Mathematical Biology Seminar|
Wednesday October 19th, 2011
4:00pm in Skaggs 210
"Teaching the Questions"
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.