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Why you should teach mitosis and meiosis separately in your high school biology class

mitosis and meiosis

ATTENTION ALL NEW BIOLOGY TEACHERS! If there is ONE thing I care SO MUCH about new biology teachers knowing it’s that you’ve got to teach mitosis and meiosis separately. Don’t make the same mistake I did!! Let me rewind so you can have some context for why I am so passionate about this.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we? Back when I was student teaching, I naturally did exactly what my mentor teacher told me to do (because that’s what you do when student teaching, right??) He had always taught mitosis and meiosis together, and when I took over his classes, it was right at the beginning of his cells unit. We reviewed organelles from 7th-grade life science and I thought, hey this isn’t so bad. I can do this!

But then we got to mitosis and meiosis. And my students were SO CONFUSED. And if I am honest…I was confused too. At that point in my college degree I hadn’t taken a class on cell biology in 3 years and even I was getting the terms and stages mixed up. It’s no wonder that my 9th graders who were learning it for the first time were also confused! The students BOMBED their unit test and I was honestly devastated. The first time I had ever really been the teacher, I had failed my students.

When I spoke teary-eyed to my mentor teacher about the students’ grades, he encouraged me, “They always fail this one. Don’t worry about it.”

But I wasn’t okay with that. I was so worried about it that I went to my practicum advisor and told him about my students’ (and my) failure. I explained how confused they were and how I had such a hard time helping them to NOT be confused. He said, “So why teach them together then if it is so confusing?”

I vowed then and there that when I got my own classroom and had some autonomy over my scope and sequence that I would never teach mitosis and meiosis together again. I couldn’t BELIEVE how much better my students did learning the processes separately – and how much more confident I felt teaching the concepts separately. Because of this, I want to make sure that EVERY teacher new to teaching biology hears why I think it is SO important to teach mitosis and meiosis separately. And it starts by simply setting you AND your students up for success.

Teach mitosis and meiosis separately to set students up for success.

mitosis and meiosis

By teaching mitosis and meiosis separately, you set your students up for success in learning the processes. I know for me personally, I NEVER want students to feel like my class is “tricky” or like I am intentionally trying to make things harder than they have to be (anyone else have memories of teachers you felt like did this? SAME 🤯)

When we teach mitosis and meiosis together, we are putting a LOT of new vocabulary in front of them all at once, and all of the words are kind of similar. Expecting students to keep metaphase, metaphase I, and metaphase II separate in their brains is just making it harder than it has to be.

Let’s set them up for success, not failure! They do so much better when they can start by JUST learning mitosis and getting interphase, PMAT, and cytokinesis down. Why? Because it gives them a chance to get familiar with the vocabulary first when they only need to learn ~15 new terms rather than triple that when learning mitosis and meiosis together.

Give them a chance to get familiar with the vocabulary.

mitosis and meiosis

There is SO much background information to cover with students before you can even start talking about the processes of mitosis and meiosis. In particular, I’ve found students really do NOT get DNA, chromosomes, and genes (and this is before even introducing sister chromatids and homologous chromosomes…)

Most of us teach cells (and thus cellular processes) prior to genetics, so we HAVE to introduce students to DNA in some capacity since the number of chromosomes is a critical aspect of understanding how both mitosis and meiosis work. By teaching meiosis later, we can start off by just getting students really solid with DNA-related vocabulary and mitosis. Then later in the year when we do a deeper dive into genetics and meiosis, they already have a great foundation and context for what we were talking about. Speaking of context…

Context is EVERYTHING.

mitosis and meiosis

There is truly no biological reason to teach mitosis and meiosis together, but EVERY contextual reason to teach them separately. Learning the processes within the context that is MOST RELEVANT to the process makes so much more sense. I like to think of my Cells unit as a deep dive into the 3 tenets of cell theory.

Because of this, my goal in my cells unit is to cover:
(1) The cell is the most basic unit of life (thus we cover the organelles and how they work together to contribute to keeping the cell alive).
(2) All living things are made of cells (thus we learn about homeostasis and cellular transport which is critical for maintaining homeostasis within an organism.)
(3) All cells come from other cells. (the perfect time to teach about the cell cycle and its regulation!)

^^^I do this last thing by JUST focusing on teaching mitosis first. Let’s be real, mitosis IS a more simple process than meiosis, and thus it is easier to start out explaining how all cells come from other cells with mitosis first. You can introduce regulation of the cell cycle and how the breakdown of the cycle’s regulation can lead to cancer. This not only helps provide context for the process but also engages students so much more in the content!

Tie mitosis and meiosis into relevant content that will help students differentiate the processes.

mitosis and meiosis

If there is a complex topic that your students struggle to make sense of, TIE IT IN with something relevant to them that they CAN make sense of and relate to (this is one reason why I moved teaching food webs from ecology into my energy flow unit alongside photosynthesis and cellular respiration – more on that here).

For mitosis, that’s cancer!! Engage students in the process by having them see that if the process breaks down, it can result in cancer. All students will, unfortunately, have some connection to cancer in their lives – either directly or indirectly – so they will naturally perk their ears up a bit more when learning about spindle fibers and cytokinesis.

For meiosis, what’s more engaging to a bunch of high school students than sex? It is sexual reproduction after all. Students understand the process of meiosis SO much better within the context of learning about heredity and making babies.

Mitosis and meiosis are entirely separate processes so why teach them together in the first place??

mitosis and meiosis

Last but not least on my rant about why I so vehemently believe you should teach mitosis and meiosis separately, is that they are SEPARATE PROCESSES to begin with! What textbook decided 50 years ago that we should teach them together anyway, and why do we keep doing it?? It just doesn’t make sense.

I found in my student teaching when I taught mitosis and meiosis back to back, students thought that they happened back to back – one and then the other. Although I NEVER said this, their brains just made this connection. I’ve actually seen this happen before in my genetics unit because I teach DNA replication, then follow it with protein synthesis. This (plus a zillion diagrams on the internet showing the processes together) can sometimes lead students to make a connection in their brains that one happens before the other.

Now, I still teach DNA replication and protein synthesis back to back, but I put a LOT of energy into differentiating the processes for my students. This is easier because the output and steps are so different. Differentiating mitosis and meiosis is a LOT harder since there are already so many seemingly similar terms and steps. Save yourself the energy and confusion by just teaching them separately. I promise you won’t regret it!

Looking for more tips for teaching cells? Check out this blog post here. If you are interested in hearing more about my biology scope and sequence and how I organize my course, you may find this post helpful!

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