Every year, I take a moment to ask my 9th grade Honors Biology classes: “Why do we have to learn all this biology, anyway?” It was a question posed by a former student, and I’ve found it an important one to explore each year. Often student responses revolve around ideas such as: “we need to know biology if we want to go into medicine or science” or “because we have to take it to get into college.”
At that point, I counter these arguments by reminding them that not everyone goes into medicine, and certainly there are many people who make a great living without going to college… so why do we “make” them all take biology? For those who are still stumped, I broaden the question to ask: why do we need to learn any science, or history, or languages and culture, or mathematics? Why do we learn anything in school?
Eventually, they come to realize that they have to learn all of these subjects because it is important to understand the world around them. Through our discussion, they realize that one day they will be asked to make important decisions - medical decisions, financial decisions, decisions that affect our broader community. They will need to be able to take the information they have, analyze it, and draw their own conclusions. They come to realize that the courses they are taking now give them both the context and the skills to prepare them for that future. The context, the facts, taught in courses are important, and those facts are often what we remember learning when we think back on our own time in school. However, the critical thinking skills developed are just as important, if often less obvious.
There has been a lot of talk about critical thinking skills over the years, both in education and in the broader world. Critical thinking, the ability to draw logical connections between different ideas, to solve problems systematically, and to ask questions about our own beliefs or assumptions we encounter1, is inherent to so much of what we do in the classroom. It is interwoven not only into scientific, mathematical, historical, cultural, and moral thinking, but also leads to creative thinking. To question what you know and how you know it allows us to think “outside the box”, as it were.
We, as a school, understand the importance of developing these critical thinking skills in our students. In fact, we view it as so essential, we have developed design studio courses in collaboration with a group from Cambridge, MA called NuVu. One of the main purposes of these classes is to develop critical thinking skills in our students. In these courses, students are given a topic, asked to identify a problem related to that topic, analyze that problem, and design a solution. When designing their solution, they must look at current methods of dealing with such problems and question how things could be done differently, done better - to think creatively. They are asked to analyze their project design and process critical feedback to improve that solution. Our design studio courses put the focus squarely on helping students develop these essential thinking skills.
These realizations and others about the “why” behind taking biology are eye-opening for many 9th graders, and such discussions are always popular with my classes. They enjoy exploring the purpose behind the different areas of education, and the realization of the important tasks they face provides greater motivation for some. And even though it isn’t technically time spent learning biology, I value these discussions as time spent helping them develop their critical thinking skills.
1Lau, Joe, and Jonathan Chan. “What Is Critical Thinking.” [C01] What Is Critical Thinking?, Philosophy Department, University of Hong Kong, philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php.
Dr. Sara Fenske
Dr. Sara Fenske pursued a career in education because of her love of science and desire to share that passion with others. Knowing the impact a great education can have, Sara chose to focus on teaching and curriculum design, with a focus on continuous improvement. Currently, she is a member of the science faculty at Episcopal, and the Academic Programs Special Projects Manager. Previously, she was the science department chair and taught at Linden Hall in Pennsylvania. She has a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a PhD in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.