Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Why We Got To Learn This?

Kids, fairly, want to know “why do we have to know this”—the flippant answer (and occasionally the most accurate one) is “because the state guidelines say so.”

Leaving aside the specific mandates from the state, it’s still a worthwhile question, maybe the worthwhile question, when discussing curriculum.

One tack is the Standard Educator Line©:

Well, we live in a high tech world. [Teacher then selects an example.] You need to know about gene technology and GMO’s, for instance, so you can understand what is in the news.

Let's dive into the student brain: Ah, yes, so we can digest the news—every day I wake up, plug my iPod into the internet, and download the latest podcast on how we can cram every last vitamin into a brussels sprout. Or make a bean glow in the dark. Or make a banana an edible vaccine.

Beyond student cynicism, though, we might well question just what a student needs to know about gene technology in order to participate in democracy. Again, the short answer may very little, at least in the technical aspects.

We all need context.

The natural world (or for me, just “world” without the safety of “natural”) exceeds our imagination. Our imagination exceeds the digital world. It is worth pursuing. It will remain ultimately unknowable, and it will remain worth pursuing.

No sense fretting about what your kids know about vectors and sequencing until they have some clue the big ideas in biology.

In order to understand (technically) gene splicing you need to understand (technically) how eukaryotic genes work which requires technical understanding about exons and introns which require technical understanding of spliceosomes which require grasping RNA and protein structures…it’s turtles all the way down.

Somewhere along the way we lose the student, and, I daresay, a significant percent of the public school science teachers. We point snurpy fingers at each other—“You introduced spliceosomes?! What were you thinking?” And so it goes.

And here is where I ask the cynics among you to hush—just because most of us cannot do this, and the few of us who might be able to still would need more hours a day the Earth currently blesses us with, does not mean the goal is silly or cosmic or ethereal or mystic or whatever other word that blurs and demeans the wonder.

Many of my students have ADD—awe deficit disorder. It's hard to teach awe. Even harder to test it. (Looks like Richard Louv tackled this in Last Child in the Woods, in which he coins Nature-Deficit disorder--I need to get my hands on his book.)

Testing recall of gene technology, however, is easy. Throw a few terms on a multiple choice question, have the students bubble away with their #2 pencils, and crunch the results.

Predictably, a small fraction of the students get it right—one advantage of multiple choice questions is that at least a few students will darken the right bubble.

Teaching science in a classroom, outside of the larger cultural context, and largely through LED projectors and text, doesn’t work well for most students under most teachers, excepting the rare charismatic visionary who spins rainbows on desktops, mesmerizing her flock with her ability to open up the natural world that outside the room (and ultimately within the room for those who wake up fully).

I want to know how to bridge that gap.


Linda said...

I, too, teach Physical Science (and, this year, Chem). No matter what they call it, it's the start of students' learning to think like scientists, not like robots, memorizing the vocabulary. It's the gateway to science, the foundational course that can excite a student about science, or deaden him/her to further exploration. We hope the first.

You really have to get the Louv book - I read it for a Naturalist course, and it was engrossing.

doyle said...

My biggest fear is killing a child's interest in science, tantamount to killing his interest in the universe.

And I do need to read the Louv book--and I will.

Anonymous said...

Part of the trouble is dealing with kids who have already lost the love of learning (or at least think they have lost it) and then as a teacher trying to awaken that love. I teach literature and most of my kids will come in telling me they hate to read. Which I'm sure is not true. It always seems that they just havn't read the right books yet. Every year before we read Romeo and Juliet I get the same reaction, "It's too confusing. It's too old. What's the point." When in fact most of the movies they love are remakes of remakes of stories that whose basic premise come from Shakespeare's time or before. The point of learning this is of course (amongst other things) it is still relavant today. Misunderstood young love, feuds between groups that have a history that is so old that no one can remember why it began... I work in Camden, NJ. A neighborhood overrun with gangs, violence, and 14 year old kids dealing with adult situations that they shouldn't even know about yet.
The revelevance is there and the interest is there too. Keep digging.

doyle said...

Mr. Reynolds,

(Yes, I blew your cover, but your blog needs to be read by everyone who takes this business of teaching as a profession.)

"Part of the trouble is dealing with kids who have already lost the love of learning (or at least think they have lost it) and then as a teacher trying to awaken that love."

You caught the essence.

And words like that coming from people like you is why I blog.