The first EMBO International Teachers Workshop, "Cells, Molecules and Modern Biology," was held at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, on 5 and 6 July 2002. It brought together 96 teachers from 14 European countries. Workshop organiser Andrew Moore reports on the lessons to be learned by policy-makers, practising scientists, and teachers themselves, from the international comparisons that were made at the workshop.
?Why did you become a teacher?? we asked. The title of this article was the response given by one Italian teacher, and it was a view echoed by many. If your memories of school science lessons involve dusty biology books rather than shiny equipment and relevant real-life examples, it may come as a surprise. But science teaching has never been in greater need of dynamism and creativity. Of course, all the old facts still have to be learnt--and that is a challenge in itself because their number keeps increasing. Nonetheless, the classroom should be the beginning of an adventure into the fast-moving--intellectually, ethically, and morally--and challenging world of modern biology. It's an adventure that will last a lifetime, regardless of whether one actually studies the subject at university or beyond! This begs the question, are today?s schoolchildren being taken on an exciting roller coaster ride to the edge of human understanding, or are they simply being told to open that dusty tome one more time?
A little more than half of the teachers who answered a questionnaire circulated during the workshop had become teachers for very positive reasons: love of the subject, communicating, working with children/young people, freedom, and creativity. Sounds perfect, doesn?t it? And yet teaching is a profession in crisis because it cannot recruit enough new blood, let alone talented new blood. What turns many creative people away from teaching, and what can be done about this at a European level? Firstly, one must understand the problems that teachers face in the different European countries.
As another teacher from Italy commented, ?I like being in contact with young people, where I can use my creativity? and then in the same breath, ?I am lucky that I don't have economical problems; otherwise I would have to switch to another job.? Poor pay and lack of recognition and respect are general themes for teachers across Europe. Even in the few countries in which pay is respectable--for example, Germany and Denmark--the teaching profession itself is not respected. But in a turnaround of conventional wisdom, teachers from countries with the scantiest resources and lowest teacher pay (with the exception of Slovenia) noted the highest (relative) levels of competition to become a teacher. It could be that in that the comparatively richer northern European countries, tempting opportunities lure many away from teaching into ?better? professions. A classic example is Germany, where security of position and adequate pay generate dangerous complacency; indeed, throughout Europe performance-related pay and promotion are rarely found and even more sparingly applied. A meritocracy can be established, and competition encouraged, by making teaching more attractive. And this means much more than simply increasing salaries.
Teachers are probably crippled most by systematic faults and constraints and by external political pressures. With a few exceptions, the teachers reported a high level of freedom in classroom teaching--which came as a surprise to them--but this is more than compensated for by limiting factors such as overloaded curricula and a lack of time, money, and equipment. Modern biology cannot be done on the quick and cheap. If molecular biology experiments are to make it into the school lab (and some schools do not even have a suitably equipped lab), more time and resources must be made available.
Some schools, especially in Germany, are taking steps in the right direction. But inevitably some countries will find it easier than others, for various reasons. In eastern Europe, money is the biggest problem, whereas in southern Europe a lack of organisation and excessive bureaucracy play an important role. These problems are particularly pronounced in Italy, where a lack of coherent organisation of education leads to fragmentation and isolation and to almost no exchange of information, ideas, and examples of best practice. Add to that an unstable political background with myriad ?reforms? and changing priorities, and it is no surprise that Italian teachers lament their predicament so vehemently.
Some countries--Ireland, for example--complain of a lack of further training opportunities for teachers. But according to international studies, these are not necessarily the countries that perform badly. Participants at the workshop claimed to have attended between two and five further education events annually in molecular biology or teaching methods, and overall very few complained of a lack of opportunities to continue to learn--another surprise. However, that does not mean that there are no problems in this area. Firstly, an international workshop selects the most motivated teachers; many others either do not learn of training opportunities or do not take advantage of them. Secondly, just as teaching needs to reinvent itself, so do the training courses that support it; many are outdated and do not accomplish the critical step of building bridges between research institutions and teachers. The days of standalone teacher training are gone for good. It was clear that many teachers even in this group had not recently had the chance to hear a scientific talk straight from the researcher?s mouth.
But the observation that left the biggest impression is that all teachers long for more practicals (such as lab work) and projects in ?real? molecular biology. Experiencing practical molecular biology cannot be left to one-off visits to research institutes; it must be an integral part of teaching. Workshops such as the one organised by EMBO are necessary in greater numbers across Europe. The introduction of bang up-to-date research via talks from the researchers themselves, hands-on practicals in molecular biology, and an exhibition of diverse teaching resources will all give teachers the tools and material they desperately need to inspire pupils.
A problem facing all biology teachers, regardless of country, is a lack of motivation on the part of the pupils. This is the kiss of death, for without interest, learning is a temporary and forced exercise. Giving teachers the tools they need to make their teaching dynamic and stimulating is surely the antidote to apathy. For people fascinated by science, who have a love of and gift for communication, teaching has never been more challenging, and it can be at least as rewarding as it is frustrating.
More information and full reports on EMBO teachers' workshops can be found at http://www.embo.org/projects/scisoc/activities.html#teachers  or by contacting the author:Andrew Moore, PhD, Science & Society Programme Manager, European Molecular Biology Organization, Meyerhofstrasse 1, 69117 Heidelberg, Germanye-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .