My first experience teaching Advanced Placement Biology was likely not much different from many of yours. Even as a student teacher, I was eager to work with AP students and my “rockstar” mentor teacher. However, my excitement quickly faded as I realized that as visionary as my mentor was, her AP course was more about covering material than teaching students.
When my time in front of a class came, I did as she had shown me. I tried to tell her story her way, word for word, slide for slide – and it flopped. Horribly. I tried to teach like her and didn't deviate from the script. Frustrated that I didn't get to tell my story, I told her I wanted to try to teach differently. She wrote in my evaluation that doing so would compromise her ability to prepare her students. I was devastated. I couldn't believe that the wonder I saw on the faces of students in other classes had to be stifled in AP. In this capstone course, why couldn't we allow students to be curious, to make mistakes, and to wonder? I almost gave up on AP.
Fast-forward three years. The place was Clemson, South Carolina, and my first AP Reading. As an intimidated, small-town girl who had only been teaching AP a few years, I worked hard to contain my excitement at being among so many AP Biology “legends.” I realized quickly that the AP community was not what I had expected. There was no air of seniority. No belittling the greenhorn newbies. This community was the real AP that I had been looking for all along. I came to understand that “real” AP transcends assigned readings and dense PowerPoint slides. The Reading was and is about the students whose work, sweat, and tears led to the exams I would be holding in my hands. It was clear to me that every essay represented a student, and that my kids were not only my kids, they were every AP teacher's kids. I thought that perhaps I shouldn't give up on AP quite yet.
The AP Biology community, of which I am now a part, has a palpable, collective identity. We come together for extended periods of time with a common purpose and we do so for our students. In the words of one long-time friend and mentor, AP Biology is much more than a course or an exam. AP Biology is a social movement. One e-mail or request on social media, and a whole army of teachers is there to help.
But many challenges remain. In 1996, the National Research Council's book Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards stated that “inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science.” Yet, in 2016, we are still struggling to incorporate authentic inquiry-based experiences. We are afraid to step off the precipice of hundreds of years of history in didactic instruction!
With so little inquiry practiced in today's science classrooms, we still clearly struggle to let students tell their story to drive their learning.
So, why did my mentor teacher, so many years ago, resist authentic inquiry in her classroom? First, promoting authentic inquiry in the classroom is hard. It requires confidence and a shift in control. It takes time, money, and support. Second, the reality is that, in AP, the exam drives the course, and long ago many teachers thought that for their students to do well, there wasn't time for inquiry. I recall questioning myself whenever I would tell a student, “That's a great question! We'll talk about that during our next chapter.” What was I thinking?!? Those moments when a student asks a question we may not have expected are potentially some of our most teachable moments! This is when students share their story, and when their story drives their learning.
Today, the redesigned AP Biology course emphasizes inquiry-based learning in which students are encouraged to tell their stories each and every day. The course empowers students to fail, and to harness those failures. AP Biology is truly about doing biology. The course encourages curiosity and is a place where teachers work to build articulate, creative scientists. The new exam focuses on applying skills to the content and using what students do to infer what they know and understand. The result? AP students who can ask (and tackle) questions with answers that can't be found quickly online.
We are at a watershed moment in biology education. AP may have been the first large-scale course to codify the ideals of inquiry-based learning with a skills-based assessment. But AP is not the only voice in this movement. NGSS in the K–12 arena and Vision and Change in the postsecondary world both enumerate the goals of science instruction while empowering learners to move beyond biology as an exercise in memorization. The Introductory Biology Task Force, established by NABT, has brought together biology educators from high schools, community colleges, and universities to think about how AP, Vision and Change, and NGSS can be used to integrate biology education principles. While this is terrifically challenging, I am deeply excited to see it happening, and to have a seat at the table. And I hope the changes in AP will likewise inspire change throughout the K–16 biology instructional continuum.
Here is what I believe.
I believe the AP teacher community can continue to affect change. And I trust in the power of this social movement and its ability to ensure that each and every student does biology each and every day. I also know that not only is my faith in AP fully restored, but my faith in the role and future of biology education has never been stronger.
Finally, I believe we all can contribute to this revolution in one simple way. We can challenge our students (and ourselves!) to ask one question every day with an answer that can't just be googled. And in doing that, we will empower a generation of learners to create their story.