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Reconsidering "What Works"


"The use of the phrase "what works" appears to reflect a common desire to have principles of biology teaching that will generalize to all students, all instructors, and in all settings and courses. However, this desire for generalization may not be realistic. And, so what! The key insight in K-12 science education has been the absolutely critical role of a high-quality, experienced teacher engaged in reflective practice and dialogue (Darling-Hammond, 1997a ). Perhaps the end goal, then, really is not to define the "best way to teach" and "what works," but rather to develop all biology instructors as reflective instructors who are analytical about their practice and who make iterative instructional decisions based on evidence from the students sitting right in front of them. If this were our goal, then "what works" becomes irrelevant. It would only matter whether or not instructors were monitoring how their current teaching approaches were or were not helping move their current students toward their goals for them. At some level "what works" arises from a desire to give scientists a shortcut to effective teaching, but there may not be any shortcuts.

Perhaps what is most frustrating about the language of "what works" is its implication that we are done-or that we ever will be-in our efforts to understand the wonderfully complex situation of teaching and learning about the biological world. That would take away all the wonder, excitement, and discovery that brought many of us to the scientific disciplines-and then to the desire to teach them well-in the first place."