“Knowing the parts of a neuron isn’t really that important”

I recently had the conversation below with a high school science teacher (and, yes, I did it respectfully for those of you who are wondering)…


I want my students to learn the parts of a neuron.


In an era of near-instant Internet search, it’s possible that knowing the parts of a neuron isn’t really that important. For example, if I don’t know what the parts of a neuron are, I probably can find a couple dozen images of neurons - with parts labeled - in about 5 seconds using an online image search engine. It seems to me that what’s more important is generally knowing what neurons are, how they work, why I should care about them, how they impact my health and well-being, how current cutting-edge neurological research may impact me in the future, and so on. 

Will I need to learn the parts of a neuron in the short term so that I can understand these bigger issues? Yes, most likely. Six weeks from now, will it be important if I still remember the parts of a neuron? Probably not, because I always can look it up again. But the bigger-picture understandings about neurons and how they impact me? That’s what I need to remember six weeks from now - and six years from now. That’s the stuff that’s important. Assess on what’s important.

Your turn

What do you think? Would you have responded differently than I did?

29 Responses to ““Knowing the parts of a neuron isn’t really that important””

  1. I was a science teacher before getting into administration. I can totally relate to this post because there is so much…so much that we FEEL we need to cram in. Knowing the basics of an atom…important.

    The parts of a Neuron…are you kidding me? You’ll need that if…if you get to that place in your post secondary when you really need to know. There’s probably less than 1 percent of the people in the world that need to know what the parts of a neutron are.

    I have teachers who can’t get this concept….

  2. Einstein once something to the time of “I never memorized something I coul just look up in a book”.

    Could you imagine what implications this statement would have had for him had he had the Internet!

    The argument isn’t about what content we should teach. It’s whether we should be teaching content-focused curriculum in the first place.

    The importance of any content based curriculum is always subjective. Teaching cognitive, thinking & collaborative skills is not. They are timeless.

  3. As a current anatomy and physiology teacher and former neurobiologist I *really* have to resist the temptation to focus on all the tiny details that I find interesting and instead make sure students are focusing on the big picture. In this case, I think a basic understanding of how neurons are different from other cells is important as is a general idea how how they send signals.

    You are absolutely right that students can find good information about this and other topics online. That’s why my ‘quiz’ that I am giving Monday on this very topic asks students to go online to determine how venom and/or toxins affect the signals that neurons send. This is one of those bigger questions that you mention. Hopefully students will show me that they do understand how neurons normally work as they try to explain what goes wrong when venom or toxins are introduced. More importantly, perhaps, they will show me that they can wisely access and integrate new information that is readily available online.

  4. As long as our state tests don’t test on the minutia then this makes great sense. But, as long as they DO test on that, then we do a disservice to the students by not having them remember those details at least for those six weeks or months.

    Kyle Peck, a Penn State professor and education leader, likes to point folks to this video It ties right in with what you’re saying here.

  5. “Will I need to learn the parts of a neuron in the short term so that I can understand these bigger issues? Yes, most likely.”

    ~This is the key thing I was hoping to see as I was reading down the post.

    There is no doubt that a memorization of structure names devoid of function or purpose is just… well, silly. However, there is of course no way to have the crucial conversations and reflections needed to develop a deep understanding of the role of neurons in human (or any other critter’s) physiology and general well-being… without at some point along the way cementing in the names. You cannot glance down at a screen, or book, or paper, or anything else, while attempting a spontaneous, constructive, and human conversation of the way these crucial cells work.

    I agree with the assertion: “assess what is important.” I agree with that most deeply. I also find that in doing just that, most of my students are able to toss out the necessary language required to communicate a deep and relevant message. It is tough to be able to converse (or test) intelligently without at least a rudimentary jargon of the system being discussed.

    The two surgeons working on your surgery aren’t staring at their iPhones to be able to find the word for the correct thing to grasp or cut. Nor are they always able to just point to “that thing there.” I think this is the sort of thinking that gets the hackles up on so many science teachers when confronted with such a question. They shift immediately to some theoretical argument about something most of our students will never face.

    And this is just IT… 99.9% of all of our students in secondary schools are not going on medical school with the intention of becoming a doctor. Therefore, minutiae like you speak of here really are likely a silly end point. They aren’t even an end point in medical school. But it IS true that far too often they are the end game in our schools. The bottom line: we don’t understand instruction and assessment as much as we think we do. What we do know is that objective assessment items of this sort are rather easy to create as well as to score. And thus, this is our general default to this day.

    Empowering all kids with a basic operating understanding of how their bodies work is critical. Providing the vocabulary needed to conduct clinical research is not needed by the vast majority students. Thank goodness we still have enough that move on to the point where this is important. However, more and more of these positions seem to be taken up by rather motivated folks from other countries. Perhaps that is just a baseless perception of mine, but it seems to be true.

    Maybe what we should be doing far more of… is focusing on the affective domain of learning (the forgotten Bloom’s) so that a significant number of our children find an interest in pursuing such goals for the betterment of our country, culture, and species… and yet none of our children lose touch with basic core learning. The WHY should I care simply has to be there. And frankly, that requires not only a passionate teacher crafting an environment which allows students to find this motivation. That also requires teachers who themselves possess a deeper grasp of the content than the textbook does.

    The issues of our public schools run deeper than technology alone. We also have profound issues with content and pedagogy as well. Assessment issues like the one you highlight here are worthy discussion stems.

  6. Where does the “you could look it up on Google” argument stop? You could Google “Neuron parts”. Do we expect students to know what a “neuron” is? How would you be able to locate the parts of a neuron if you did not know the word “neuron”? You simply need to know some things to function including to understand other things. We quibble about whether what we need to know includes the parts of a neuron, but I assume this was intended as an example.

    I was trained to teach high school biology, but I ended up spending my career teaching psychology at the university level. A course like Intro Psych certainly isn’t a biology course but it about human behavior and humans certainly are biological organisms. Should I as a psychology educator assume college students “know” fundamental biological terms. I suppose I could get by discussing certain forms of psychopathology, pruning, how various brain imaging techniques work, etc. without using terms like axon and dendrite, but wouldn’t that be inefficient and would what I have to explain end if I could make no assumptions. We must assume some familiarity with basic vocabulary to explain phenomena.

    I guess we might disagree on what is core knowledge or who should have it. To explain “depression”, why some people are depressed, and why medication is sometimes helpful, I kind of assume I can use a term like “neuron” or “synapse” without taking another half hour to familiarize students with vocabulary I expected them to learn in middle school. I suppose students could Google depression, but what if they found the words neurotransmitter or synapse when they read the description.

    Try the book by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham (Why students don’t like school). Good explanation of the flaws in the argument that we can google what we need to know.

  7. I would have asked, does the student want to learn the parts of the neuron?

  8. My gut feeling is there’s a kind of circular argument developing and one that biology has an ages old answer to – possibly the neuron wasn’t a good example to use.

    In biology it’s almost impossible to divorce study of form (anatomy, histology, cytology) from function (physiology). Understanding what a neuron does to any reasonable level to prepare you for a whole range of further study pretty much requires the ability to discuss the major parts of a neuron. “Nerves transmit signals to other cells” is rarely going to be a useful take-home message at high school level. Equally the ultra-structure of the synaptic cleft is rarely going to be a useful take home message at that level either.

    Granted a lot of students for most subjects they study at high school won’t use what they learn in that subject (even subjects like maths, English and IT they won’t use it all in most cases) but it comes down to a core of what what school is about.

    Some of it is child-care of course. Some of it is preparing people for a life in the real world outside – even scientists need to be able to write and artists ought to be able to balance their bank accounts even if history suggests they live in poverty – and some of it is preparing the students that do so with what they need for an academic career.

    Unless we completely restructure to treat these groups entirely differently and to stream our students into subjects much earlier then surely we have to teach those who we know won’t use stuff they won’t use.

    And somewhere, despite the “you can look it all up” concept, you’ve got to have the language to look it up available. Looking up “thingie” on google won’t help that much.

  9. Totally with you on this, Scott.

    There are some topics and knowledge that one will want to recall the exact facts/details/labels from memory, for a range of reasons but there is more important, higher order learning that should take precedence IMHO.

  10. I guess I would want to know which H.S. biology course is being taught the part of the neurons and WHY. Is it a component of the AP/IB exam that will gain the students college credit and save them money? Or is it a high level anatomy/physiology class taken by students who all currently think they want to be doctors? Or …. I think the reason why the teacher wants to teach something is just as important as what they teach. And maybe easier to have a conversation about why this may or may not be an appropriate lesson to teach if the reason why is known?

    (A quick disclaimer…I agree that probably the parts of the neurons don’t need to be memorized, but I have recently jumped to that conclusion too often and been brought up short with excellent reasons why something I thought was foolish was being taught).

  11. Sounds like you want teachers to use a process like Wiggins and McTighe’s Framework for Establishing Curricular Priorities. Not easy when “experts,” curriculum designers, test creators, textbooks, etc. can’t come close to agreement.


  12. I teach a photography class and one of the earliest lessons are the parts of a camera. There is a lot of vocabulary in that lesson. And yes, they just have to memorize it. Much of it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them yet. But they can not understand how to properly operate the camera until they learn where the aperture ring (or control) is and so that when we discuss f/stops (apertures) they can intelligently know where on the camera to make this adjustment.

    I think that it is difficult for students to gasp the “why do I need this junk” portion of school at many of the early stages of learning a subject. It often takes time and experience for them to appreciate that they can now improve their skills BECAUSE they had to memorize something earlier. As photographers they can discuss depth of field or lens choice more intelligently because they DON’T have to look up a simple term like aperture on google.

  13. i struggle with this everyday teaching science & math.
    Which details/content do they need to memorize.
    On one hand our state tests ask them content more than application.
    Also you cannot apply what you do not know and you cannot spend all of your time looking everything up.
    If you spend all of your brain power on low level looking up, you never get to the high level thinking.
    do they need to know 2 + 2?
    how about 2 * 2?
    how about square root of 4?

    where does it stop
    You have to have some core knowledge to have an intelligent discussion.

    the more i teach, the more I think i don’t know what i’m doing or what i’m doing is correct

  14. I have redesigned my instruction over the last year to better focus on “big picture” concepts and less on details, but (as other commenters have stated) it is all dependent on the state curriculum and the standardized test. What *I* think is important for my students to know is really not the issue, but rather what the policy makers consider to be critical skills and knowledge.

  15. My 10th grade daughter just took final exams. All of her exams were multiple choice tests of memorized facts and trivia that she won’t remember a month from now.

    She’s a “good” student however, and dutifully spent hours and hours memorizing the names of generals and battles in order to pass the European History test.

    She spent even more time memorizing the specific steps in cell respiration, the most minute details of photosynthesis, and how to complete a pedigree chart for Biology.

    None of her exams (did I mention they count for 20% of her grade?) required her to know and be able to understand the big picture of history or biology or any other subject. She wasn’t assessed on her ability to apply knowledge; she was tested only on her ability to memorize facts and spit them back out.

  16. Keishla Ceaser-Jones Reply January 16, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    I agree and disagree with your response. First of all, it really seemed like you unloaded on her. Secondly, I think it is true that we don’t have to have every bit of data, or every fact or term to recall at our fingertips in this day and age, but I am cautious on the dependency we are creating on machines to remember everything for us. There has to be a balance.

    Higher order thinking is just what its name implies. Built on lower order thinking. However, many in education suggest we skip right past KNOWLEDGE and COMPREHENSION and go straight to analysis, application, evaluation and synthesis. I agree that it doesn’t have to be that extensive, but there must be some things that you should know.

    When my sons were in elementary school, they were being taught how to multiply. They were drawing little blocks and squares to represent 3 x 6. Personally, I think that students should just know that 3 x 6 = 18. Then the argument was that they didn’t need to memorize it because they had calculators. Now every kid I see in my high school classes can’t calculate their course average without a calculator. They struggle with algebra because they can’t make basic calculations with the CALCULATOR in their brain. They have to stop and punch in every step.

    I am wary for this society of young people who we expect to be these existential thinkers, but we are not giving them anything to think about.

  17. I think the question of whether or not we place any value on recall of facts is probably one of the biggest questions facing educators in the next 5-10 years. There still has to be a place for some memorisation at some level, but there is little doubt that the availability of fact-based information is an absolute game-changer.

    And thanks for the video link Jim – hilarious and pertinent!

  18. Actually, I find you to be a bit self-absorbed, and your response to be pompous. You didn’t even ask WHY the teacher wanted her students to know the parts of a neuron. Perhaps she had the same reasoning as your fantastic search engine example. Before you solve people’s problems, shouldn’t you know their motives instead of just what they want to do?

  19. @ Mr. Downes
    Really? Ask if they WANT to know the parts of a nueron? That will work for about 20% of a class, and even then not well. WE as educators have to have a handle on what is important and why we need students to know that information. If not, let’s just follow the internet and allow the students to learn what they WANT to learn. My guess is we’ll have a lot of youth very knowledgeable about social interaction and gaming and poorly versed in what we currently refer to as “core” content.

    @ Mr. Shircliff
    We all probably join you in that boat frequently. Most of the time I feel more like I’m drowning than swimming, and yet the concept is to be creative and challenging while leading in new and unexplored directions. The reward comes in those few days where you sit back and know you did it right.

    It’s been said before here, but there has to be a level of understanding and comprehension before students (any of us) are able to apply anything. The factual information that becomes necessary to learn is that information that is used frequently enough that accessing it from another source slows down the application process. With technology resources that means that more information is available to us more quickly, but there are still facts we should know in order to work most efficiently.

  20. I teach Anatomy & Physiology (including neurons) to pre-nursing and allied health community college students. Even though I tell my students that I need them to understand how neurons work and how the different parts function, my students prefer reduce this to simple memorization and generally miss the point of what I want them to do.

    I’d like to know what kind of deal with the devil the flashcard industry has made. My students show up to class & office hours with enormous stacks of flashcards (sometimes inches thick). Here’s a typical exchange I’ll have with a student:

    Me: Why do you use all of these flashcards?
    Them: Because that’s what we were told to do in high school. To make flashcards.
    Me: What do you use them for?
    Them: To learn the vocabulary words.
    Me: But I gave you a list of study objectives and most of them deal with how X works. There’s not a lot of vocab on the exam.
    Them: Oh, but I’ve got that on this card here. (Shows me a 3″ x 5″ card with two paragraphs copied out of textbook on it.)
    Me: Uh, does that help you?
    Them: (no response)

    Moral of the story: just because a student says he/she needs to memorize something in science, that’s often just a survival instinct to get out of doing something harder, usually because the deeper understanding requires a level of self-assessment and self-critique that makes students uncomfortable.

  21. Taking this to the elementary level for discussion,(No not neurons) how about the discussion of why do students need to know the names of each letter of the alphabet if they can make the sound and use that sound to phonetically sound out a word. I agreed with that until I realized the students could not write their friends names (names are not phonetic all the time). The students who could not name letters learned very quickly when it had to do with something so relevent to them as writing a best friends name correctly. So that being said the question I have as an educator is…How can I make the identification of neuron parts relevent to my students so they want and will learn them. And then the yang; to go through my curriculum and evaluate; am I teaching the big concepts.
    @Shircliff…your statement “the more i teach, the more I think i don’t know what i’m doing or what i’m doing is correct” Great educational self evaluation that most teachers ask themselves often…including me.

  22. A couple of thoughts:

    When standardized state tests drive our instruction, we and our students are in trouble. Thank you (NOT) NCLB!

    If content is relevant (like Tina pointed out), students will learn (memorize) it. Think about knowing the names of the letters. Eventually, students no longer have to recall the name of each letter when they write their friends’ names; they simply know it. When students use the names of the parts of a neuron in their lives, they will no longer need to “recall” them because they live them.

    So, do we have to memorize? I’m think that for the short term, yes. If a student needs to have that memorized knowledge as part of their lives, they will learn them and will not need to recall or look them up.

    We all must learn some things. I’m glad that I don’t have to decide what those things are.

  23. As usual, this is an interesting discussion. I view these comments as a teacher and wonder more and more how important subject-specific details are to the bigger picture, particularly given the explosion of information available and how I personally process what I see, read, and hear. On the other hand, I know that when my 13 year old brought home 44 terms to define in Social Studies for overnight homework, and the terms were related to the Roman Empire from 400-100 BC, I have to REALLY wonder who in the heck still sees this as an essential skill? Teachers need far more time and help to really look at what we are doing in our classrooms and see how what we teach can help not only our students, but also our nation as we compete in a changing world. Could we use our limited time and develop student skills more effectively?

  24. Hmm: interesting discussion. I agree with much of what you say, Scott. For example, I recently created a reference of common G&M codes for students to use on a test where they had to write a fluent program for a CNC Mill to run. To me it wasn’t important that they remember that G02 means clockwise circular movement, but that they could apply it in the program to make an arc where there should be one.

    However, memorization itself is a skill that will be needed in life, in college, in work. I wonder if students should continue to memorize in each class, both as a way to learn material but also as a way to build their capacity to memorize. For example, in English they could be required to memorize a poem, in math the quadratic formula, in biology the parts of a neuron, and in history the dates of events leading up to the American revolution. Even though these are all easily Googlable, I do see value in them.

    When you write that we should “assess on what’s important” I absolutely agree *for the major assessments*. I want my students to use trigonometry to figure out real world challenges, not to recall that sine(60d) = sqrt(3)/2. But I do have mini-quizzes on vocabulary, as an incentive for students to learn engineering terms that they will then be applying to a project. Or I have my Algebra II students memorize the quadratic formula for the first quiz (we sing it to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’), then allow them to use a formula page or calculator program (that they wrote) thereafter on future quizzes, tests, and projects.

  25. As an elementary teacher, I can tell you those little boxes are very important. They help avoid exactly what you are complaining about, as they teach what is called a “concept”.

    The little boxes visually show how three sixes equal eighteen. Some children may memorize easily; for those who don’t, once the concept is understood, the road to memorization may be opened. Children have different learning styles and it is incumbent upon a teacher to appeal to all styles so all children have an equal opportunity to understand the concept.

    By stating students should just know their multiplication tables, you are furthering the very result you are complaining about. If the brain does not understand the concept, how can it use that concept to compute? (Of course it’s easier to use a calculator, and of course I feel our educational watchdogs in the government have not been on the ball.) Believe it or not, a good teacher knows what they are doing. We do, however, have problems with parents who don’t understand their own children’s learning styles and with administrations who are concerned with state and national exams.

    People think my job ends when I leave the school building. I am constantly trying figure out how to appeal to every one of my student’s learning styles so every one of them has a chance to understand and succeed. I’ve done this in the inner-city and in the suburbs.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could truly teach children and they could learn??? We need open minds on every one’s part. There is room for concept, detail and most importantly application in relationship to the learning.

  26. I taught secondary English before becoming a technology integration specialist. We would often focus on the minutia of grammar and style because no one had bothered to spend any time on it earlier. Why know the parts of speech when you can look them up? To learn the parts of speech, which many people understand intuitively to some degree, repetition is necessary. It is especially necessary in the cases of common, colloquial errors.

    In order to understand what make good writing one must first understand basic errors. To do this one must understand the parts of speech. Sometimes the “big picture” is inextricably linked to the minutia.

  27. So, how do we change this quote?

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world.”
    –Albert Einstein

  28. I’d say the right response is “What do you mean by ‘learning the parts of a neuron?'”

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