A 21st Century Cook Book

Will new science and math standards push inquiry-based learning into the classroom?

Forever in high school biology class, it seems, teachers have taught from last year’s notes, textbooks have doubled as doorstops, and students have plodded through lab exercises drawn more from Betty Crocker than from Francis Crick. It’s no secret that such teaching methods turn students off of science. Now, to help the nation regain its scientific stature, educators are revamping science pedagogy.

The efforts stemmed from an influential 2000 National Research Council (NRC) report, How People Learn. The authors distilled years of education research and concluded that students learn by building on what they know; they learn better if they’re interacting in a group and getting regular feedback and if they reflect on how well they understand a topic. In 2002, another NRC panel urged the College Board to revamp its Advanced Placement (AP) biology curriculum, which high school juniors and seniors must master to earn college credit.

The current AP biology curriculum has traditionally been “a mile wide and an inch deep”—a huge collection of biological facts that teaches students little about how to think critically or apply their knowledge, says Bill Wood, a University of Colorado molecular biologist and biology educator who was part of the 2002 panel. The College Board conducted its own review, agreed with the NRC, and will issue the revamped AP biology curriculum in time for the 2012–13 school year.

The new AP biology curriculum emphasizes four “big ideas” of biology: evolution, biological systems, information, and emergent properties—the idea that cells, organisms, ecosystems, and other biological systems are more than the sum of their parts. It also emphasizes seven common scientific practices that students should be able to apply, such as posing hypotheses and using models and quantitative reasoning. Curricula for AP physics, chemistry, and history will undergo similar overhauls in time for exams in 2014 or 2015.

Classes outside of AP are also undergoing an overhaul. In July, the NRC published a framework for new national science and math teaching standards, which are being developed by Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit education organization. These standards, due out in 2012, will also emphasize cross-cutting scientific practices, such as causal reasoning, the use of mathematical reasoning, and evaluating and using evidence. And they recommend teaching methods that include inquiry-based learning—in which students learn science or math by applying skills and principles from those fields to solve problems (see main story).

Wood praises both the College Board’s AP biology curriculum and the new NRC science education standards. But he and other experts point to a huge disconnect that has opened between the new, evidence-based recommendations and actual classroom practice. “This AP biology is really a fine curriculum. But are we going to train teachers to implement it fast enough to make a difference?” Wood asks. “That’s really the question on everyone’s mind.” 

-- Dan Ferber
HHMI Bulletin, November 2011

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