Archive for December, 2012

Ditch the Text. It’s Yesterday’s News.

I began teaching biology in 2008 and was given a book published in 1994 to distribute to my first group of AP students.  I recall thinking that I was 13 years old in 1994.  Could a book published at a time when I wore braces and carried a backpack that quite literally outweighed me still be an adequate teaching tool?  What I should have been thinking was how vastly different the world looked to a biologist in 1994.  Dolly the sheep was a mere fantasy, prokaryotes purportedly lacked cytoskeletons, and whole genome sequencing was in its infancy.  While the book clearly delivered basic concepts in biology, too much of its content was no longer relevant.  Moreover, omitting 14 years worth of progress in the field of biology would have been a huge disservice to my students.  A savvier instructor would have ditched the text completely.  As a new teacher, I found myself desperately clinging to the structure it provided.

Although I think the textbook’s starring role as the curricular centerpiece is nearing its finale, one cannot entirely dismiss a textbook’s value.  Teachers like textbooks because they:

  1. Provide an orderly, logical progression of topics for an entire course.
  2. Come with accompanying assessment and classroom tools.
  3. Cover a large breadth of content, which often helps ensure that courses meet curricular requirements.

Thus, for my AP course, even after the overhaul of the curriculum, I cannot envision giving up my (new) book completely. Furthermore, the iBook version of Miller and Levine‘s classic Biology text and others like it are models for all biology texts in the future.  They make excellent use of their digital platforms:

In addition to containing vibrant, interactive content, these iBook versions are also significantly cheaper than a hardcopy of the textbook.  Schools can subscribe to the book for one academic year and choose whether or not to renew the following year.  Assuming the digital books are updated frequently, this will help to keep only current texts in students’ hands.  However, even the most up-to-date textbook has drawbacks, including:

  1. Science advances rapidly, and the most relevant sources will continue to be science news and journal articles.  Even texts that are frequently updated will inevitably and swiftly become yesterday’s news.
  2. Technology teaching tools also advance rapidly, quickly rendering a text’s accompanying materials and activities obsolete.
  3. Most books survey a large body of material.  By attempting to construct courses that align with texts, teachers risk covering too much content even when it is not necessary or required.

I recall the first meeting I had with my school‘s new headmaster, Mick Gee, whose ideas about education are progressive.  He embraces change, unafraid of trying new things.   During the meeting, he inquired why I bother to use a textbook, challenging the dogma that textbooks are essential.  I teach at an independent school after all.  Why shouldn’t I take advantage of this independence?

This year I have seized this independence in my elective course, Genetics.  The students enrolled in this course have already taken at least one survey course in biology.  When I began the semester, I explained to the students that I felt no need (or pressure) to skim the surface of many topics in genetics.  Rather, I told them it was ok to spend more time on topics they enjoy.  We weren’t going to rush through things in the same way we needed to in AP Biology.  Their faces looked hopeful and relieved, setting a positive tone from the beginning of the year.

I’m happy with the course that we’ve created together.  It is undoubtably unique among high school science classes.  We’ve drawn heavily from current events, students have had a great deal of choice about what topics they explore and how they demonstrate their comprehension, and the atmosphere has been a collaborative one in which we all learn from each other.  Focusing on fewer topics has also enabled us to do a number of labs that require extensive amounts of class time.  A microarray  lab, a genotyping lab, and a Nasonia genetics lab have all been highlights.  Admittedly, since we have used our book on occasion as a reference tool, it probably isn’t fair to say that we ditched it.  However, it has moved out of the spotlight and into a supporting role in my Genetics classroom.

I hope to elaborate more about my Genetics course in future posts since we have had a productive and exciting semester. Independence feels so good!

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