On The Krebs Cycle and Unintentional Consequences Of High Stakes

Not two things one usually associates with the other.

As a biologist, I have a confession: I hate the fucking Krebs cycle. As cycles go, it’s not bad, but still… I learned it twice in high school, once in college (I placed out of Intro Bio, otherwise I would have had it twice there too), once in graduate school, then I taught the fucker. And, as the Intelligent Designer is my witness, I have never had to use it. I even spent time in a lab that did metabolic flux theory, and, nope, didn’t use it (the pentose phosphate shunt on the other hand… But I digress). Despite all of that repetition, I certainly couldn’t reproduce it for you.

The problem has been that I never once saw it taught as anything other than a collection of facts (and I’m not the only one who thinks this). The biological significance of the Krebs cycle–why it’s interesting–is never taught. Instead, it’s a collection of facts you have to cram into your head.

Cram being the operative word. In high school, you have to learn it to pass various tests, including the AP exam, and in college, most of the time it’s taught as part of the pre-med curriculum, which means what you learn is defined by what the MCAT wants you to regurgitate (hint: it’s not an overarching theoretical view of cellular metabolism).

One reason, though not the only one, that I hate high-stakes educational testing is that I’ve seen what bad incentives (Got Campbell’s Law?) do personally. When the incentives are to teach to a test, the higher-level things–the stuff that really matters–gets lost.

And learning, as opposed to ‘student achievement’, suffers for it.

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On The Krebs Cycle and Unintentional Consequences Of High Stakes

  1. Net Denizen says:

    I must not have gone to as good a school as I was led to believe, because I had to look up “Krebs cycle” and it still doesn’t ring a bell for me. When I saw Krebs, I thought you were going to talk about Brian Krebs, the cybersecurity journalist, that’s how out of touch I am with biological processes….

  2. RW Force says:

    Back when you had to pass a foreign language exam for a graduate degree, the favorite final was to pick the foreign langauge article on the Krebs cycle to translate.

  3. kaleberg says:

    The Krebs cycle was in my biology textbook, but we barely discussed it in class and weren’t expected to know the details. Having tutored high school students recently it seems to have made a pedagogical comeback. My impression is that teaching the Krebs cycle is less controversial than teaching evolution or sexual reproduction, so it’s been moved up in the curriculum.

  4. David says:

    If I weren’t a neurologist I might agree with you. Disorders of the Krebs cycle and related portions of the glucose metabolic pathway are important neurologic disorders. These include the glycogen storage diseases, pyruvate dehydrogenase deficiency, and others. Parkinson’s disease, though incompletely understood, may be related to deficiencies in mitochondrial electron transport. 2-deoxyglucose is being investigated as a treatment for acute seizures.

    I will agree that not everybody should learn it, and no undergrad should be required to memorize the individual steps. However, understanding how cells convert sugars and fats to energy (ATP) is a key part of understanding what makes a cell a living thing.

Comments are closed.