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CELS Talk

CELS IV Keynote Address


What Does It Mean To Teach Biology
and How Do We Know We Have Done It?


Mark Wm. Dubin
Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
University of Colorado, Boulder

For about 350 years the dominant intellectual paradigm has been Cartesian 'Modernism': that which is to be known is separate from and independent of the one doing the knowing. The world is an object to be dissected, made up of data-like facts that can be discovered using rational means. From this we arrive at the familiar concept of content-focused/delivery-based teaching.

Recent philosophies explore the idea that although there is objective reality, the knower is necessarily a part of the known. One constructs--as opposed to discovers--information about a world with which s/he is intimately connected. Meaning is only brought into being by this knower/known interaction. This humanistic, relativistic view leads to the concept of a student-focused/active-learning process, recognizing that the word-root of education, 'educare', means to 'draw out.' Teaching involves connecting new experiences not with ignorance but with previously formed concepts. Teachers help this process of continually reshaping and extending connections by using their caring and wisdom to provide pedagogically relevant experiences for their students.

Biology, like every discipline, is a fundamental habit of mind and a way of organizing the world around us. It is a set of filters and metaphors with which we create the very order we are seeking. It is no accident that the '-logy' in biology comes from the root 'logos' which can be translated as 'The Word.' Similarly it is worth noting the root 'profess' in the title 'Professor', and the concept of 'disciple' in the learning of a 'discipline.' We are not purveyors of facts. When we best accomplish our task we Profess our living relationship with The Word to our Disciples. The habits and language that we call biology are a set of organizing concepts--evolution, cellular organization, form/function, behavior, ecosystems, and more--that we hope become a living part of our students' relationship with the world.

It is hard to measure and quantify success in these endeavors. Because the outputs are amorphous and take long times to germinate and grow we concentrate too often on our inputs, on the quality of our teaching methods. Or, in efforts to objectively quantify we use tests of factual recall, the value of which is questionable.

Better--and more difficult--assessment procedures ask: What new thing can you do? Such pragmatic, authentic evaluation examines ability to use what is learned, ability to produce a new synthesis, and listens to the new voice that has been attained. Students can be asked to demonstrate a critical reading of a journal article, to design an experiment, to carry it out, or to teach something to someone. There are no correct answers. Assessments of these real tasks are not neatly quantifiable, but are more like making the ready distinction between a drizzle and a downpour. Nonetheless, they are basic demonstrations of connection, of quality of mind and of intellectual integrity.

In the end, assessment notwithstanding, teaching is an act of faith, faith in our students' abilities to learn by trying, not by just hearing. And, faith that our task is directed into the future, because, as John Dewey says,

"The result of the educative process is capacity for further education. We know we have truly succeeded in teaching Biology when we have evidence that we have connected the student, made him or her capable not only of understanding, but doing something with, the knowledge we uncover by teaching."