Thursday, July 18, 2013

It's the world, not the microscope, that matters.

Do you need to know what a solenoid is in order to drive?
Didn't think so....

The point of a microscope is not learning how to use a microscope, no more than the point of a car is learning how to drive it.

Yet that's what we do in school.

We fetishize the process. We ask students to label the parts. We admonish them for starting with the highest power. We make a ritual out of preparing wet mounts.

Some of my happiest moments are when an ├╝ber-cool, barely-can-be-bothered student shouts "Holy shit!" as an errant protist bumbles its way across his filed of view.

Hard to get mad at well-placed enthusiasm, and the response it, well, almost as appropriate as it is real.

The name of the critter hardly matters, though students usually ask. I shrug as if I don't know, because, in fact, I usually don't, one of the perils of using pond water instead of specimens bought at Carolina Science Supply.

Getting a kid to learn how to use a microscope  is easy once he knows there's something worth looking for--but by then the real purpose of the lab has been accomplished. The child's living universe has just become unimaginably more immense from a single drop of water.

(In my class, a child may grab a scope and some pond water pretty much anytime except during exams--if they're interested, they get pretty adept, and if they're not interested, what's the point?)

I can develop worksheets so the child can "prove" to me he gets this, and I can analyze the squiggles he draws to make sure he did not copy them from his lab partner, and in the past I have done just that.

This year? For some struggling students, a spontaneous, heartfelt "Holy shit!" will go down in the book as an A, as 100%, as whatever symbols we care to use for when a child accomplishes what we set out to do.

A kid engrossed in the life and death struggles seen in a drop of pond water doesn't care about grades.
And neither, dear science teacher, should you.

Microscope photo from Adafruit Industries


Lindsay said...

This is exactly the point I was trying to make with my colleagues this year. It's about the genuine interest in Science, not the nit-picky details of labelling parts, etc. Thanks!

Susan Eckert said...

One of my biggest, most gratifying teaching moments this past year is a self-declared "I'm bad at science" student coming in to my classroom every free moment she had (including lunch) to use our new microscopes to look at pond water.

She got so totally lost looking at the same water that she was disgusted by most of the year.

We say we're shooting for mastery (unreasonable at this age in my opinion) and that's about as close to mastery as I've seen. She became so adept at sampling the water and finding the most interesting protists. And I had no real way of measuring it, you know? No points were given to her--this was not an assessment, grades were already in for the year.

But I was so much more impressed with her patience and how she spent hours (literally) observing a drop of water than I was compared to a student who aced my exams only because she wanted a perfect GPA.

I hope she believed me when I told her that the skill and concentration and curiosity she showed is rare and wonderful and will serve her well.

But, I must admit that I think it might be worthwhile for students to understand a little about the microscope--the number of lenses used, how it magnifies, what the total magnification is just for the sake of understanding scale.

Regardless, I keep going back to this wonderful student and what grades really mean.

doyle said...

Dear Lindsay,

I'm real close to just randomly assigning random points every time we get an "aha!" moment in class.

Biggest objection I might hear is that would make the points meaningless.

And that, of course, would be the point. =)

Dear Susan,

Ain't teaching science grand? I agree with the need to grasp scale--which is more difficult each passing year.

Once the kids know something that small does pretty much the same things that they do, understanding scale makes a little bit more sense.

When anyone figures out what grades mean, chirp in--they're about as meaningful as the new teacher eval systems bandied about these days.

cope said...

In 1960 when I was 10, our family came into possession of a family heirloom, a beautiful, old brass microscope that was housed in a solid wooden carrying case. The 5 of us kids didn't hesitate to drag it out and use it (it only had a mirror as a light source so lighting was always an issue) to look into the world of the small. Of the many, many wonderful things I observed, the stem of a plant covered with aphids and a few ants that were herding them was the one that still loops endlessly in my memory.

School will be starting up soon and I know that a disconcerting percentage of my biology teachers (earth/space and astronomy for me, thank you) will waste a couple of weeks on the 6 (or 9 or 5) steps of the "scientific method", a couple of weeks foundering around in the metric system and a couple of weeks with microscopes.


doyle said...

Dear Cope,

I love the old glass, and for years had a scope with the mirror for lighting. It wa particularly convenient for viewing pond water--I could lug the scope around without worrying about an AC outlet.

"Waste" is a strong, but the appropriate word. I remember hating that part of science when I was in school, and I bet it still turns off millions of kids.

It's not how science works, no more than writing works by laying out file cards.

There are better ways....