Time to get personal: practical ways to show your passion for biology in the classroom to help students engage with the natural world

Alex Nixon
9th May 2018 at 10:02

Subject Genius, Alex Nixon, Time to get personal: practical ways to show your passion for biology in the classroom to help students engage with the natural world

Ask yourself and reply honestly: when was the last time you transferred your passion for your subject to your students? For that matter, when was the last time you considered what your passion for your subject was? I can’t offer much advice on this because I don’t know what your personal interest is in your subject. But I can tell you that sharing your enthusiasm for it is something you should be doing. I’m not pontificating here as some sort of expert, teaching my peers how to do their job better; I’m giving this advice to myself more than anyone else.

I’m a biology teacher and I like biology. Most of it. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the bits I enjoy are not the bits my students enjoy. Almost every student I’ve taught gets excited when I tell them we are starting a chapter on anything relating to human biology, but they seem to give a faint sigh of boredom when I say we are learning about genetics or food webs. I, however, am absolutely fascinated by the nature of DNA. I would also gladly spend a day in a forest watching how animals and plants interact (yes, I’m the guy at the dinner party you don’t want to sit next to!)

I’ve made mistakes in the past: I’ve taught these topics expecting students to suddenly realise how interesting they really are, without making any effort to show my interest in them. Remember when you first started teaching, and you thought that each lesson was like a thrilling story where the plot would magically reveal itself before the students’ eyes, all of them captivated and waiting to find how the “story” ends? And then, following your first observed lesson, you were told you needed to present the learning objectives to the students right at the start, and you felt like that would be giving away the plot? Well, that’s how I felt. The marvel of ecology should just reveal itself and everyone in the room should be captivated, because the topic is exciting enough to stand up on merit. I was wrong.

So, here is my goal for the new school term: I’m going to bring my personality more into my classroom, and not only into my lessons, but also my lesson plans. I’m going to share reasons for why I’m interested in these topics and I’m going to make it part of the learning process. Here’s how:

1. By using more of my own resources and examples. As a nature enthusiast, photographer and traveller, I have lots of photos and videos from different places, and these provide a good opportunity to step away from the textbook.

2. By using local references. To me, putting things in context is easy: certain diseases or conditions are more common in this country (it is true for any country) than others because of allele distribution relating to ethnicity; certain groups of animals are more common here because of climate-related factors etc; and these concepts are interesting to anyone with even a passing interest in life sciences. I should give students the opportunity to share in this interest.

3. By “getting real” with homework. How can you possibly take an interest in something if you only ever experience it via a textbook or a PPT? When I teach genetics this term, the students will be completing genetic diagrams based on traits in their family. When I teach ecology, the students will be making food webs based on their own back gardens.

4. By telling more stories. Lecturing is boring, but storytelling isn’t. I have a close-up photo of a white rhino I took a few years ago that makes it into my lessons every now and then. When I tell the students how I ended up in fear of my life when taking that photo, it piques their interest, and most of the time I get a few students telling me their own safari stories (I teach a lot of South African students). It’s a great way to link the learning to real experiences.

The above ideas are just starting points that will get me on the way to instilling more enthusiasm for my subject among my students. I don’t expect that all of my students will suddenly develop a passion for all things biology-related, but I do expect it to have a positive effect on learning.

As a reference, think about a maths lesson (I choose maths because I do not find it exciting at all): a teacher could teach about their interest in codebreaking and how mathematical concepts are at the core of the process. This wouldn’t make me want to go into a maths-related profession, but it would be a lesson I wouldn’t forget and it would therefore contribute to my attainment in any assessment in the subject.

Sharing our interests with our students gives lessons that personal touch. It gives another nudge in the right direction when it comes to student engagement and, hopefully, achievement.

Alex Nixon is an international school biology teacher working in Mauritius