Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that. Named after the late John Hughes, who taught English at Commonwealth for nearly thirty years, and after recently retired Head of School Bill Wharton, who founded the original Hughes fund in 2011 and championed faculty scholarship throughout his tenure, the Hughes/Wharton Fund ensures faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones.
Though united in their zest for learning, Commonwealth students come from a striking variety of backgrounds: other independent schools, homeschooling, and public schools across the Greater Boston area. And because the school strives to meet every student where they are (and not where they “should” be), providing malleable introductory material helps usher in each new class of learners. Such was the impetus for Emma Sundberg’s recent updates to her Biology 1 class...
This summer, I created a new introductory unit for Biology 1. The driving force behind this revision to the curriculum was the observation that the pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing disparity in students’ scientific backgrounds. Traditionally, Biology 1 begins with an introduction to chemistry and experimental design. During the first weeks of the year, I also strive to instill strong study habits in students, spending time in class discussing strategies for note-taking, problem solving, and test preparation. The early material is generally presented as review, but for some students, the material is new. Students who have no prior exposure to biology struggle to implement the suggested study strategies while learning new material at the relatively fast pace with which I cover the first chapters in the course.
Vocabulary and concepts will be new to essentially all students, even those who have previous exposure to biology. This shifts the focus away from student recall of previously memorized answers and toward our year-long goal of answering biological questions by imagining the multiple ways in which a process might work and paring these options down based on logic.
To address this issue, I developed an introductory unit investigating the neuroscience of learning. We begin with the question “what is a memory?” and the different ways in which this question is answered by depictions in pop culture, by psychologists, and by neuroscientists. Students will then learn the anatomical structures of the brain in order to determine, as a class, the order in which regions of the brain are engaged as we form a memory. Drawing inspiration from a case study, we will consider memory from an evolutionary perspective, discussing why we remember and why we forget. This will lead into a subsequent discussion of the foibles of memory and whether these are in fact a boon to our species’ survival. In our last day of new unit material, we will pick apart common misconceptions about memory. As is the case with all subsequent units, this unit on neuroscience includes a lab, a graded problem set, and a test.
I anticipate that this module will provide a fresh, new topic for students. While fascinating, the science of memory is not usually discussed in an introductory biology class. Therefore, vocabulary and concepts will be new to essentially all students, even those who have previous exposure to biology. This shifts the focus away from student recall of previously memorized answers and toward our year-long goal of answering biological questions by imagining the multiple ways in which a process might work and paring these options down based on logic. Furthermore, by focusing the unit on memory formation, the content itself invites daily conversation about good practices in reading, note-taking, and studying.
The new unit is designed to introduce students to the range of skills they will employ throughout the year in classwork and on homework assignments. For example, reading notes are a key part of student learning, introducing students to the ideas that we will discuss and build on in class. This is also a skill that a number of students struggle with each year. As such, the unit includes a section of homework reading from the textbook as well as readings from other less dense texts to provide practice. In class, students will evaluate the usefulness of their homework notes in preparing them for short writing tasks and for discussion. Students will receive explicit guidance on taking notes during class—whether class takes the form of a lecture or a discussion. Lastly, our final discussion about memory misconceptions provides an ideal context to compare the effectiveness of different study techniques, right at the time when students are ramping up their studying for their first biology test.