I spent the weekend working on my elective book from the annotated book list: The Disciplined Mind, by Howard Gardner. I'm about halfway through it now -- it's dense but scintillating reading, and he's definitely captured my loyalty with his call to teach students "the true, the beautiful and the good."
One of the things Gardner points out is that it's impossible to cover everything that there is to know about any field of study, so any approach to teaching that is based ultimately on hitting a certain number of content-based guideposts is falling short of its potential. Facts leak out of students' ears as soon as they take the test; the real challenge is to confront and correct underlying misconceptions in thinking, to teach people to think like scientists (or geometers, or historians, or what have you). He draws comparison to athletics and music: it's not so important that the student of these disciplines be able to describe a particular football play in detail or play an exact copy of a master's performance of a given piece, but that they learn the underlying techniques, concepts and skills that will allow them to tackle a wide variety of possible situations. Breadth of coverage is not as important as depth, because it is only by sinking deeply into a subject that you will discover your flawed thinking and be able to correct it.
To that end, Gardner and his colleagues recommend projects in which learning, presentation of understanding, and assessment are all rolled together. There are no secret tests at the end of the unit, but rather students are coached throughout the course in the preparation of a presentation that will demonstrate what they have learned. Along the way they have the opportunity to ask questions and receive clarification, and the teachers can work with the students to expand their thinking and point out the misconceptions when they crop up. The final presentation is a source of pride for the students, rather than a source of apprehension. (I should note that this somewhat mimics my experience in grad school: my thinking was corrected along the way by my thesis committee, and the day when I stood before my classmates and teachers and presented the results of my research was the proudest day of my academic career.) Most importantly, the students should be able to take the concepts that they have learned and apply them to a new situation; this is the true assessment of whether learning has taken place.
As I was pondering these things, an idea for a biology curriculum came to me: Organize the entire semester around the theme of an alien world, being explored by humans for the first time. Students would be divided into teams, and at the end of the year each team would present information about a species that they had invented to inhabit this world. The students would play the role of the xenobiologists exploring this world, giving their reports the people of Earth on what they've found.
Each species would have a specific ecological niche, key adaptations that allowed it to exploit that niche, and an interaction web with the other species. (Who eats whom? Which species compete with each other, and how? Are any of them keystone species, and why?) I would give the students some basic information about the world for starters: key biomes and the producers found there, key environmental challenges found in the different biomes (which the animals would have to adapt to), and key species found in the fossil record (from which our various modern species would be descended). The students would have to demonstrate how the different species might be related, and which adaptations arose when. (If three species have eyestalks of the same general configuration, do they all come from the same ancestor? What role did the eyestalks serve for that ancestor? Do they serve the same role now, or have the species adapted that trait to serve other purposes?)
As the piece de resistance, the students would have to confront ecological questions about this alien world. If human colonists cut down the chuwumba trees for building materials, how will that affect the other species in the ecosystem? If they discover that the pink-toed crinklehump is good for eating, what other predators that feed on the crinklehumps might be affected? If humans accidentally bring rats with them on the colony ship, what native species might be endangered by this invasive species? The answers that the students give to these questions will demonstrate what they have learned about the concepts they have studied.
For this to work, the students will have to learn the basic concepts of three major areas of biology: homeostasis (how animals stay alive), evolution (how populations change in response to changes in their environment), and ecology (how organisms in a system interact with each other). The students will study specific examples in each of these areas of focus and use them to think about their hypothetical alien species. By the end of the course, the students should be well-versed enough in the concepts driving each of these areas to be able to construct their alien world -- and the presentation at the end will be a great way to show off to the parents and the other students what these kids have learned.
So, what do you all think? Am I on the right track here?