Thursday, April 10, 2014

On the teaching of Biology

Biology is taught in India in very wrong ways.

It has always been taught like that. A boring, lifeless subject about life, where you have to draw a lot of diagrams and label them, accompanying almost all answers.

That was how biology was taught in my school. And in almost every other school in the city, it was taught similarly.

Most other cities were not notable exceptions. Students were forced to remember different organ systems, tissues and their functions in animals. Topics like photosynthesis and respiration were like doses of quinine fed to the mind. Their relevance in everyday life, their application, were never clear.

Most of us hated biology. Not so much as we hated political geography. Yet, very close to the latter.

Nobody ever told us that Biology was the show of the magic called life. No teacher ever felt the necessity.

In my middle teens, the worst patch of my life begun. That would continue for the next twelve years. But, it was in those years,  I first came to see the magic show.

The magician's name was Ajit Sengupta. And the method he followed is structuralism.

He laid the structure of the science open to us. And everything changed!

It always began with the study of the cell. How the cell developed from inanimate proto-cells through geological evolution and replication, maybe quite accidentally. How the unicellular organisms behave.

I came to know some of those unicellular organisms are practically immortal.

That the multicellular animals like us may be seen as co-operative clusters of such unicellular organisms automatically led our interest to knowing more about them.

Detailed study of the cell started.

As those cells developed in the salty water of the sea (most of the earth is still the sea water), it was natural to be curious how those cells behave with a change in the concentration of salt in the water.

That led to matching it with our personal experience of physical discomfort which comes with electrolyte imbalance. This link threw us back to the evolution of human beings from the sea animals.

We studied almost everything in biology through cells. We studied the cell for about ten months.

However, in the school, it was the regular dose of clueless tissues, functions and life cycles.

Although they were sometimes interesting in themselves (such as, the life cycle of the earthworm), we failed to associate them with any immediate purpose.

It is not normal for a teenager to feel interested in anything that he cannot use for an immediate purpose.

But, some of them appear to do that.

They score highly. They become doctors.

I just wonder which kind of doctors they would make.

Of course, some of these same teenagers who crammed and diluted, would later change their pattern of association.

But, how would we know who they are?

A genuine disrespect and apathy for the teaching professions are responsible for this.

Students do not feel interested, because teachers do not know how to teach. Teachers do not know because genuinely passionate students usually do not become teachers in school.

They do not become teachers in school because they lose scopes for further research and studies.

Of course our education system is responsible for this vicious cycle.

Today, when I feel that I could be a doctor myself, I blame this education system which forced us to hate biology in our early teens.

I also hate this social system which forced us to see a career of doctor as a way of wealth creation, and not as an art or magic just like Physics.

It is not so in most other countries. I know the school curricula in most countries of Europe. They could associate teaching with everyday life.

But, that is another story!