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Putting nature back into secondary biology education: a framework for integration

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

This is a summary of my paper here in the Journal of Biological Education. Message me if you are interested in reading and I can share it. Examples and resources can be found at the bottom.


While the ‘big ideas’ concept in biology education provides an orientation for identifying the core of our subject it does not provide an organising principle for curriculum design. Consequently, it may not be that useful for practising teachers. In my paper I offer an organising principle.


Why is a framework needed?


Since the 1950s biology has searched evermore to lower levels of organisation for explanation. Lower levels (such as the molecular, and cellular) have also been prioritised in biology education and take the prime positions in carefully sequenced curricula. Consequently, the organising principle has drifted to sequencing by levels of organisation.


Curriculum design is not about the layering of content, but about enabling students to find meaning in the content they learn. It’s about developing a way of seeing. It’s about developing mental models, cognitive organisation, and patterns of thinking that are not lost when the content fades with time.


What does this mean for biology education?


In my paper I argue that the nature of human perception and experience of life means that understanding in biology begins, and centres around the whole organism. Physiology, development, cell biology, and enzymes cannot be isolated from the organism in its environment lest they lose meaning for our students.


The central tenet of the framework is the seeing of all biological content through the lens of the most meaningful level to humans: the individual organism. To make meaning in biology is to see and begin with the whole organism and ask questions about how it lives in its environment (its autecology), how its systems contribute to its needs (its physiology), how it came to be (its development), and why it is the way it is (its evolution).


Nevertheless, modern biology curricula are dominated by physiology and their contents are segregated. Levels of organisation are treated as study areas in themselves so that cells are studied as isolated components, enzymes and molecules equally so (Moore-Anderson 2021, also see my blog post here). This results in much rote learning and the general idea that biology is just a lot of content to remember.


Furthermore, the areas of biology that give it its identity and meaning, evolution and ecology, often get compressed at the end of upper secondary courses due to the following of exam specifications. But exam specifications are reference material, and are not intended to inform teachers on how the contents can be learnt meaningfully.


Biology looks ever more like an education on how your body works, and how we can engineer nature or the body, rather than seeking to understand the deep patterns of nature.


The framework


I propose a framework for teachers that puts topics on physiological-developmental systems back into nature. I make these three principal arguments (which are supported in the paper):

  1. It is at the level of the organism that students will find learning most accessible and meaningful.

  2. It is at this level where organismal systems & traits, ecology, and evolution most clearly convene, allowing students to make sense of how they are connected, and allowing teachers to integrate the three more easily into topic design.

  3. By situating organismal systems within ecology and evolutionary thinking, the number of concrete examples afforded to ecology and evolution increases vastly.


Finally, but more tentatively, by using an integrated framework of topic design, students may build a disposition for a similar pattern of thinking when experiencing nature themselves.


Below is an image of the framework, which is designed to be used when physiological-developmental systems are the focus of learning.



The framework is for topic design, but it may change the feel of the whole curriculum. Why begin biology with lower levels of organisation, when meaning-making is at the level of the individual? Rather than squash ecology and evolution at the end of a course, why not let them establish the course and then permeate and transcend it?


To show this, the image below presents a simplified curricular sequence of a typical GCSE biology course, compared to what is proposed in the paper. Notice how cell biology is now contextualised within physiology rather than isolated.

Using the framework


The bulk of current biology curricula focus on physiological and developmental systems of the organism, especially in the human. The framework intends for learning to put these systems into biological context. Let me take the example shown in the framework above and discuss how I see it in the classroom.


The contemporary physio-developmental quadrant


When studying the digestive system of humans, the content will typically be learnt without reference to evolution, ecology, or other organismal examples. It would be a topic of how your body works. The word contemporary has been chosen to represent biology as it is today, without referring to its evolutionary past. This quadrant is the main focus of the topic.


The contemporary ecological quadrant


However, the topic can be put into ecological context by discussing with the class how the omnivorous digestive system affects the distribution of species compared to more specialist feeders. Part of the success of human expansion and dispersal is due to their eclectic diets, which can be compared with the other apes and their relatively restricted distributions, for example.


The evolutionary physio-developmental quadrant


Many teachers might be wondering exactly how evolution can be easily integrated into every topic, without simply stating that the systems being studied have been selected for. There are two ways: Trait spectrum cases, and comparative biology. Comparative biology with selected examples open up the conversation to wonder why, why are these two systems different and how are they similar. What's the evolutionary reason?


Comparative biology, such as comparing diagrams of the digestive tract macrostructure of humans with those of mammalian carnivores and herbivores, allows students to see the deep patterns found across life despite the varying surface features. While providing opportunity for evolutionary thinking. It also extends learning beyond just learning how the human works.


It allows the student to discern the same biological patterns within varying contexts. For example, discerning the deep patterns of gas exchange surfaces across not just human lungs, but also amphibian skin, and even bat wings.


By incorporating comparative biology, the whole curriculum opens up to become an array of examples that present the deep patterns, and also a vastly increased exposure to non-human species, beyond the handful of canonical examples found in topics such as evolution.


The evolutionary ecological quadrant


Finally, the framework is complete with a discussion of why these different (compared) systems have evolved. A discussion of natural selection, of the pressures that may have been present to lead to these adaptations.


Rather than natural selection being a rote learnt component of the course, it permeates it. Rather than just some other content, it becomes a central model of thinking for solving evolutionary problems in nature.


Below you can find a table of examples for Human biology, but by reading the full paper you will find more tables with examples, and more details about how to implement integrated topics.



Written and designed for teachers


The framework is not all or nothing. It is designed with the current curriculum and the current teachers in mind (mainly in the English context but is generalisable). Teachers can use the framework to inform their entire curricular design, or just for a single topic (such as the digestive system).


Content overload has been considered and discussed, and the framework does not necessarily add more to the curriculum. It may result in more time here and there, maybe extra discussion, but it is not extra content, as the central focus is on the patterns being studied that are already part of the curriculum.


With its continual use, with the framework at the heart of the curriculum, we may change the way our students see biology and nature. We may change their gaze, developing a biologist’s disposition for an integrated view of life. A biologist's gaze.


This really is a short summary; if you're interested in the full argument and details for the framework's implementation then read the full paper: here. If you're interested in reading and do not have access to academic journals (i.e. most teachers), then get in touch.


Below I provide some examples and resources for teachers to understand the framework more, but also find much more in the actual paper.


Resources & Examples of the framework in practice


Resources

  1. My current IB biology (KS5) curriculum sequence using the framework of my paper.

  2. My current IGCSE biology curriculum sequence using the framework of my paper.

  3. Example booklet for my IGCSE of the first few topics of the course; organisms, evolution, and ecology, following my framework. Sorry, no answers to the questions.

Supporting blog posts

  1. How I design with low workload a course that doesn't follow the exam specification.

  2. How to embed natural selection in one of my blog posts.

  3. Example of the framework in use for SA:V in one of my blog posts.

Examples from other teachers (a growing list)

  1. Brett Kingsbury's blog post on the story of organisms and their evolution being at the heart of the curriculum


Acknowledgements

As in the paper, I'd like to thank those who have supported and encouraged me through the long process of developing my ideas, writing the paper, and improving it. Thank you Alex Sinclair, Brett Kingsbury, Martyn Steiner, Fabio Di Salvo, Lauren Edwards, Kostas Kampourakis, and the regular readers of my blog posts.


Christian Moore Anderson

@CMooreAnderson (follow me on twitter)


Follow this link to my other blog posts



References


Moore-Anderson, 2021. Designing a curriculum for the networked knowledge facet of systems thinking in secondary biology courses: a pragmatic framework, Journal of Biological Education, DOI: 10.1080/00219266.2021.1909641


For an integrated framework I looked to the biology educational literature in several areas to bring them together into a new synthesis. For example:

  • For the area of ecology education I looked closely at the research of Ola Magntorn.

  • For physiology & development education I considered the research of Marie-Christine Knippels and the literature on systems thinking (see also Moore-Anderson, 2021).

  • For the area of evolution education I took influence from the prolific research of Ross Nehm. Kostas Kampourakis's own work and his edited books show their influence also.

  • In the area of pedagogy, a large influence came from Ference Marton's Variation Theory.

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