Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Book science

We are too exclusively bookish in our scholarly routine...In the Garden of Eden Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional system, children named the animals before they saw them.

A.N. Whitehead (lifted from The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts, Vintage, 1968, p. 100)

In the 1890’s, the Committee of Ten decreed that the public high school curriculum shall start with biology, followed by chemistry, then physics, or so the myth goes. Turns out the Committee actually said students should take either botany or zoology at some point in their high school career.

Still, public schools in these parts still tackle biology before chemistry and physics. A lot of teachers think the bio-chemistry-physics sequence is a bit outdated now.

We would suggest that a modern day Committee of Ten would recognize the need for “biology” to adapt to its new educational environment and would recommend resequencing high school biology so that it is studied after introductory physics and chemistry. Also, as an absolute minimum, introductory high school biology should be a 2-yr course—something that the original Committee of Ten did not nor could not anticipate.

Keith Sheppard and Dennis M. Robbins
High School Biology Today: What the Committee of Ten Actually Said

One child in my class last year complained that the text was misleading—“it had a picture of two owls in the beginning—it was the last time we saw an animal until March”—and I don’t think she left knowing any more about penguins than the day she started.

Richard Feynman tells the story about naming a bird—his father was seen as less that astute by his friends’ mothers since his father did not bother teaching the names of the birds.
You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

Richard Feynman

Zip up to 5:17 to hear the story.

To name a creature tells you nothing about it—it is a symbolic sound that spares us the effort of running around trying to find one to point to when we want to convey its image, but it really says, well, nothing.

I can turn it around—hand each child a sow bug. We have 48 minutes to do something with it. Figure a couple of minutes for the “Do Now”, then a few minute for the anticipatory set (perhaps showing the Feynman video, though he’s such a natural even my live performance cannot touch the 2D video of a man sitting in his chair telling a story). A good story. A happy man.

Each child has a sow bug, in a Petri dish, and now the pregnant silence.

“Mister Doctor Doyle, what are we supposed to do?” I write the assignment on the board.
“Tell me what it is.”
“How many words do we have to use?”
So it goes. Few good stories. Fewer happy students.

Maybe I could give them each a ”pet” sow bug. Just ask them to keep it alive for two weeks. Everyone can get an A. (No sense instilling any more competitiveness here otherwise I’d find a lot of dead sow bugs with a day.)

Just what do I want a child to take away from a nameless animal?


Clay Burell said...

I don't know why I want to share this with you, other than that I just get the feeling you'll appreciate it. It's only obliquely related to your post. Here it is:

Adam’s Task
by John Hollander

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field ... GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
Thou; thou; thou—three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket; thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawk; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming’s over. Day is done.

John Hollander, “Adam’s Task” from Selected Poetry. Copyright © 1993 by John Hollander. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: Selected Poetry (1993).

(I really enjoy your pov, by the way, and your prose. And thank you for the kind words.)

doyle said...

The poem captures (in a way good poetry does) a whole nest of thoughts that generated the post initially--thanks for sending it along.

I may actually use it the first week of class now--I'd have to practice it, maybe even memorize it, then let fly, perhaps without a preface.

It is a sad state of affairs that I even have to ponder how to finesse the Gen 2:20 part as part of cultural background as opposed to "school sponsorship of a religious message," though when you get down to it, discussing origins in science class ultimately transcends empiricism, though we pretend otherwise.

(The Cell Theory and the Big Bang are both incomplete ideas, not a fatal fault, and the bright high school sophomore wants to go beyond the empirical wall, which they may, but not in class, at least not in science class. The problem with both theories is that too many teachers present them as dogma without even realizing that's what they're doing. Dogma is safer than thinking.)