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The Modern Role of Biology Teaching

by Pual F. Brandwein - 1944

THE teacher of biology stands face to face with an unequalled opportunity to serve society. His difficulties in finding for biology a legitimate place in the educational scheme have in part been removed, and for the past decade or so he has felt free to draw breath and deal with the problem of determining guiding principles, aims and objectives, content and techniques, and procedures of evaluation.

THE teacher of biology stands face to face with an unequalled opportunity to serve society. His difficulties in finding for biology a legitimate place in the educational scheme have in part been removed, and for the past decade or so he has felt free to draw breath and deal with the problem of determining guiding principles, aims and objectives, content and techniques, and procedures of evaluation. But any subject whose value depends on its contributions to the personal living of the individual, and which is, therefore, designed to produce desirable changes in the individuals who will contribute to the improvement of a changing community cannot maintain itself on a pabulum of static guiding principles, content and technique.

Bernal1 and Powers2 among others clearly conceived this role of science in- a modern society. Translated specifically to encompass the field of biology, their ideas may be given expression in this way. The old biology, with a more or less rigid separation between it and the problems of society, cannot deal with social developments which require those biologic principles, knowledges, and attitudes which will provide the following:

1. A sufficient understanding of the human organism to enable those citizens who are not doctors, nurses, veterinarians, farmers, and other agents of public health or biological production to cooperate intelligently with those who are.

2. The opportunities for a practical understanding of biological method which will give the citizen the confidence to attempt the solution of problems which he has to face in his individual and social life.

It is not enough to present merely the opportunities to obtain such knowledges, attitudes, and skills; these outcomes 6f biologic education must become a part of the individual, must become an "operative content." Biology must not become a science in which an individual is exposed to a certain number of clock-hours of scientific facts, but these facts must be used. This "operative content" appears then to be a function of the use of biologic facts in contributing to the solution of the problems of the individual and the community. It is clear that first we must look to the problems—then marshal the facts we need for their solution.

Biology teaching in the past provided specialized training far in excess of the needs of the children of the community. This type of teaching, however, dealt with a content which was often so unrelated to problems of living that it became, more often than not, useless and boring and impossible to remember. For those whose curiosity and ability to absorb facts unrelated to personal living are extensive, such courses may still be desirable. However, it seems absurd to require the majority of our students to learn the complete life histories of Paramoecium, Rhizopus, and Spirogyra, including the serious study of a type of sexual reproduction of these organisms, and to memorize the scientific vocabulary involved in the classification of plants and animals when the urgent and immediate problems of personal and community living—nutrition, disease, social behavior, racism, and biological production—beg for solution. Some teachers spent precious hours teaching the relationship of the radiating canals of Paramoeciuin to the vacuole. Elsewhere others were changing world history by teaching false doctrines of racial superiority. Ignored was the need for a better understanding of health or of the meaning of adequate biological production, underscored by dust bowls and the "Okies."

Now biology teachers can provide their students with the understandings and methods which are powerful means of eradicating ills that result either from ignorance or from failure to deal with problems which the method of science places at our disposal.

The problem and the scientific method which solves it complement each other. A problem will most readily motivate the desire for solution if it is meaningful and real, and it will also be useful in demonstrating scientific method. It seems reasonable that students will most readily appreciate scientific method in their lives if they use it to solve problems which are significant and real—problems of personal and community living.

It would be presumptuous for any single person to insist that he and only he has the all-seeing eye regarding problems of living. But the important thing is not whether all the problems are mentioned, but that important problems be listed. Furthermore, the precise way or the order in which these problems are stated is unimportant; it is important only that they be stated. Some of the problems will appear to deal primarily with areas in the social studies, or in physical education, and it may be that biology or hygiene or social studies teachers, jealous of the prerogatives of their subject, will prefer delimitation of subject areas. From the social point of view it is important only that these subjects be taught by teachers competent to teach them.


Simply stated, the problems of living to be taught are the eternal ones concerned with the better life. What must an individual do to lead a happy, productive life?

Obviously, he must do a number of things, many of them out of the realm of biology. But in all his activities he is first an animal—he eats, breathes, digests, eliminates wastes—in brief, the problems of metabolism are his. So we may state one problem whose solution depends to a great extent upon the biology teacher, namely:

The problem of contributing to the well-being of the individual.

In the past years, the evidence has indicated that the problem of contributing to individual welfare was not satisfactorily solved by the community. The data on rejections in the armed forces have shown the prevalence of common ailments, some of which could have been eradicated through good health practices. They provide evidence of malnutrition in certain areas, and the examination of the dietary habits of soldiers has shown a need for information on and inculcation of desirable practices in nutrition. The failure of some soldiers to understand the nature of transmission of certain diseases, such as typhoid, hookworm, syphilis, has indicated the need for instruction.

Modern biology must accept its responsibility, therefore, of giving the citizen the information he should have about the needs of his body in order to maintain its structure and function. Whether structure and function should be taught before need, or vice versa, is of little moment here. It may suffice to state that a realization of the need will serve as an intrinsic motivation for a study of structure and function.

The citizen of a modern community must know enough to understand his body's need for clean food, balanced in its protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamin, and mineral content so that he will cooperate with his family and his community in establishing the practices which will yield him such a diet. Similarly, he should understand the need for proper physiologic practices and demand for himself and his community those practices which will give him and his children good housing, proper sanitary facilities, and playgrounds. He will want to know how to avoid the agents which would cause him pain, injury, or death; he should, therefore, have some information concerning the causes and prevention of diseases which will give him a clear insight into methods of preventing the entry of parasites.

Because health practices depend so much on proper habit formation, the biology teacher will need to help the citizen understand his own behavior. The ultimate goal in this work should not be a knowledge of the structure and function of the nervous system, but an understanding of the development of behavior (good and bad). As a result of this work, the citizen should have the understandings and practices necessary to improve those habits of learning, those habits relating to personal health, those practices relating to the more efficient regulation of personal living.

The work prior to this point has focused attention on the individual— the food he eats, the use he makes of it, his metabolism, his habits, his learning. But the individual cannot have his little corner; he is part of a community of individuals like him in the gross needs of their bodies but unlike him in countless aspects. The individual is a community of cells each working for the common good; the effect of the malfunction of any group of cells is known to us. Society has been likened to an organism composed of a community of individuals; the effect of the malfunction of any group of individuals, or any single individual, cannot help affecting the organism.

The work on behavior leads to the second major problem which the biology teacher faces, namely:

The problem of contributing to the well-being of the community.

It is immediately clear that the problem of the health of the individual is a community problem and that the problems dealt with heretofore could easily have been discussed under this heading. But if biology places itself clearly in the service of the individual and the community, then, through either one, the other is well served.

Because the citizen is a member of a community, the biology teacher will be forced to go into the behavior patterns which underlie cooperation. So vital is the matter of sound human relationships that the biology teacher must lend his subject to their furtherance. It is important to discuss the tropisms of plants and the behavior of the goldfish only if they explain man's behavior. The criterion for the inclusion of such material might very well be this! Does the elimination of the material leave more time for teaching those understandings which immediately affect the students' behavior?

The acquisition of a basis for the understanding of sound habit formation is not enough; the behavior considered must be that which is part of the student's life. He should see himself in the light of development from a dependent animal to an animal with the responsibilities of citizenship, and the responsibility for his own future development.

One aspect of behavior which is a problem of personal as well as community life, which invites emphasis because of the peculiar prevailing taboos against its open discussion, is that of sex. Possibly there is no topic which presents the kind of difficulties offered by this one. The problem, however, is a real one in most communities and the biology teacher can contribute to its solution. With some youngsters the problem of masturbation is a real one; others want to know about "necking." The biology teacher must help to convince the community that if the problem does exist, it should be dealt with as a matter of common sense. It need not be dealt with in formal presentation in the classroom, but it may be solved by parents, by counselors, by the church, by community forums. The biology teacher is a member of the community in which he teaches; he cannot close his eyes to those problems which training and necessity place within his sphere. If the peculiar constitution of the community calls for unusual extra-classroom procedures, then he must lend himself to those methods.

It is conceivable that there are individuals who have sound health habits, study habits, habits of work, habits of play, who still cannot function at their best because of false notions of superiority—racial, social, or religious. The problem exists in all its terrible manifestations; not only do men deny others a livelihood because of race, but ostracize them or kill them because of race. Even our better newspapers are contaminated with confused notions of race, nationality, and religion. The biology teacher can at least teach the basic understandings of genetics and anthropology. He can give evidence to show that special vices and virtues are not the peculiar property of any one group. He can hold up the claims of purity and superiority of any given group for examination in light of the evidence. The citizen of a democracy must understand the culture and origins of his neighbor. As he relates these to his own basic origins, he will begin to see and emphasize the similarities and understand the differences.

But such evidence cannot clearly be comprehended, cannot become part of the individual unless he has a working knowledge of heredity. And so a knowledge of the laws of heredity becomes vital, for not only is it the basis of an understanding of the characteristics of peoples, but without it the citizen cannot truly understand himself and the real heritage he will give to his children. He should know enough of the inheritance of human traits to realize the part they play in making him what he is; he should be able roughly to assess the value of the gene and environment as they mold the individual, the family, and the community. And because he depends so much on biological production, he should know the part the gene and its environment play in producing the food he eats, the clothing he wears, the medicines which cure him, and some of the implements of the civilization which fosters him.

Modern biology must not fail to contribute the knowledges, attitudes, and skills which arise from the successful teaching of genetics. A knowledge of the characteristics inherited by man and their transmission requires a thorough study of the laws of heredity, the chromosome theory of inheritance, and the more recent understanding of the place of environment in conditioning the expression of the gene.

At the same time, there is some danger in permitting students to generalize too broadly from the study of the genetics of Drosophila and maize. We need to emphasize the point that the facts of human inheritance are meager and that the statistical technique is of very recent application. Too much misinformation has been gained from the studies of the Kallikaks, the Jukes, and the Edwards. We are not yet at the point where we can assess accurately the specific contributions of the gene and the environment to more than a few (some geneticists would not even agree with this) inherited traits of man. We can, however, with some accuracy consider the effect of temperature on the expression of the genes Bar and vestigial in the development of Drosophila.

The study of reproduction becomes more meaningful against the background of genetics. But the physiology and anatomy of human reproduction should be taught. It is ridiculous to go deeply into the metabolism of the individual, his genetic constitution, and fail to give him an understanding of those activities of his body which reproduce the individual, shape the family, and continue the population line. The biology teacher is again mindful of the social taboo, but he must again realize his function. The information regarding proper sexual function, proper fetal development, must be given by some agency in the community; whether it be the teacher or another properly equipped agency is not important. It is his function as an expert in the field of living things to see to it that there are no misconceptions regarding the reproduction of that living thing which is most important to the community, e.g., the human. It is absurd to deal with the reproduction of the archegoniates and angiosperms, and the lower animal phyla and vertebrate classes, and stop short of the reproduction of the human. For the community is dependent upon the birth of individuals who can benefit from and contribute to its activities.

The concepts of heredity contribute to a clearer understanding of evolution and anthropology and will no doubt point out the nature of the successful mutation. The question of the relative importance of heredity and environment in the development of new forms and varieties becomes, however, an academic one.

From the teaching point of view, the effect of the gene on biologic production is extremely satisfying, for here the dependence of the community on the gene is easy to demonstrate. Furthermore, there is substantial agreement that those animals and plants which possess a genetic constitution which results in greater yield ought to be saved, the others destroyed.

The examples are legion. The stories of milk and butter fat production, of hardiness of the cereal grains, of resistance to disease of cattle and of food plants, of the development of new types through selective breeding are easy to understand. It is possible to demonstrate that the careful manipulation of genetic constitutions has resulted in such increased biologic production of basic' foodstuffs that no individual need be without a satisfactory diet.

But again the effect of the gene cannot be separated from the effect of the environment on its expression. The biologic production of good hay and grass for the cow with the genes for high milk production must be kept at optimum. This, in turn, depends on the maintenance of the optimum biologic productivity of the soil. The useless-ness of planting a tobacco plant with genes for three times the leaf area of the original species in soil which does not have the magnesium necessary for the production of chlorophyl, or of planting corn or wheat in soil robbed of its nutrients by poor agricultural practices, is obvious. The study of the maintenance of the biologic productivity of the soil is one of the most important functions of the biology teacher. For our present civilization literally has its roots in the soil and depends on it for food and clothing, for building materials and medicines.

When the student has had the opportunity to work with the problems affecting his well-being and the well-being of his community, he recognizes the relationship of these factors to his life span. He realizes that a productive and happy life, and a long one, depends on the multiple factors which make up his heredity and the multiple factors which make up his environment. In this light he can evaluate such varied factors of eugenics and euthenics as disease, birth rate, immigration, housing, criminality, workmen's compensation, child labor laws, wage scales, and war. The student who is trained to understand the wonder of the human organism, who can understand the parental and community care which goes into realizing the complete expression of its genes, will realize the true criminal nature of war and will collaborate more intelligently, it is hoped, in steps toward its elimination.

Our modern biology course begins to shape itself. Underlying the course is a modern concept of biology—the organism is the product of his heredity and environment. It is a unifying concept. For the trends are clear—every animal, every plant, every human being appears to be a product of heredity and environment. And the responsibility is clear—every animal, every plant, every human being can be improved by improving either its heredity, or its environment, or both. Biology teaching has a unifying principle with social scope and a recognized universal application.3

It remains for the biology teacher to make this concept count in his teaching. If he does, he can be assured that he is a factor in world progress, that he is contributing to better living.

1 Bernal, J. D. "Science Teaching in General Education." Science and Society, p. 2, Winter, 1940.

2 See the article by Professor Powers in this issue, pp. 234-40.

3 Glass, in Genes and the Man, emphasizes this cornerstone of modern biology and develops it in its important ramifications.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 45 Number 4, 1944, p. 265-271
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9296, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:28:22 AM

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