Mathematical Biology Seminar

John Roth
Wednesday October 19th, 2011
4:00pm in Skaggs 210
"Teaching the Questions"

Abstract: Teaching the questions: an approach to teaching biology

First a couple of disclaimers. This talk was not scheduled because you have a particular need of help or because I can provide a source of enlightenment. Most of us suspect that we haven't been doing a great job of teaching science, but we haven't defined the problem very well. This is the story of one course and the ideas that underlie it. In a weak moment, I agreed to design and teach a new introductory biology course for undergraduates at UC Davis with orders to solve the ill-defined teaching problem. The course is called the Origin and Essence of Life. I do not know how life originated, but neither do the students or anyone else, which is the point of the exercise. The course stresses underlying principles and open questions in biology that organize a body of information (facts). The conventional wisdom has been that "professors know lots of facts" and "students don't" so the goal is to transfer the load from one to the other. The problem with this view is that professors didn't learn by memorization and students don't either. The teaching problem may reflect an inherent difference between professors and students (intellectuals and non-intellectuals?). Professors carry around a framework of questions and principles on which they organize new information and generate a "worldview". This framework allows them to retain information, test information, make predictions and continuously upgrade their universe. This internal mind structure may be inherited, but if it is learned, it can presumably be taught. Could we make our students into intellectuals and improve their ability to retain and use information by stressing the unifying principles and questions rather than the detailed information bits? I don?t know if this can be done, but I'm pretty sure that "It's hard to learn the answers to questions you never asked." I have two bits of evidence that this is a good approach ---- I've had fun and learned a lot giving it a try and long-term heavy duty teachers hate it. The approach will probably will work best for faculty with broad interests and a research involvement. I'm looking for recruits.