Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Designing a New Biochemistry Curriculum

I want to draw your attention to an article in the July/August 2012 issue of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education (BAMBED). The authors are Michael Klymkowski and Melanie Cooper and the title is "Now for the Hard Part: The Path to Curricular Design."
There is a growing acknowledgement that STEM education, at all levels, is not producing learners with a deep understanding of core disciplinary concepts [1]. A number of efforts in STEM education reform have focused on the development of ‘‘student-centered’’ active learning environments, which, while believed to be more effective, have yet to be widely adopted [2]. What has not been nearly as carefully considered, however, is the role of the curriculum itself as perhaps the most persistent obstacle to effective science education. It is now time to examine not only how we teach, but also what we teach and how it affects student learning.
This is an important point. Most of the science education reforms that are being proposed these days focus on style rather than substance.

In the long run, it really doesn't matter whether you are employing the very latest pedagogical techniques if what you are teaching is crap.

But we also need to recognize that there's a relationship between what we teach and how we teach it. If you want to teach scientific thinking—as opposed to memorizing pathways—then there may be superior ways to do it.
Recognizing how challenging it is to build scientific understanding requires that we recognize that scientific thinking, in and of itself, is by no means easy and is certainly not ‘‘natural.’’ We are programmed by survival based and eminently practical evolutionary processes to ‘‘think fast’’ [8]. In contrast, scientific thinking is slow, hard, and difficult to maintain. If students are not exposed to environments where they must practice and use the skills (both metacognitive and procedural) that they need to learn, they may fall back on fast, surface level answers, and fail to recognize what it is that they do not understand.
Scientific thinking (and critical thinking) have to be experienced and practiced. That means you have to make time for that in your course.

Klymkowsky, M.W. and Cooper, M.M. (2012) Now for the hard part: The path to coherent curricular design. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40:271–272. [doi: 10.1002/bmb.20614]


  1. Part of the problem is that many incarnations of student centered learning lead directly or indirectly to student designed curricula, as they pick and choose 'interesting' topics. At the university level this may not lead to disaster, but at earlier grade levels it quickly decimates any attempt at a systematic curriculum that builds strong knowledge of an entire discipline vs. understanding a particular problem. Biochemistry is a pretty good example, until a student has a pretty solid grounding in biology, chemistry, and physics it is not sensible to expect a thorough understanding of the core of biochemistry.

  2. Just watched a 2 part series on TVO* with Neurobiologist Dean Buonomano discussing how the architecture of our brain biases us to favour short term less than optimal solutions over longer term more optimal ones, in a continuing battle between instant gratification versus long term well being.

    Interesting discussion on how our associative memory works (quick, what do cows drink ?) and how it can subvert critical thinking.

    His example for a skill that can only be acquired through experience and practice was juggling, no amount of passive observation or accumulation of facts will equip one to juggle proficiently and he made the same comments with respect to critical thinking.

    * Could public television and radio like TVO and PBS be addressing a social need that religion does not provide and in fact actively works to circumvent ?

  3. There's a continual "bootstrapping" problem involved in learning. Critical thinking must be exercised, but there must be information to think *about*. Rote memorization of disconnected facts not only leaves out critical thinking skills, it makes remembering the factual material far more difficult. (I see this every day at work, where it is much easier for me and others to remember critical information we need in order to make sound judgments about how various laws affect us if we have a picture in our minds about how our business operates.)

    Rote memorization of disconnected facts is a problem, and its mirror image is building a picture without sufficient factual information to tell you the limits of that picture. The most common problem I run across when discussing law with laypersons is when people generalize too far without sufficient details. I'm quite sure you run into this a great deal yourself, Larry. (I know I've committed such errors many times in comments on this blog.)

    So yes, critical thinking is necessary in order to build a picture so that learning about a subject is more than rote memorization. At the same time, memorization (hopefully not rote, but as part of an evolving picture) of factual information is necessary to rein in and channel critical thinking appropriately.

  4. See http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/fss/2006-1214-211848/kirschner_06_minimal_guidance.pdf

  5. And: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Miller/