Thursday, July 8, 2010

But what about...?

I’m teaching introductory biology this summer. This is the first college biology class for these students. I don’t really know who has a worse time—the complete newbies, or the whizzes who aced the A.P. biology exam.

The newbies remind me of the fourth child in the Passover Seder—the one who doesn’t know how to ask. I’ll ask the class a question that they have a few minutes to work on, for instance drawing a picture of how two processes interact. When I walk around the room to see how people are doing, some people are busy, copying something that they remember seeing, but the newbies just sit, looking blankly at the question on the board. If I ask them about it, they’ll say “I…I…I don’t even know where to start.”

I’ll ask, “do you know [fact from previous lecture]?”


“Do you know [other fact from previous lecture]?”

“Um, yes.”

“How about [this thing which I just mentioned five minutes ago]. Does it have any connection with the other two things?”

In some cases, they get it; it's just that they've never been required to make connections between things. In other cases, further questioning reveals that they didn’t really know those facts from previous lectures.

The A.P. whizzes provide their own set of challenges. The A.P. exam is a clearly defined thing; it’s very challenging with lots of facts and covering a huge range of subjects. However, A.P. biology teaches the biology that is in most college biology textbooks—a biology that doggedly insists that the only living things on earth are corn, humans, and one type of bacterium that, remarkably, does not have any metabolism. Or, as a high school principal said when contrasting the A.P. exam with the International Baccalaureate program,

“A.P. is great for content-based traditional learning,” he said. “It’s great for kids who like to memorize.”

So, I’ll ask the A.P. whiz about something that is not corn or human—say, the bugs that make marsh gas. These organisms respire without using oxygen. This is not what corn or humans do, so it’s not part of their credo. The exchange gets circular. I’ll ask,

“Is this respiration?”

“No, there’s no oxygen.”

“But, does it have [a long list of characteristics, all of which define respiration]?


“So, is this respiration?

“No, it’s fermentation. There’s no oxygen.”

So, I’ll go through it again, step by step, leading inexorably to the conclusion that it is respiration.

“But…but…what about oxygen? What do they do for oxygen?”

These students are smart and have prodigious memories. But, they have a dogmatic world-view that reminds me of especially dogmatic religious folks. A friend of mine once visited some pious Christian in-laws in Georgia. She talked with their son, and for some reason the subject of Judaism came up. The son was curious, so she explained about Moses and the commandments and the Torah. She told about the Sabbath and Passover and Yom Kippur. He seemed to get the general idea, but he was completely stumped by nagging concern—“But..but...what about Jesus? What do they do for Jesus?”

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