Columns Education

Are we teaching biology well?

Subhash Chandra Lakhotia

Ever since the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900 and the emergence of synthetic theory of evolution couple of decades later, the discipline of biology continues to experience the most remarkable expansion. Its exponential growth has been especially notable during the past several decades, thanks to the very rapid progresses in the technologies available for examining and analyzing complex biological systems. The canvas of biology today has enormous expanse, ranging from the traditional descriptive morphology, anatomy, systematics etc to highly experimental physiology, genetics, cell and molecular biology etc. The emergence of genetic engineering, biotechnology, the various omics’ and the bioinformatics has made biology all pervasive in human affairs as well. Developments in nanotechnology are opening yet new vistas for biological studies. With such a wide canvas and the continuing un-paralleled growth in our understanding of the biological processes and the potential for application of this increasing information and understanding, a student of biology today has reasons to be highly excited as well as confused or even depressed about the present and the future. The learning process in class-rooms can deeply affect the excited or confused state of young minds. Unfortunately, the way biology is being taught in most places of learning seems to push the young minds more towards the confused or lost” state.

Majority of the traditional biology departments in colleges and universities continue to teach what was being taught several decades ago as if biology has ceased to be a live discipline. On the other extreme are courses that teach only the so-called molecular biology or biotechnology without much reference to basic biology (including cell biology, genetics etc). This later class of teaching programs seems to believe that the so-called classical biology” is dead and is best forgotten! Obviously both are misguided and, therefore, are producing” graduates who fail to really appreciate the vast canvas of biology and rather than feel the excitement of being at the threshold of revelation of deeper secrets of life, they either get lost on the path or just carry on with trivial issues.

The other limitation that most of the teaching programs in our universities/​colleges suffer from is the highly compartmentalized subject combinations. Generally, the bio”- and the math”-groups are not allowed to gel together. The consequences are obvious – a near complete lack of truly interdisciplinary approach to any topic of research. The inability to appreciate and understand languages of different disciplines does not allow even to wisely use the laboratory gadgets (small or big) that are becoming increasingly common and fashionable. While these gadgets are expected to make life of the investigator simpler”, in the absence of proper understanding, they may in reality bring in more complications because of the indiscriminate use without the application of mind.

The other side of the vast canvas of biology is that if one were to really teach” everything that continues to be added by researchers, burden of the enormous information would indeed flatten the recipients beyond recognition!

Obviously, we need a balanced learning process where concepts rather than the quantum of information have the priority. The big question for discussion is: how do we achieve this balance? I will share my views later.