Sonoma County Office of Education

The Possibilities and the Dilemma

Author: Anna Babarinde
Published: 02.22.16


On the first day of AP Biology, I stood in front of my students and told them solemnly about the “AP Biology Dilemma.” These are students from a variety of backgrounds with one thing in common: They’ve chosen to pursue an advanced science course. And while I have them in this class, I have big ambitions.


By the end of the course, I want them to love science and be exposed to and excited by all of the incredible new inventions and discoveries that are constantly coming out. I want them to have hands-on experience and develop inquiry skills, and I also want them to gain the scientific and technological literacy to seek out and evaluate information on their own. I want them to be aware of bioethics and have thought about and discussed both scientific advancements and the tough questions that come with them. I want them to be creative problem solvers who can see the big picture and are empowered to come up with solutions. I want them to be able to envision themselves in STEM professions so that whether they choose to pursue them or not their decision will be based on what they want, not what they perceive they can’t do.


But at the same time, there is a high-stakes test the students care very much about at 8am on May 9, 2016. And, these students have chosen to take an advanced placement class with the very fair expectation that it will prepare them for this test. The College Board, to their great credit, has revised the AP expectations and tests in science over the last few years, and there is much more focus on science process and less on straight memorization. But it is still a college level course, and there is a great deal of complex content that students must learn before the exam.


Hence, the dilemma. These are bright, motivated students, and there are endless possibilities for creative lessons, maker activities, in-depth labs, class discussions, speakers, projects and trips. All of these would undoubtedly benefit the students and contribute toward their future as scientists or global citizens, but they also take time. As the teacher, part of my job is to balance these opportunities with the time needed for the content and skills specifically required and to seek out creative ways to integrate the two whenever possible. Being in just my second year as an AP teacher, this can feel like a daunting task and certainly one I haven’t fully mastered.


So I’m honest with the students. I tell them about the AP Biology Dilemma on the first day and also remind them of it from time to time. And I let them know that while I always do my best to teach well within the dilemma, sometimes I won’t get it quite right. And yet, we will all learn through the process, and I’ll do everything I can to make it the best experience possible in the class they’ve opted to take.


The AP Biology Dilemma is most definitely not unique to AP Biology. It is the dilemma nearly every teacher faces. Nothing made it more apparent than the NCLB era where the amount of information, much of it memorization, required of students was vast and the test was high-stakes for the teacher, school, and district.  


For many, the introduction of NGSS felt like a breath of fresh air and a release from the dilemma. With the focus on three-dimensional learning, teachers have had the freedom to reinfuse the big-picture thinking and hands-on experiences that were downplayed in past years. And throughout the standards, appendices, and both the national and California frameworks, the authors highlight the importance of things like scientific literacy, technology integration, storytelling, developing inquiry skills, and giving students opportunities to think and act like scientists and relate their knowledge and skills to real-world scenarios. These emphases open the door to almost infinite possibilities for student experiences.


At the same time, NGSS holds teachers and students to a high standard. The driving tenet of “all standards, all students” means that every student should expect to learn not only the main themes in science and develop science and engineering skills but also to develop a fairly complete understanding of content in physical science, life science, and earth and space science. With its focus on disciplinary core idea progressions across grade levels and application of content to real-world phenomena, in some ways NGSS highlights the dilemma in science education even more than before. Teachers need to find an instructional balance that provides space for student interest and passion to be sparked while building a solid foundation that sets them up for success in science not just in some distant future but in the very next class they take. This burden feels all the more real as California districts start to make course model decisions for middle and high school and move farther into implementation at all levels with the added detail of the CA Science Framework. There’s a lot to consider as we develop curriculum and environments that allow students to consider the possibilities in science.


So we are left with a new variation on the classic dilemma. Speaking from personal experience, I can’t say that navigating within it is easy or that I have it all worked out and can lead the charge. I can say three things:


First, we need to all give ourselves some grace as we figure out the balance. I wish I could go back in time to August 2014 and give myself this message. I spent a lot of time that first year of AP with my stomach in knots because I was so worried I was getting the balance wrong and letting the students down. It all felt overwhelming. Since the framework came out in November, I’ve had many conversations with teachers who feel similarly overwhelmed and discouraged now that there’s detail and the rubber is really hitting the road. Yes, there are a lot of things to figure out and a lot of decisions to make. But there is also an opportunity to try things out and figure out what works. If you are excited and passionate about what you’re teaching, it will be good for students. Some of the balancing act will work itself out, and some of it you’ll figure out over time.


Second, there’s a lot to be said for open, honest communication of the dilemma. You’re not alone in your balancing act. Last year, I often felt that way. This year, having been up front with the students from day one, I’ve felt a lot more freedom and confidence in my choices. And as an added bonus, students love being in the know. Teachers: Consider talking to your students about the change NGSS brings and the things you’re trying as a result. Administrators: Consider talking to staff, parents, and community members about the transition to NGSS and the decisions that have been or are being made as a result. At best, you’ll gain partners in your quest to master the balancing act. If nothing else, people will start to understand why certain shifts are taking place and they won’t seem so scary.


Third, have fun along the way! Yes, there is a lot to learn and do. But there are still so many possibilities, and we have this time to try new things out. While there’s not the same luxury of time for AP Biology, the students and I sure have had a lot of fun along the way. Recently, students designed potato head models best suited to various environments and made films of the potatoes describing their adaptations and why they had the highest fitness in their respective habitats. The smiles, laughter and conversation from all students, even the quietest and shyest, was priceless. Experiences like these remind me why I teach and spur me on to be a better teacher.

Whether you teach AP Biology or kindergarten, the dilemma is there. But so are the possibilities. So my encouragement as we come to the tougher part of implementation and it gets real and messy is to not lose sight of those possibilities but to find them in the midst of the dilemma and embrace them as often as possible. In my experience, the willingness to do this, even when the result is not always perfect, can make all the difference.

Blog: Exploring NGSS