Crucial Knowledge?


At what age should people know about antibiotic resistance?

This is the question that has occurred to me as a result of teaching about genetic engineering, and testing for plasmid uptake in a Freshman Biology course.  As a quick aside – don’t worry if you, gentle reader, have no idea what plasmid uptake is.  But to get my students to understand about it, they needed to know first that antibiotics kill bacteria.  On a hunch, I asked all my classes the other day:  “What do antibiotics do?”

Any guesses as to how many kids per class knew the answer?

Less than 1 kid per class.

I was surprised, because a huge part of every doctor visit I’ve had in the last 10-20 years, if it involved me coughing and feeling like hell, is the conversation about whether I had a viral or bacterial infection, and hell no they won’t give me antibiotics if my symptomology was consistent with a virus.   Of course, I brought up this experience  with the students (without the cursing, though it took some restraint) to help them understand what antibiotics do, and what they don’t do.

Upon reflection, I remembered that they are 14 years old, and they haven’t been to the doctor as much.  It occurred to me that this could be exactly the right time to help them understand the idea of antibiotic resistance, and the inadvertent genetic selection for the so-called “superbugs” as a result of over-prescribing antibiotics.   My students are now growing into a cognition that is rather adult-like, and logic works well with that level of cognition.   Understanding this issue requires some base-level knowledge about cells and evolutionary mechanisms.

And address the issue, I shall, but sort of by accident, and not because the state standards tell me to.  Here are the standards that might call for something like the idea of antibiotic resistance:

13. Explains how natural selection favors individuals who are better able to survive, reproduce, and leave offspring (NM – II.II.II.12)

14. Analyzes how evolution by natural selection and other mechanisms explains many phenomena including the fossil record of ancient life forms and similarities (both physical and molecular) among different species (NM – II.II.II.13).

24. Knows that specialized structures inside cells in most organisms carry out different functions, including (NM – II.II.III.2):

  • parts of a cell and their functions (e.g., nucleus, chromosomes, plasma,
  • and mitochondria),
  • storage of genetic material in DNA,
  • similarities and differences between plant and animal cells, and
  • prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.


These standards deal with the underpinnings that allow someone to understand about the problems of over-prescription, but still, it seems to me that an educated citizen should know the difference between viral and antibiotic pathogens, so that when they get sick, they work WITH the doctors to ensure the right course of treatment.

So I can’t help but wonder: should there be additional standards for science courses that address the intersection between the underlying biology (or Chem or Physics or whatever) and its use in the world?  If the application is contingent upon specific technology, which will certainly change soon, then maybe not.  I don’t suggest any replacement of the underpinnings – I am saying that there are some ideas and applications that every citizen ought to know.  Their well-being, and agency in the world might depend upon it.

This instance makes me think of a couple of other examples, one of which isn’t even science:

Radioactivity:  Most people don’t understand that something cannot become radioactive if it is exposed to radiation.  This has real ramifications on irradiated food.

The Electoral College: I took government in high school, but I only really learned of the importance of the Electoral College during the Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000. Seems like it would be handy for someone know about that BEFORE they turn 18, right?

The Global Surface Temperature Record: A certain Senator from Texas is espousing that global surface temperatures have not risen since 1998, using satellite data for evidence.  Alas, this data doesn’t really tell us accurately about the surface – it measures the temperature of the “lower troposphere”, which includes a layer of air six miles thick.   People ought to know that a much more accurate record (that does show appreciable warming) comes from ground-based thermometers. You know, where the people live.

So I am curious: if you are an educator, what are the obvious holes in your current set of standards that might be at the application, rather than theory, level?  And even if you aren’t an educator, what should we ensure our students leave high school knowing that we are not yet teaching, or we are teaching spottily?

In asking this, I realize that I am opening the door to idiosyncrasies of individuals – there will be some of us who have our pet idea that not everyone else loves, but I suspect that there are some topics and ideas that a lot of us can agree with. And honestly, if you’d like to proffer your idiosyncratic topic, be my guest – I’m still curious.



10 thoughts on “Crucial Knowledge?

  1. The short answer is yes, they should know all those things. People should learn as much as they can about, well, everything. My bias is towards mental health. Our society needs to learn coping skills at a young age, and well, manners.


  2. I often think about stuff I think is interesting (or critical!) now that I never gave a second thought to as an adolescent. I’m thinking things like The Gilded Age, Gerrymandering, and Geometric Proofs.

    That said, I think we tend to overrate the question of “what are your students’ passions?” As honorable as those are, part of the work of being a PBL facilitator is imparting that enthusiasm for other important topics. So maybe the question is then, “How do I entice students into caring about the Gilded Age?”


    • Interesting. I tend to think the question, “what are your students’ passions?” is incredibly important, but it must be explored in the proper milieu. In a capstone class, where students can create their own Senior Project, passion has proven to be a huge motivator. In core classes, however, I agree that student passion should not supplant ideas that they would ignore if left only to exploring the things that they like or know about. Education, after all, should be an adventure into the unknown. I like your question about the Gilded Age (certainly helpful to understand it when choosing between, say, Sanders or Trump), and maybe another way to ask it might be, “What is the intersection between student passion and the Gilded Age?”


  3. I agree with Geoff regarding engagement.

    When it comes to standards or “things I wish kids knew” I’d put my money on formal logic. It can help with anything from philosophy and writing to computer programming and robotics. I wish I knew more about it.


  4. This blog post is making me aware of lost opportunities to tackle Physics TEKS (3)(E) and (3)(B) which tie Physics content to careers and current events.

    Some immediate questions that come to mind are:
    * Why do we need to come up with an energy alternative to fossil fuels soon? How soon? What makes this hard?
    * What about the structure of matter makes it so tricky (like needing national-level resources level hard) to manufacture nuclear bombs?
    * Why are super colliders so expensive? Why are we willing to pay for them?
    * What is Moore’s Law? How does this affect what you’ll be doing and buying tomorrow?

    Catch me on a different day and the questions could be different — but in general for any course topic one can ask are: Who’s getting paid to apply this? Are there ethical, technological, political or just curious implications for what they do? These questions could be good food for developing juicy driving questions.


  5. Love this question. In doing some work with the Deeper Learning Student Assessment Initiative (DLSAI) as part of the Deeper Learning Network, we have been collecting performance tasks to release as part of our collaboration. We are still working on collecting and organizing those resources, but something that has struck me as I look at work happening across networks of schools inclined towards authentic application and deeper learning, certain project topics seem to come up with some regularity. Issues like Food Security, Genetically Modified Organisms, Energy Security, Immigration, etc show up pretty regularly in the tasks we are reviewing. Not surprising of course, as these are also many of the major issues of our day.

    Perhaps one option would be to gather together “Deeper Learning Topics/Standards” for core disciplinary areas? It might be more useful for PBL designers to do like you do here and start with an authentic application in the field that an informed citizen ought to be able to think about competently and THEN consider which of the building block standards might be in play? For many of us, this might even be a way into learning more about how our content area is used in different professional and academic settings. This source of insight is rarely a part of teacher preparation and so often is contingent on a teacher’s personal experiences and interests.


  6. In thinking about your blog entry, I began to wonder about the goal of science education and thought the following: Is our goal to teach about the fundamental principles about how the world works, or to provide students with specific useful knowledge to navigate their current world. In the background of your post, it seems like you might be advocating a 2-for-1 in the sense that you can use a current-world example, to make the fundamental principles more relevant.

    What I wonder is the following: When our modern education system and basic outlines of curricula were developed “back in the day” whenever that was, were these, what we now consider to be, seemingly abstract principles, much more relevant at that time. I know nothing about the history of modern education development, but in the imaginary historical narrative that I have constructed, I would imagine that at the time of development of systematic curricula, a lot of science that we now consider abstract principles were pretty new. For example, in the 1950s the basis of genetics and hereditary transmission as DNA was just being discovered. How exciting and relevant (at that time). Now DNA seems like old news, so much so that it is a part of our everyday speech.

    My point is two fold:
    -A lot of scientific knowledge actually is latently floating around in the public. It may not be initially obvious, but discussions of “energy prices”, “genes”, “pheromones” etc, actually presume quite a lot of very basic knowledge about how the world works.
    -These concepts are now so ingrained that when we discuss their details in 2016 or whatever, they seem so pointlessly academic: Ugh! you want to talk to me about the structure of DNA! I already know what that is!

    So to synthesize: What you propose may in fact be a return to the original situation of 50 years ago: A curriculum that addressed new and important things that people need to know for the world they live in.


    • You know, back at Del Norte, I came across shelves of biology books that had been printed circa 1963, from the opening year. It was almost entirely descriptive taxonomy-oriented information; this certainly reinforces your observations. I think your two-fold point is in many ways a great raison d’etre, or perhaps justification for Project Based Learning. Provide the real-world scenario or task, which provides the need to know the latently-imbued science.


  7. This was a great post and, although I am not an educator, it is something that I have thought about. Working in personal finance for a few years, I realized that there is a huge lack of eduction on basic financial concepts. I am not referring to balancing a checkbook (which I think is taught and is outdated but a good principle concept). I am thinking about how many of my peers and adults of every age that I worked with who don’t understand what a 401(k) is, what an IRA is, how social security works, what you pension will do (if you are lucky enough to have one), medical insurance, basic personal taxes, credit card interest, etc. There are obviously huge political questions that are relevant (social security, Medicare, Obamacare, Student Loans). This idea might be better suited for a college age student, but I don’t think it’s knowledge that only those who go to college should have. Many students will graduate high school and immediately go into the workforce. They may not have the luxury to save much, but understanding the concepts and the implications (positive and negative) of personal finance choices is important for everyone. It’s not just important so one may someday retire, but it is important so one may protect themselves against predatory lending and investing, which happens at every income level. Think about the recent financial collapse – many people of different ages and incomes signed up for a mortgage agreement that they didn’t understand and they lost their homes because of it.

    Hope this isn’t one of those idiosyncratic ideas 🙂 thanks for the brain food, Mr. G!


    • Even if it is idiosyncratic, I agree with it. At nex+Gen, seniors in Economics do a simulation where they are in a family, and they have to find housing, pay bills, pay for food, etc. It is super eye-opening for them to realize what level of income is necessary in order to actually put money away. They talk about that project all year.


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