Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaching Experience, 1

Let it be known that I want to be a teacher. It isn't what I want to do when I first graduate, but it is what I want to become in the end. So, I try to explain things to people as well as keep up on my philosophy of teaching. The other week I had a good teaching experience, and have recently read Whitehead's "Aims of Education", which has me thinking about teaching in general. The experience went like so:

My brother visited me. He has recently graduated from High School and is currently working some low income jobs before he goes to college. In conversation he made a comment where he felt uncertain about evolution. I asked what, and specifically he thought that random mutation was an odd concept. Particularly, he found it difficult to believe that random mutation could create viable species over time, because he found the idea of "Random" to be arbitrary, and he thought that if a species mutates that it would be more likely to die. I explained what "Random mutation" actually meant -- not that it just happens, that there are explanations for the mutations, but the causes are out of anyone's control and therefore are labeled "random" -- and that he was completely correct in his assumption that a mutation is more than likely kill an animal. It was only in the rare cases where a mutation actually helped a species pass on its genetic code and survive better than its peers that the mutation is passed on. I also noted that there was more to speciation than random mutation, such as sexual selection or dramatic geographic separation, etc. Later we visited my campus' museum of rocks, and the museum of stuffed birds. We saw fossil records of now extinct species, and stuffed animals of species still alive. Later we visited our towns' zoo. Once we reached the zoo, my brother would comment about certain features of an animal, how these features helped that animal survive, and essentially out-compete other animals in certain ways.

So, in an afternoon, he had the groundwork of a theory given to him, and then he was able to make deductions from that theory about actual animals that he experienced. I'm sure Rousseau would be proud right now, but I'm a little uncertain about Dewey (of whom I am a large admirer of). My brother obviously learned something, and started applying that knowledge to what he saw in the everyday world. Which is awesome, and for a passing incident where I hadn't really prepared anything of the sort and we were just hanging out, very awesome from my perspective, as he's grasped the foundations accepted by the scientific community. These are all important. However, as teaching should be about process, what I taught him was not the process of science. He learned how to make logical conclusions from a given framework of knowledge. Which is, in fact, a fantastic skill, and of great use in the scientific method. However, there was no induction that occurred -- we didn't have a large sampling of animals from which we induced the hypothesis of natural selection, but rather, we walked amongst the animals looking for positive confirmation of a generally accepted hypothesis. This is all well and good, but it's not scientific, and it's not teaching the scientific method, but rather the analytic method.

But then there's the practical side of things: Most places have access to zoos. But do they have access to wildlands that easily show speciation? We could substitute in photographs, but that would certainly not be what Whitehead would agree to, as he's seems to be more of a mixture of a Romantic/Utilitarian educator. I don't know if I agree with him entirely, but I certainly saw something awesome occur while we visited the zoo -- the application of accepted theory, and the acceptance of accepted theory. It wasn't the whole method of science, but analytics is certainly an important part of science. Perhaps the scientific method, as a whole, could be spread out amongst the various sciences? Leave the Null-Hypothesis to the physical sciences, as physical objects are in easy supply to any school budget?

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