Teaching Biology

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High School Biology with Living Books – Teaching Biology by Jamie McMillin

In an ideal world, our kids could all have a science teacher like Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus” series. Shrinking to the size of plankton or a virus, time traveling to the age of dinosaurs, rocketing into the solar system, exploring the Amazon rainforest – what kid wouldn’t fall in love with science after all of that? Ms. Frizzle never lectured, she hinted. It was up to the kids to find the answers and solve their problems. Her only advice was “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

Ms. Frizzle’s adventurous methods are the epitome of “inquiry based” science education as envisioned by the National Academy of Sciences. For a thorough description of their standards, see this link: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4962

The problem with this type of science program for both public schools and home schools is the amount of time, energy and enthusiasm required of the teacher. If you are already a scientist by profession or hobby – great! Your devotion to the subject will do more than any prepackaged curriculum could possibly do for your student. If you have access to a science museum or nature center with energetic staff members, try to take advantage of that. If they don’t already offer classes, ask them about it. Many parents have been able to arrange special classes for home schooled kids using equipment and facilities that are hard to duplicate at home (microscopes, planetariums, tide pool tanks, etc…).

Those of us who are not scientists and can’t find any are left in a quandary. Scientific literacy has become a national priority, but there’s not enough Ms. Frizzles to go around. There’s always textbooks – but who ever got excited about science from a textbook?

I believe Charlotte Mason had the best solution. Most homeschoolers are already familiar with Ms. Mason’s gentle approach to learning. If not, here is a good description: http://www.squidoo.com/CMbasics She recommended “Living Books” instead of textbooks or patronizing children’s books. Living books are those that are written with literary power by an author passionate about their subject. In the absence of a live scientist, we can at least capture some of their knowledge and zeal through their written works.

Fortunately there are LOTS of good science books to choose from! The hard part is narrowing the list down to a manageable level while covering all the topics recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Here is the basic list of topics for Life Sciences in grades 5 through 12:

The cell
Reproduction and heredity
Molecular basis of heredity
Regulation and behavior
Biological evolution
Populations and ecosystems
Interdependence of organisms
Diversity and adaptations of organisms
Matter, energy, and organization in living systems
Behavior of organisms

Notice that this list includes evolution. Many Christian home schooling families decide to teach only creation based biology and there are already plenty of vendors supplying creation based curriculum materials. In fact, it was hard for me to find any home school biology materials not based on creationism.

From my point of view, the whole creation vs. evolution debate is a great way to approach the study of biology. Nothing spurs interest like controversy. Reading opposing viewpoints is also an excellent way to practice critical thinking: Who is the author? What is their background? Who is funding their research? Let’s find that study or those statistics. What is missing from this argument? Is this an assumption or a fact? My list of resources is admittedly weighted on the evolution side, but it would be easy to add more books favoring creationism.

But – you may be asking – won’t this confuse kids? Shouldn’t we just teach them one way or the other (whichever way we think it is)? Perhaps, if this issue is very important to you. Otherwise – How boring! Science is supposed to be about inquiry – finding out how the world works. Kids are too often placed in the position of accepting pre-digested bits of information, advice and opinions from adults. Why not let them figure something out for themselves? This is a particularly rich topic for discussion and thought because there is so much conflicting material.

In addition to living books and discussion, science students do need to spend time in direct observation. Charlotte Mason never intended books to take the place of inquiry in science, or natural philosophy as she called it. In Chapter XVI of Home Education, she writes:

“He [the student] must live hours daily in the open air, and, as far as possible, in the country; must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant. He must be accustomed to ask why – Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him. Above all, when you come to the rescue, let it not be in the ‘cut and dried’ formula of some miserable little text-book; let him have all the insight available, and you will find that on many scientific questions the child may be brought at once to the level of modern thought.”

So don’t just sit inside reading. Go outside, take field trips, collect specimens, take pictures, sketch in a nature notebook, and “Get messy!”

Please follow this link to see a list of books and resources we used to cover high school level biology. You should consider customizing this list to match your own child’s interests. If your teen is interested in forensics, archeology, horses, coral reefs or whatever – you’d be amazed how many high quality books you can find on those subjects that cover the necessary biological concepts.

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