The Heart of Effective Biology Teaching
What is at the core, the very heart, of teaching biology?
When you ask teachers what gives them the most pride (as one of us
did informally at a recent NABT conference), more often than not they
describe a special relationship with individual students. That is, they
rarely mention how successfully they conveyed the intricacies of the
mitochondria or the nitrogen cycle. Sometimes, it’s about guiding students to a higher level of awareness and appreciation – typically about
connecting to a personal or social issue. Or just personal growth. Scores
on the AP, PISA, or other standardized exam? Alas, not among the Top
10 Achievements identified by biology teachers.
By comparison, when students talk in retrospect about what they valued most in their biology course, inevitably they refer to their teacher, not
the content. Imagine that. The most memorable dimension of education
was the people, not the biology. Not the science. Not the concepts. But
the interpersonal dimension.
These primary values may seem ironic given our self-professed
commitment to teaching difficult concepts and our oft-voiced concerns
about covering the prescribed curriculum in the time available. The
values and the aims of education seem to differ sharply. How do we
resolve this tension?
We wish to endorse the values expressed by teacher and student
alike. Namely, we want to articulate and advocate a “culture of trust” as
a primary feature of any classroom. Business leaders talk about building
a culture of trust among employees, in a work setting. As Inc. magazine
columnist Marissa Levin advises, “A culture of trust yields higher engagement, happier employees, greater productivity, and higher profits.” That is
not education. But perhaps it should be? Higher engagement. Happier
students. Greater learning. That sounds OK to us.
Ironically, perhaps, fostering trust or happiness does not seem a
focus for research in science education, nor for professional development. Yet an openness toward the dynamic of teaching, including
accommodating a diversity of student values and behavior, is the starting
point of every classroom interaction. Teacher education and research
should explicitly acknowledge that social and communication skills
and open-minded, receptive attitudes are not just desirable, but also fundamental to teaching.
A culture of trust is not a concept (like mitosis or predator–prey
cycles) to convey through lecture. It is a social environment to create
and nurture. It is expressed through patterns of behavior, habits, and
teachers’ beliefs and values. Foremost, it involves caring, empathy, and
respect. We believe that most teachers exhibit these traits. At the same
time, institutional contexts seem to limit their ability to express or openly
discuss how these principles may be integral to effective education.
What can we do to change the culture of schools? A first step is to
reflect collectively on our own beliefs about the goals of biology education
and the teacher’s role. We need to share our personal experiences and
discuss them openly. Our joint understanding of the learning environ-
ment will shape our didactic posture and guide our behavior.
Further, a culture of trust involves sharing authority and acknowl-
edging some level of student autonomy – and responsibility. It means
forsaking the teacher’s apparent privilege of being the sole authority or
expert. Many teachers, we suspect, fear losing control of the classroom.
They may feel vulnerable. But “control” is only needed where the stu-
dents and teacher(s) are not in harmony or working closely together
toward shared goals. We encourage our peers to have confidence in
themselves and their ability to earn authority and respect through their
personal interactions, rather than through institutional hierarchy.
At the very least, teachers should reflect on what motivates their
students to come to school. How many sought out a biology class as
fulfilling a vital life need? School-age learners are primarily focused
on relationships. That, we contend, is where every biology class needs
to begin: developing and sustaining a fruitful mutual relationship.
If in doubt, ask students what they value. They typically report that
they respond well to teachers who are good listeners, who care about
student problems (inside and outside of school), who are empathetic
and fair, who can explain things clearly and individually, who teach
creatively, and who inspire.
In our view, a culture of trust is not just an ideal on its own. It is a
requirement for effective education. Students may successfully perform
the tasks of the classroom, but they do not genuinely learn unless they
regard the teacher as someone to learn from. The caring relationship is a
conduit for effective listening and exchange of information (free of implicit
institutional fear, that is). Disaffected students fail to really learn. They
tune out. They turn off. They shut down.
Accordingly, one of the first tasks of the teacher is to establish this
personal relationship with each student from the first day of school.
Regard each student as a whole individual, not just an anonymous
someone sitting at the desk. Time devoted to making personal connec-
tions is not a mere courtesy. It is a deep investment in learning.
Ultimately, for educators to succeed, they need strong personal relationships with students. That includes a strong sense of giving (not trying
to earn) respect. It is about spirit, not the subtleties of pedagogical technique. Accordingly, the core of biology teaching is, we claim, the heart.
DOUGLAS ALLCHIN is a historian and philosopher of science and science educator at the University of Minnesota and author of Teaching the
Nature of Science (2013). ARNE DITTMER is University Professor of
Didactics of Biology at the University of Regensburg, Germany, and
author of Thinking about Biology (2010).
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER GUEST COMMENTARY 609
Douglas Allchin, Arne Dittmer