was team teaching; now facts

Don Igelsrud deigelsr at ucalgary.ca
Thu Jul 15 08:46:48 EST 1999

Bill Purves has lit a good fire.  We're seeing more light and feeling
little heat!  

Bill spoke at NABT in Minneapolis.  There he argued that students should
direct their own learning.  I think for the reason he gives here:  

* I'm not against students learning "facts."  I'm all FOR it!  But I do
  believe that most of them will learn the ones they WANT to learn,
  and they'll learn them ONLY when THEY want to, in service of some

A friend of mine has developed a Kid TV broadcast network in a local
school.  Students do a broadcast each week to the whole student body. 
It has been very successful because students want to look good in front
of their peers.  They learn how to write, do research, and speak in
public because they're having fun and being taken seriously.

Most of us learned what we know by teaching it, not by studying for
exams.  No doubt, motivation is important.

But what is the most important content.  I took an organic chemistry
course at a prestigious university.  The professor ended the course with
this remark:  "We haven't covered proteins and carbohydrates, but..."
I've been thinking about producing a documentary on what it means to be
alive, but it's been difficult to distill biology down to the
essentials.  I just read Ursula Goodenough"s "The Sacred Depths of
Nature" and I think it does a wonderful job of putting the basic info
together in as few words as possible.  It may suffer from the same
problem some textbooks have - that it is much more meaningful to
biologists than to beginners.  I'd be interested in comments about
Ursula's book.

Stefanie Galgon gave a great summary of the constructivist point of
view, which supports what Bill is saying:

"Cognitive scientists promote learning using a knowledge base of
practical/ life experiences.  Every student brings unique experiences to
the table. Based on this assumption they must do there own research and
work collectively on complex, realistic problems that are anchored in
the disciplines they are studying.  They should, in short,"construct"
their own knowledge.  This outlook is parallel to other educational
philosophies, i.e. problem-based teaching / learning.  The indirect
evolution of John Dewey's teaching has seemingly provided a spring board
for the problem-based learning programs that are implemented in many 
schools throughout the US (introduced and promoted by Howard Barrows
MD).  The premise behind problem-based learning charges importance to
involving students in "real" problem solving, with a basis of knowledge
(fact /content) and process.  How often can we see problem-based
learning within a University biology classroom, and would it be

Ref: Ruenzel, David.  A Course of Action in Thoughtful Teachers,
Thoughtful Schools.  Editorial Projects in Education.  1998."

For me, the issue is what is real.

David Hershey points out that:

"In graduate school, I took a course to read the current literature in
plant nutrition. Each student was assigned several journals, found plant
nutrition papers in recent issues and presented a summary/evaluation of
them to the class. It was an extremely useful course. Once students got
over their fears, they started to find major flaws in some articles. I
think the students lost a lot of their awe of the literature, which I'm
not sure is a always a good thing. Prestigious science journals don't
like it when people, especially lowly students, point out that "the
Emperor is naked"."

Much of education seems directed at the skills needed to publish papers,
but students need to realize science is trying to construct a simplier
world from reality.  Theories are our highest quality knowledge, but
reality is the final test.  Students need experience with reality to
develop insight into the sophistication of nature.  They need experience
that can often only be gained in the university setting, to be able to
compare ideas with reality.  We need to remember the origins of natural
philosophy (science) from philosophy.  It's the reason I have tried so
hard to be sure ABLE is The Association for Biology Laboratory Education
and not The Association for Biology Laboratory Educators.

When I worked with Bill Purves to produce the "Images of Life" laserdisc
for Bill's biology textbook, we faced the same kind of problem - what to
put on the disc.  Teachers wanted animations of complex processes, audio
that explained important ideas, etc.  Sinauer had to find a way to
choose one hour of video from the many hours I submitted.  The problem
was solved when Bill got his department together to collectively decide
what should be on the disc.  They ended up voting for the reality based

In Minneapolis I said I found that students learned from and enjoyed
experiences like being shown how coronary circulation works when water
is forced back into the aorta of a fresh pig heart.  It didn't get much
of a response because, and I may be wrong, most teacher's don't get this
kind of experience anymore.

The two great motivators for me are the sophistication of the real world
and the great ideas of science.  But if I had to pick one, George Wald
is right: "One can gain knowledge from words, but wisdom only from
things".  In my view a biology course needs to: 1. Give students
intimate involvement with living things to appreciate their
sophistication from the molecular level to the biosphere.  2.  Give them
an understanding of how science develops new ideas by trying to discover
and/or test ideas by experiment.  3.  Produce an integrated
understanding of biology by reading a well written, integrated text.
Keeton is still the best example of enthusiasm and integration of ideas.
Of course readings from a book like Gabriel and Fogel's "Great
Experiments in Biology" help add depth.

When I was in the university bookstore recently, I noticed some students
picking courses based on whether they would read a great textbook.  

It's not possible to cover everything in depth, but the main ideas need
to be integrated together at a level that gives them meaning.  A good
text can perform this function if it's raises good questions.  IT'S THE

Bill says:

* Finally: No, I don't think there are specific facts that a student
  MUST learn in the introductory course.  But they must learn HOW to
  ACQUIRE the skills and facts they need by the time they're needed.
  A truly great course or curriculum will leave the students with
  that skill and a desire to use it.

I'd like to know what Bill thinks those facts and skills are and how
they can be acquired by the time they're needed.  If a student get's
interested in what makes flowers bloom, how does he know what skills and
facts he needs to know to pursue the question.  He might realize he
needs to know some biochemistry.  How long will it take for him to
understand biochemistry?

Thanks for the inspiration Bill! I hope this has been worthwhile, and
that it will bring more light into this fire.

Don Igelsrud
LIFE Consultants
donigelsrud at home.com

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