Learning: It’s more than ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’

Phyllis Robinson

What do I want my students to learn? Of course, as a biology teacher, I want them to learn biological facts and concepts, and the connections between those concepts. There is an emphasis on biotechnology and molecular biology in the modern curriculum, to which I admit to having a certain fondness. But I also want them to them to look outward and learn that nature is full of the weird and the wonderful. I want them to be able to walk in the woods, identify what they see, and understand how those organisms might be linked. I want them to be able to tell the ‘carrots from the parrots’ as an old saying goes.

We all want these things, right? But what else is important? When I reflect on my classroom over the years, here’s what rises to the surface. Thinking about the day-to-day content in my classroom, I want my biology students to learn that, on a cellular level, they are really quite busy. I say this to my students frequently. The sophisticated operating systems of mitochondria and ribosomes, the delicate process of signal transduction cascades – there is so much going on in there, and the intricate dance that keeps each cell humming along is simply astounding.

Couple that with the interactions of all the cells that make up each organism, and my students’ minds are blown. I love seeing when this concept suddenly sinks in for each student – one kid’s gaze turns inward reflectively, another squirms a little in her chair as she thinks about all those cells inside. But then one face after another lights up with sudden understanding. That’s one of my favorite moments in the year. On my end-of-year course evaluation, I ask my introductory biology students what I hoped they learned this year. Many of them have answered with, “On a cellular level, I’m really quite busy!” so I guess they get it.

But that’s just the starting point. More importantly, I want my students to learn how to learn. I want them to understand that the plasticity of the human brain means that they are capable of pushing their own boundaries. A student might not understand oxidative phosphorylation – yet – but with effort and a growth mindset he can learn it (Dweck 2006)1. I want my students to understand the importance of their amygdala, which acts as an emotional switching station, leading either to a stress-induced reactive state of mind, or a reflective thinking mind that is open to learning. High stress barriers to learning (such as fear, humiliation, boredom, and obstacles in their home lives like poverty or abuse) force a person’s brain into survival mode rather than open to learning.

On the flip side, I want them to see that it is possible to circumvent these obstacles and do the hard work of learning nonetheless. As teacher, I have an important role to play here, too. Maintaining a safe environment for learning in my classroom is one key to my students’ success. Additionally, I want students to see that being forced outside of their comfort zone and into the realm “desirable difficulty” will allow them to truly learn something, since going through the hard work of making sense of a difficult concept will help them remember it better (Brown 2014)2.

I want students to see that the purpose behind my constant insistence on warm-ups that include activities such as, “Write down everything you remember about chromosomes” is a self-quizzing strategy they can and should use on their own to review. I want them to discover that learning specific facts is fun, that learning broad concepts will help them tie those facts together in meaningful ways, and that learning to interact with their peers in a socially competent manner provides important academic and social rewards in the biology classroom and throughout their school day.

I want my AP Biology students to develop the persistence that is integral to learning hard stuff on their own. I want them to feel the tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes from mastering a difficult concept that, at first, seemed impossible. Of course, there are concepts that need an explanation by a teacher before a student truly understands it (CRISPR, anyone?). But my AP kids are going off to college next year, with the expectation of more learning on their own than they ever had in high school (and in a variety of ways), and they need to be prepared. The more a student can learn outside of a formal classroom setting, the more prepared she will be for learning new skills in college, in new jobs, in volunteer organizations, and throughout her life.

But mostly I want my students to learn to love learning in general, and enjoy and appreciate biological topics as they journey along that path. Oh, and I want them to be able to tell the carrots from the parrots.

1. Dweck, Carol (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

2. Brown, Michael et al. (2014) Make It Stick. Harvard University Press

Phyllis Robinson has taught at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD, for the past 30 years. She currently teaches biology and AP Biology, and also taught 15 years of middle school math. She was a member of Cohort 3 of the AP Biology Leadership Academy, and has been an AP Exam Reader for more than a decade. She is envious of her (retired) husband who has had the time to become a Master Naturalist in their county, and looks forward to doing the same one day.