20 January 2010

Mulling over certainty and uncertainty in teaching

I start teaching general biology today, one of the largest introductory classes on campus. This class focuses on biochemistry, cell biology and molecular biology.

And I so badly want to tear it down and start again from scratch.

One of the traditional marks of an education is having facts internalized, at your fingertips. But this article hits on some of my frustrations:

Too many college students are introduced to science through survey courses that consist of facts “often taught as a laundry list and from a historical perspective without much effort to explain their relevance to modern problems.” Only science students with “the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job” will reach the point where they can engage in the kind of science that excited them in the first place, she said.

And I’m as guilty of that as the next guy. I tell students, “This is how it is.” It’s a simple, straightforward thing to do: be a tour guide of information. “And over on your left, you’ll see the valence electrons...” And I’m grateful to this post on Usable Learning that has computers in the title, but is really about pushing the notion that there must always be right answer.

That’s another, increasingly important mark of an educated person: being able to cope with situations where there is no right answer.

I think one way to get comfortable with uncertainty is to really get at the way evidence is gathered and analyzed. By looking at process. I want to figure out how to show students evidence. I want to be able to say, “Okay, here’s how we know that there are these steps in glycoloysis,” or, “This is how we know there are three binding sites in ribosomes.”

Many textbooks say they showing process, but it’s usually splashed in here and there, in teensy pieces. And I can see why. If I were to try to figure out those original experiments that worked out the pathways in photosynthesis, I probably couldn’t do it. And I’m not sure if it’s worth it in a lot of cases.

On the one hand, I do want students to have a certain amount of material internalized, because I think you need that intellectual infrastructure. But I think they’re not getting anywhere near enough practice with dealing with analysis to prepare them for tackling new problems. I’m completely conflicted.


Anonymous said...

It's good to see someone thinking about these things. I agree that students need some basic infrastructure, but past that point they can find out facts about the subject - if they know how to look and evaluate sources (something that isn't taught in a lot of classes). I think it's more important to know how to learn - and how others in your field have figured out how to learn - I think this is what you refer to as process - and to have a tool kit of skills to approach and figure out problems. And this doesn't just apply to science education - it applies to all subjects.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Unknown said...

How refreshing! Great post. Education increasingly seems to be like politics and religion in that people sit on one side or the other. But it is not a matter of sides, like you state, it is more about how you come to know certain things, and learning to think, not just repeat. Having been out of academia for a while now I still see the same things in the business world. Q: "Well how do we know this?" A: "Well because we've always known this." That doesn't help. To think, to truly think, and not just regurgitate, now THERE is a goal.

Dr. Hammersley said...

Great topic, and I think it holds true for my field of psychological/behavioral science. As a psychology and neuroscience professor, I appreciate the idea that there is sometimes not a certain, correct approach to a problem or research question. Even if we think we have the answer figured out today, that answer is often proven incorrect sooner or later. In teaching psychological intervention techniques, I try to tell students that if you think you are going to find THE one correct way to treat patients or a cure for a psychological issue, you will be sorely disappointed. It is partly why a major tenet of graduate clinical psychology training is learning to be consumers of research, so that one can learn to evaluate the potential efficacy of a theory or intervention for oneself. I also enjoy requiring students to learn to understand and argue from a point of view which they disagree with - it is a definite strength to be able to see an argument from the perspective of the other side.
Before I digress too much, let me again say: interesting and informative blog topic!