National Academies Press: OpenBook

The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research (2008)

Chapter: 10 Education:Learning to Think About the Elephant

« Previous: 9 How Much Can We Tell About the Past - and Predict About the Future - by Studying Life on Earth Today?
Suggested Citation:"10 Education:Learning to Think About the Elephant." National Research Council. 2008. The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12026.
Page 157
Suggested Citation:"10 Education:Learning to Think About the Elephant." National Research Council. 2008. The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12026.
Page 158
Suggested Citation:"10 Education:Learning to Think About the Elephant." National Research Council. 2008. The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12026.
Page 159
Suggested Citation:"10 Education:Learning to Think About the Elephant." National Research Council. 2008. The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12026.
Page 160
Suggested Citation:"10 Education:Learning to Think About the Elephant." National Research Council. 2008. The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12026.
Page 161

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10 Education: Learning to Think About the Elephant Life is rich and complex. Biological study requires an interaction of theories, experiments, observations, facts, technologies, and other compo- nents. Being able to predict the behavior, fate, or ecological impact of even one organism, like the elephant introduced at the beginning of this report, requires detailed information about many of its own components, its sur- roundings and history. This report suggests that we can better understand the elephant by asking cross-cutting questions than by keeping our eyes closed and grasping at one part or the other of the large and complex ani- mal. How can we learn to embrace cross-cutting questions and to increase the chances of transformative innovations? How can we learn to be self- reflective about the interplay of the many factors that make up scientific practice? How can we promote the best possible education and learning at all levels? This committee realized that it was not our charge and further that we do not have the expertise to offer specific suggestions about content, peda- gogy, textbook and other teaching materials, or learning outcomes. We do, nonetheless, point to some principles and preferred practices. Considerable research has been done on many aspects of science education, and there is wide agreement that current science education is not optimal. Too often, textbooks and standardized tests emphasize memorization of more and more facts in order to acquire content. Adding memorization of more and more theories and concepts to that mix would not help. Such an approach misses what is exciting about science and about biology and the rich di- versity of the subject matter. It would be as if we were asking students to learn about the elephant by sitting in the classroom and memorizing first 157

158 THE ROLE OF THEORY IN ADVANCING 21ST-CENTURY BIOLOGY about atoms, then genes, cells, organ systems, and only eventually—after students are completely bored—to close their eyes and be allowed to touch the elephant. We know from the best of education literature that science teaching works best when science is taught as science is done. Many excellent teach- ers show students how science is a way of knowing about the world, that it is interactive, dynamic, and exploratory, and that it draws on a mix of observations, experiments, facts, hypotheses, technologies, and theories. Everyone learns best when starting from something known and then build- ing up facts, skills, and theoretical interpretations to arrive at better, richer, and more complex facts, skills, and theoretical interpretations. Perhaps one reason biology education focuses on facts and observations is that being self-reflective about theory is harder. Another reason may be strategic, especially when discussing evolutionary theory, because of the need to avoid suggesting that evolution is “merely” a speculation, as many people interpret the term. Yet, as this report makes clear, theory is not mere speculation but a central and necessary part of science. It is important that biologists consciously and carefully embrace theory as essential and work to promote understanding of its central role. One of the core theoretical foundations of all of biology is evolution, which is a theory in the sense that it is an interpretation that provides an ex- planation of a vast diversity of established fact. In another sense, evolution can be considered a fact since it is well established that the vastly diverse living organisms are related through common descent. The theory of evolu- tion is so fundamental to understanding biology that no science education can be considered adequate unless students take away an appreciation of how evolution has shaped life on earth and how it acts as an organizing concept for biology. Students at any stage come to science with experiences and background knowledge that consist of a mixture of facts and theory. They have expecta- tions based on that experience, and they interpret their experiences in cer- tain ways. Asking new questions allows them to recognize new facts or to discover new questions that shape new expectations and theories. In many areas of biology, mathematical and computational models are increasingly important and biology students need to be trained to go beyond arguing by assertion, to use the disciplined logic essential for the implementation of formal models to determine the adequacy of their knowledge, and to generate new hypotheses. As this report has shown, science is a complex process, and education needs both to acknowledge the complexity and to teach all aspects of the science. Science education should be about learning to recognize, evaluate, and develop new theories as well as about how to test hypotheses through well-controlled experimentation, to employ ap-

EDUCATION: LEARNING TO THINK ABOUT THE ELEPHANT 159 propriate technologies, to make and record observations, and to learn and build on what are already accepted facts. The recognition of the need for a new approach to biology education is not new. In 1875, Thomas Henry Huxley and Henry Newell Martin pub- lished the first general biology laboratory textbook, A Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology (London: Macmillan and Co.) to provide an introduction to the principles of biological sciences through direct ex- perience of living systems.  The student was intended to dissect specimens to ask questions and discover how the parts are put together and how they work.  The intention was to introduce ways of thinking in science and not just a collection of facts.  In the United States, William Sedgwick and Ed- mund Beecher Wilson published General Biology in 1893 and then in 1896 introduced students directly to interactive ways of studying life. In 1923, William Morton Wheeler reiterated that biology education must focus on living systems to bring the science alive.  He pointed out that few students were choosing advanced study in biology, in large part because it was being taught badly and acknowledged that Any one of us who endeavors to grasp with his poor intellect, enfeebled by years of gyration in the academic mill, the stupendous and confusing accumulation of facts, not to mention the assumptions, fictions, hypoth- eses, theories, and dogmas that make up present-day biology, must be staggered by the difficulty of selection the most appetizing, concentrated and nourishing food for the student just entering the academic cafete- ria. . . . The difficulty is greatly increased by the fact that one and all of us are highly specialized cooks, who delight in feeding the young on the dishes we ourselves like or that mother used to make and incidentally in showing our fellow cooks what delicious messes we can prepare. (Wheeler, 1923, p. 63) To succeed with science education, as Wheeler already recognized in 1923, we need to think more carefully about how to capture students’ imagina- tion—about nature and about what science can do in studying nature.  This call for reform fits well with the exhortation to promote discovery and problem-based learning.  Whether it fits with the call to “teach science as science is done” depends on which scientists we are talking about (NRC, 1996; NSF, 1998; AAAS, 2007). We come back to our elephant. If the traditional way of studying it requires a foundation of memorized facts, then what alternatives are there? Teachers should begin from what students already know, which is experience with the diversity of life in the living world. Then education can proceed as this report does, by asking questions. Why are elephants so large? Why are baby elephants born almost two years after beginning as fertilized eggs? Why do elephants go to particular places to die? Why

160 THE ROLE OF THEORY IN ADVANCING 21ST-CENTURY BIOLOGY do elephants have the same genetic code as all other animals? What things do they eat, and does anybody eat them? If they have such big ears, why can’t they fly? These are questions born of natural curiosity, and they lead students to want to know more in order to develop answers. Such ques- tions start by embracing the complexity of biological systems and lead to discovery. The process of scientific discovery, in turn, involves observation, collection, interpretation, and theory. Life is diverse and exciting; science is diverse and exciting; science education should start from that diversity and excitement. How science education should proceed to accomplish these goals is not a problem this committee addressed. However, it seems appropriate to support further development of pedagogical approaches, educational ma- terials, and learning systems that recognize the complexity of the biological sciences and their interconnectedness to other systems. To teach science as it is really done, and to truly promote more effective teaching and learning at all levels from K-12 through postdoctoral training and faculty develop- ment, will require self-reflection about both how science works and how to learn to do it better. Too often, biology courses focus on simply presenting facts and do not adequately recognize (1) the role of theory in understanding life, (2) the connections between different subdisciplines of biology, and (3) the benefits of thinking across scales. Understanding how the interplay of theory with observation, description, experimentation, technology, principles, facts, and concepts can lead to scientific advances is an important part of under- standing biology. The discussion of the cross-cutting questions presented in this report illustrates how modern biological research already benefits from integration across biological disciplines and with other sciences and social sciences. The need for such integration will only increase if biology’s potential contribution to answering important questions and solving practi- cal problems is to be maximized. Yet most faculty and graduate students are trained in defined narrow disciplines and, with a few exceptions, the connections among disciplines are not explicit parts of their education. Developing a deep understanding of a particular area is an important goal of graduate education, but the most successful scientists will also under- stand and be able to communicate the implications of their research to those outside their area of expertise, including the general public. Biology is rich in concepts, many of which apply to multiple subdisciplines and across multiple scales (from molecule to cell to organism to population to ecosystem). Theory—in its interaction with observation, experimentation, prediction, instrumentation, and hypothesis testing—plays a key role in advancing our understanding of life and helping us to form connections between disciplines.

EDUCATION: LEARNING TO THINK ABOUT THE ELEPHANT 161 It is important to support faculty in efforts to alter courses and curri- cula in ways that are compatible with the ideas presented in this report. It would be good for undergraduate biology majors of all types and graduate students in all fields of biology to be exposed to many subdisciplines of biology and to thinking across scales of time dimension and complexity. For example, requirements to complete a major in any biology sub­discipline could include a requirement for students to take courses in other ­biology subdisciplines. Or question-based courses, team taught by biologists from several subdisciplines, could be developed. Courses could show how biology intersects with other sciences (chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, geology, engineering, and social sciences). Courses that explicitly discuss how one’s theoretical and conceptual framework affects what one chooses to observe and what tools one applies guides one’s experimental strategy and helps make sense of one’s results and will ­ allow students to become aware of the integral role that theory plays in the practice of biology.

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Although its importance is not always recognized, theory is an integral part of all biological research. Biologists' theoretical and conceptual frameworks inform every step of their research, affecting what experiments they do, what techniques and technologies they develop and use, and how they interpret their data.

By examining how theory can help biologists answer questions like "What are the engineering principles of life?" or "How do cells really work?" the report shows how theory synthesizes biological knowledge from the molecular level to the level of whole ecosystems. The book concludes that theory is already an inextricable thread running throughout the practice of biology; but that explicitly giving theory equal status with other components of biological research could help catalyze transformative research that will lead to creative, dynamic, and innovative advances in our understanding of life.

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