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The Need for a Core, Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Curriculum in the Middle Grades

by Craig Heller - 1993

Campaigns to improve adolescent health must involve schools, focusing on middle grades. Currently, school organization is poor, with too little good curricular material for such students. The article describes Stanford University's interdisciplinary, core, middle grades curriculum in human biology that combats alienation from science by making it interesting to adolescents. (Source: ERIC)

The following articles are edited versions of speeches presented at “Crossroads: Critical Choices for the Development of Healthy Adolescents, " a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, Washington, D. C., April 12-14, 1992.

Any campaign to improve adolescent health must involve the schools to be successful. Why should we assume that schools have to be a major player? Remember the retort of Willy Sutton when he was asked why he robbed banks? He replied, matter of factly, “Because that’s where they keep the money.” We have the broadest access to young people in the schools. In addition, the schools have an enormous infrastructure with a professional staff that gives us the opportunity, at least for some of the time, to isolate youth from harmful, stressful, social environments. Through the schools we have the best chance to present useful knowledge to adolescents to help them make meaningful and wise life decisions. Schools also provide opportunities for adolescents to encounter positive role models and to develop productive relationships with peers.

The importance of the schools in the promotion of adolescent health and well-being and in the production of fully functional adults is emphasized by consideration of the costs and consequences incurred when schools fail. Studies published by the Children’s Defense Fund show that currently one out of seven students drops out of school. The demand for unskilled, poorly educated laborers in our society is declining. A dropout is twice as likely to be unemployed, and seven-and-a-half times more likely throughout his or her lifetime to be on welfare. A male dropout earns about $300,000 less in his lifetime, and pays about $80,000 less in taxes in his lifetime. Simply from the standpoint of costs of lost productivity, the grand total- the cost to the nation of one year’s class of dropouts—is about $300 billion.

Because the unemployed frequently do not have health insurance, the additional financial burden of health-care costs increases the $300 billion figure. On the whole, the lower socioeconomic levels of our population have less health insurance and greater health problems. It can be argued that the roots of these costly problems are, to a large extent, in our failure to educate our adolescents. In this age group in particular, less education results in development of less healthy life-styles and greater prevalence -of problems with drugs, violence, and, of course, unplanned pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy is a special case in point. We currently spend over $20 billion a year on welfare to families started by teens. Teens are much more likely to have low-birth-weight babies, and the health-care costs of a low birth-weight baby during its first year can be on the order of $400,000 to $500,000. On a cost basis alone, ignoring the social, emotional, and personal tragedies of poor adolescent health, we must keep students in school and use the educational system to promote healthy lives and choices.

Efforts to solve these enormous problems must have a prime focus in the middle grades. Students come into the middle grades (grades six through nine) somewhat naive, somewhat malleable. They still seek adult attention and guidance. Their learning curves are steep; they are capable of a lot. In general, they are capable of much more than we currently expect of them and inspire in them. Yet it has to be recognized that adolescence may be a time of turmoil. This is amply documented in Fred Hechinger’s Fateful Choices.1 Adolescents are going through the travails of puberty and experiencing the dominant influence of peer pressure in their lives. They are exposed to increased opportunities for high-risk behaviors. Because their needs are not understood or addressed by the educational system and available support systems, they become progressively alienated from school and more likely to become tuned-out and turned-off as they enter high school. The cost of salvaging an alienated individual in high school is great, and the probability of success is very low. The situation is summarized concisely by a quote from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development’s report Turning Points: “Middle grade schools—junior high, intermediate, and middle schools—are potentially society’s most powerful force to recapture millions of youth adrift, and help every young person thrive during adolescence. Yet all too often these schools exacerbate the-problems of young adolescents.“2

Why are we doing poorly? One reason is school organization. To a large extent, middle-grade schools, especially junior high schools, remain organized along the lines of high schools. They are assembly lines for the efficient delivery of education in discipline-bound packets. At fifty-minute intervals students shuffle down hallways to individual classrooms where different teachers attempt to add discretely different pieces to the product. Unlike the well-designed factory, however, insufficient attention has been paid to how well the parts fit together, how durable they are, and how firmly they are attached. All too often, the product that comes off the middle-grades assembly line is a dysfunctional collection of parts with no engine and an erratic steering mechanism.

The assembly-line organization of middle-grades schools balkanizes knowledge and destroys the interconnectedness that young people are trying to find. They are asking for the relevance of information, one body to another, and to themselves. The very structure of the schools obscures interconnectedness and relevance. Organization of curriculum along strict disciplinary lines sets some students up for failure. If a student does not do well in one discipline, that student sinks or swims in that one classroom with that one teacher. When information is connected through interdisciplinary presentation, a student can always excel in one area and the resulting positive reinforcement helps him or her to improve in other areas as well. Interdisciplinary organization of schools creates networks of caring adults that are more effective in helping students succeed than individual teachers working alone can ever be.

The assembly-line model is also not optimal for dealing with the behavioral problems of this age group. Peer pressure and role models are highly significant influences on adolescents. Too often the school organization precludes meaningful contact with teachers and the establishment of positive peer groups working on school-related issues. The structure of the schools is something that is not working in our favor.

Fortunately, there are significant ongoing efforts to improve school structure for the middle grades. Over the past decade a strong middle-school movement has developed that seeks to reorganize the middle grades using the middle-school philosophy, which promotes core curricula, team planning and teaching, and active engagement by the learner.

Another serious barrier to improving the educational experiences for adolescents is the inadequacy of existing curricular materials. You may ask, “How can it be claimed that our school materials are poor? Just look at the books we have in the middle grades. They’re beautiful, full color, glossy books. These are the best that money can buy.” But, when you look inside many of these glossy, beautiful books, a different perspective emerges. In the life sciences, they tend to be well-illustrated vocabulary lists presenting watered down high school-level materials. The interesting relevant material is omitted, leaving behind the vocabulary words enmeshed in vapid text.

Problem-solving skills are not emphasized. Most importantly, the materials covered are not relevant to adolescent experience. Important but sensitive information is left out. Students view these texts as dull. A vicious cycle is created. Students are not necessarily interested in life cycles of liverworts and mosses. Therefore, they do not learn about the life cycles of liverworts and mosses, and as a result do poorly on tests. The tendency is to assume that students cannot learn such difficult concepts so the texts are watered down even more. Adolescents are capable of more complex learning and higher-order thinking skills than we expect but we have to get them interested and “turned on.”

An extremely important issue is that current curricular materials on health-related information are minimized and marginalized. Since this subject is not integrated into the mainstream of science or social science curricula, it is trivialized for consideration by young people.

Adolescents face increasing opportunities for and pressures to engage in high-risk behaviors. They are forming attitudes toward life-styles that will have enormous impact on their health and well-being for the rest of their lives. Many will not receive more life-science education beyond the middlegrades level. It is frightening to think that adolescents are making life-determining and life-threatening decisions armed with the level of information they currently receive in middle-grades curricula. The materials now available in the schools to deal with the serious health and behavioral problems of adolescents are grossly inadequate. Fateful Choices presents the results of a survey of teachers showing that a high percentage think that sexually related topics should be presented in the middle grades, but only a small percentage of schools in this country do so.3

At Stanford University, we have mounted an enormous effort with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the National Science Foundation to create a two-year, interdisciplinary, core, middle-grades curriculum in human biology. The purposes of the Hum Bio curriculum (as we call it) are to combat disaffection and alienation from science by making science interesting to adolescents, while at the same time using science to build a relevant knowledge base—information that young people can use even if they never take another course in biology in their lives. Health and safety issues are integrated with the science, and studying human behavior helps the student to build decision-making skills. The human organism and the adolescent in particular is the focus of study and the vehicle for teaching the various aspects of life sciences. Does our focus on the human and on the adolescent and our inclusion of behavioral sciences mean that we teach less science than a standard life science curriculum? We believe the opposite is true. We can teach more biology, not less; we can challenge the students more once we capture their interest and their commitment. A committed, engaged student can be expected to learn and retain more. It is not necessary to teach genetics by starting with Mendel’s pea plants. You can start with human genetics and get the students interested in sex determination and genetic diseases they have heard about such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. It is important to lead with topics that adolescents find interesting and relevant. You do not have to teach about life cycles by starting with mosses and liverworts. Biology does not have to begin by tiptoeing through the phyla. Adolescents are interested in themselves. We can capitalize on that simple fact to get their attention and get them tuned in and turned on to school.

An extremely important aspect of the Hum Bio curriculum is the integration of information on behavioral sciences, biological sciences, and safety and health. These topics are not simply brought together between the same two covers, but the interconnections are emphasized in each unit. For example, when we teach the nervous system, we teach about drugs. When we teach about heart and circulation, we teach the effects of fatty foods, cholesterol, and stress. One unit in the Hum Bio curriculum is “Your Changing Body.” It begins with the descriptive information of what happens during puberty. Then information on hormones and their roles in puberty is presented, including the menstrual cycle. Lastly the unit deals with the conscious experience of going through puberty, including feelings about body changes, gender, and attractiveness. Dieting, anorexia, and steroid abuse are discussed. The important point is that the focus is on issues of great concern to adolescents and through responding to that concern we are able to convey a great deal of information about the biology of hormones as well as important information about relevant behavioral and health issues.

The Hum Bio curricular materials are highly interactive and oriented around activities. Every page of text asks for student response. These are not simply fill-in-the-blank questions, but mini-activities. Calculate how much blood your heart pumps per hour; find the blind spots in your field of vision; create a scenario in which an adolescent’s wish for independence conflicts with parents’ or guardians’ standards. Each response requires engagement with the materials. Every unit has a core of essential activities, but many more activities are available as supplements to the student text. For example, Table I presents the unit organization for “Nervous System: Mission Control.” This text, designed for a three- to four-week period of time, is organized around the key ideas listed on the left. Class activities separate from the text are listed for each part of the text. Those in boldface are considered essential to the unit and the others are recommended, giving the teacher a rich selection. None requires sophisticated equipment. Some activities are designed as complex instruction modules for those teachers who like to use this mode of learning. Suggestions are made for in-depth projects.

The activities in Table I illustrate that even though Hum Bio is primarily a life-sciences curriculum, it builds connections to other areas as well. Mathematics and physical sciences are abundantly represented in the nervous system unit activities. In other units, language arts and social studies are incorporated extensively. Our goal is to create maximum opportunity for creation of diverse teacher teams and a set of materials around which a core curriculum can grow.



The unit outline for the nervous system does not seem to reflect the claim made above that the best way to teach about drugs is to integrate that information with learning about the brain. In fact, embedded throughout the unit, wherever appropriate, are references to the actions and effects of drugs. This coverage is then extended in a companion unit, “The Effects of Drugs and Alcohol.”

In the Hum Bio curriculum we bring biology together with issues of health and wellness and also issues of behavior. Our effort has been to capture the interest of adolescents and to address their concerns. Through hands-on problem-solving approaches we hope to enhance learning and strengthen decision-making skills. The outcome of an improved, relevant information base and more highly developed decision-making skills should be that adolescents will make wiser choices about their lives. It is hoped that the Hum Bio curriculum will contribute to decreasing alienation from school in general and science in particular. The challenges ahead are great, however. To implement this curriculum will be an enormous job. Teachers must get excited about the possibilities; they will have to receive new and additional education. They will have to learn to cooperate with each other and to team effectively in an interdisciplinary approach. We are confident that teachers will respond well to these challenges. Teachers have been integrally involved in all stages of the development and testing of the-Hum Bio curriculum, so we are confident the materials are responsive to their needs and will be “user-friendly.”

My sense is that teachers recognize the need for new materials such as the Hum Bio curriculum, but greater barriers will be administrators, school boards, and state policymaking bodies. Getting the broad base of support necessary for implementation will be a challenge because the Hum Bio curriculum is quite different from traditional fare. Some units will be viewed as controversial, but they are needed. Most units will require major changes in the way schools and teachers currently work. The time will come when we will need the help of many diverse individuals and organizations to get Hum Bio into the schools. But we absolutely must change life-sciences education in the middle grades in this country, because it is our best hope for improving adolescent health and well-being.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 3, 1993, p. 645-652
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 166, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:11:31 AM

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