Scientific advances regularly spark social debates on thorny issues such as vaccination, stem cells, organ donation or blood transfusion that can become complex to address in the classroom. How do college biology teachers deal with this challenge?
Marie-Claude Bernard, a researcher in the Department of Teaching and Learning Studies at Université Laval, conducted focus group discussions with a dozen teachers who are confronted with this issue.
The first complaint of many teachers was that there was not enough time to cover these topics in natural science classes because of an already very full curriculum. These topics are discussed more in social studies classes than in natural science classes.
The researcher also noted three types of relationships to nature among participants. Some had a utilitarian approach, viewing nature as a resource to be managed for the benefits it brings to humans. Others were more questioning, readily acknowledging that they did not have all the answers and that these issues were a source of reflection for them. Finally, some were conciliatory, showing respect for other living beings and valuing biodiversity without seeking to exploit it.
The teachers also vacillated between clearly stating their own position in the classroom (e.g., pro-vaccine) or “remaining neutral” and letting students debate. There was unanimous agreement on the need for more initial and ongoing training and pedagogical tools to introduce and manage these sensitive issues.
This work advances knowledge about an aspect of science teaching that is not discussed enough in Québec, but which poses real challenges for teachers.