Sunday, July 13, 2008

My ideal biology class...

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?


Dreya said...

I would love to construct an alien world for a class. It shall be called.... Andrea Land! I will rule as queen and everyone will love me.

But yes, awesome idea. Me loves it :)

Earl Newton said...

Chris, that is absolutely genius. it's like being a DM (D&D reference) for the evolution of the Earth, and letting the students explore that world.

It makes the Earth strange again.

You could also apply this to scientific research classes as well - only instead of making it an alien world: reintroduce them to the human world. Let them find species that already exist (they are still alien to the layman - what do we REALLY know about these creatures?) and study them.

NobleBear said...

That sounds like a lot of fun.

Students could make up creatures choosing from a list of options (type of environment, place on the food chain, types of features, differences between genders, etc.) or perhaps you could have them random roll for those who aren't feeling creative or can't make up their minds. [you can test out (playtest)your "species generator" on friends for general accessibility to your friends and to see early examples of what might get made by your friends because your friends , especially those who like bears, might have fun with such an activity... Not that I'm suggesting a particular course of action or anything. *whistles innocently*]

I see bringing roleplay dynamics to their project (ask: what is appropriate for the "character"?) and having them create something and invest time into it would bring a sense of relevance that wouldn't exist the same way if at all.

Two suggestions:
1) break up the component parts of the project as separate assignments so that the final project is to bring the parts together and present them; this should make the final more digestible to those who would get easily overwhelmed making entire projects from whole cloth and possibly minimize the did-everything-the-night-before quality of work brought to many assignments by the typical student.
(in the interest of full disclosure, I've spent many, many occasions in both camps)

2)Have an example. Whatever system you use, make your own alien species according to it (like, say, the western arboreal sangglewart)then refer back to that example when you have the students work on the next part of their species development. (you may want to gently remind your students that you would like to see a different species and not a repackaged snagglewart, though if they've already made "characters" this shouldn't be as much of an issue.)

Later on, when you've been teaching for a while you can also show past student examples you gave high marks to.

Page Tompkins said...

Chris, I love where your head is at... Thinking creatively and innovatively.

I encourage you to let these creative ideas flow for a while, but don't fixate on a particular one just yet. Part of the Understanding By Design Backwards Planning process your are about to start reading/working on is that your teaching should START from what you want students to know, be able to do, understand, and be thinking about. Cool activities are the last link in the change. This is a very difficult way to train your brain, particularly if your a person (and clearly you are) who has a penchant for dreaming up cool stuff to do. Still, I have seen tons of teachers who think up cool activities that engage kids, but that don't actually lead to the learning you are looking for... So, let the ideas for learning activities rain down on you for awhile, but don't grab on to any just yet...

RE: Multiple Intelligences. One way to think about MI is that you can USE a students intelligence to get them to learn something in another domain (for instance, if you have a student with high kinesthetic intelligence, and you want to get them to be able to describe cell division, you get them to act it out while they describe it...). The more types of intelligences that are engaged around a given thing you want students to understand/know/be able to do, the better. So... put your "alien world" idea to the test. In what ways would you be getting kids PHYSICALLY involved (Kinesthetic) ARTISTICALLY involved (Spatial), MUSICALLY involved (Muscial)WORKING TOGETHER (interpersonal), etc.

If you are interested in practical applications of MI, I recommend: Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom by Thomas Armstrong.

ADD Fischer said...

I love the teaching theory behind this. Learning by doing and acquiring the skills you need before you get to the next level.

I'm thinking the theory could be applied to any kind of teaching, not just Planet Lester C. I'm noodling an idea of using it to teach cooking. Instead of just showing how to make a complex recipe, you have several preceding recipes that teach the skills you need to make the big one. E.g. before making General Tso's Chicken, you learn to make fried chicken, spicy citrus sauce, and other things that will give you the experience you need for the big recipe.