Columns Education

Teaching biology

L S Shashidhara

When Ron Vale asked me to write for Indiabioscience, I was wondering what I would write about. I looked at few blogs already written by others. Variety of topics have been covered, while some are specific to biology, most related pursuing science in India. Many responders to these blogs have expressed their confusion about Indian system(s) of science education and research. I can’t blame anyone. Indian system is complex and there is more confusion than clarity.

I thought I would write something about what is topical in India since the beginning of 21st century: science education, facilitating high quality of research and interdisciplinary science. Ron Vale, Vijay and Subhash Lakhotia have already written on topics directly or indirectly related to these issues.

Teaching Biology:

Sometime ago, I wrote an article for Teacher Plus” on how to make biology teaching more contemporary. Looks like the bigger question is how to make biology teaching more exciting and meaningful. Most students complain that biology is too descriptive, boring and often does not make any sense. True, how do you convince a 12- or 14-year old kid the importance of knowing the differences between an urceolate flower vs salver form flower? When I was in school, it was a nightmare to remember classes of Aestivation (and of course, I had to remember the term Aestivation itself!) or parts of human heart such as Brachiocephalic veins or superior and inferior vena cava. 

While how to teach is a big question for all subjects, what to teach is also an equally bothering question for biology teachers. Due to the hype on biotechnology/​genetic engineering, the emphasis has been on replication, transcription and translation. Properties of a biological system, more likely than physical or chemical systems, changes once we start reducing it to its smaller components (irreducibility of a complex system). While reductionist approach is important to understand the structure and mechanism, the story is incomplete unless the phenomenon is studied at the systems level. Without sufficient understanding, for example, of host-pathogen interactions at the systems level how can we predict epidemics or therapeutics against swine flu or bird flu? 

There are many victims of our highly reductionist approach to biology. Ecology, population, organismal and even cell biology are not taught with sufficient emphasis. Over the decades, we have lost experts, who could talk about plant/animal-environment, plant-plant and plant-animal interactions, animal behaviour, bio prospecting, and many such knowledge domains. True, one person can’t represent the entire breadth of biology. That is why we need large number of people, each with expertise in different domains of biology. Meaningful collaboration amongst ecologists, population, organismal, cell and molecular biologists is important to make biological research and teaching more meaningful. 

Although this discussion is about what to teach” than how to teach”, one question that is pertinent here is, should our approach to biology be synthesis or analysis. Should we teach molecular biology of the cell or cell biology of molecules?