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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rethinking biology instruction : the application of DNR-based instruction to the learning and teaching of biology

  • Author(s): Maskiewicz, April Lee
  • et al.

Educational studies report that secondary and college level students have developed only limited understandings of the most basic biological processes and their interrelationships from typical classroom experiences. Furthermore, students have developed undesirable reasoning schemes and beliefs that directly affect how they make sense of and account for biological phenomena. For these reasons, there exists a need to rethink instructional practices in biology. This dissertation discusses how the principles of Harel's (1998, 2001) DNR-based instruction in mathematics could be applied to the teaching and learning of biology. DNR is an acronym for the three foundational principles of the system: Duality, Necessity, and Repeated-reasoning. This study examines the application of these three principles to ecology instruction. Through clinical and teaching interviews, I developed models of students' existing ways of understanding in ecology and inferred their ways of thinking. From these models a hypothetical learning trajectory was developed for 16 college level freshmen enrolled in a 10-week ecology teaching experiment. Through cyclical, interpretive analysis I documented and analyzed the evolution of the participants' progress. The results provide empirical evidence to support the claim that the DNR principles are applicable to ecology instruction. With respect to the Duality Principle, helping students develop specific ways of understanding led to the development of model-based reasoning--a way of thinking and the cognitive objective guiding instruction. Through carefully structured problem solving tasks, the students developed a biological understanding of the relationship between matter cycling, energy flow, and cellular processes such as photosynthesis and respiration, and used this understanding to account for observable phenomena in nature. In the case of intellectual necessity, the results illuminate how problem situations can be developed for biology learners that create cognitive disequilibrium- equilibrium phases and thus lead to modification or refinement of existing schemes. Elements that contributed to creating intellectual need include (a) problem tasks that built on students' existing knowledge; (b) problem tasks that challenged students; (c) a routine in which students presented their group's solution to the class; and (d) the didactical contract (Brousseau, 1997) established in the classroom

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