convincing arguments that there are no essential concepts in biology (for non-majors), or any of the disciplines. What is essential to biological literacy is learning to think and act like a biologist, and the way that is done is through investigations that are of interest to the student and the teacher. Enthusiasm of the teacher, and guiding the students in their inquiry of topics is the only skill that matters. She makes MANY incredible arguments, and I think that some PLC time to discuss this perspective would be tremendously beneficial. This was really earth-shattering for me to read and contemplate.”

Take time to read this article and make comments on your thoughts here. We’ll try to get Scott involved in an discussion, as well. Mike Klymkowsky has a counter point to Robins article that you should check out that may add to the discussion.




One thought on “Essential Topics in Biology?”

  1. I don’t easily summarize my views on this. I do resonate some with Robin Wright’s view that it is essential to learn how to think and act like a biologist. This is actually part of my approach to coping with the massive AP Bio curriculum – I tell my students that we’ll only really learn about 50-75% of the material but in the process they will learn how to think enough like biologists to be able to reason out responses to questions on unfamiliar content. However, when I think about that 50-75% that I try to get my students to learn – I am being selective, I am chosing some “essential concepts” like evolution and what defines life (with all the incumbent ambiguities of that topic).

    Additionally, I teach a course that our district calls “College Biology” which is a dual credit course with credit available through the local junior college. I think of this course as what we speak of as a “non-majors” course and my AP classes as a “majors” course. The critical thread to me that I try to include in both classes is the creation of better citizens of the world – who have a better understanding of and appreciation for the complexities and responsibilities that come with being members of the biosphere. I want them to be prepared to think and research before making choices and decisions – in the voting booth, at the doctor’s office, at the grocery store, etc.

    And then with all this responsibility I also want to communicate my delight in and passion for the beauty of biological systems.

    So . . . bottom line, I probably straddle the line on this. I think we must select at least a few essential topics and teach them while we are also teaching some of the essentials of how to “think and act like a biologist”; however we must season our teaching with topics that may not be “essential” but which bubble up from our personal passions. There’s no way a single course – for majors or nonmajors – can really teach biological literacy. But maybe we can initiate the understanding and launch students in the direction of future growth in that literacy.

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