My entry into the Sarah Palin debate generated a link to an article about ph D microbiologist Carl Woese. The article mentions that Woese was behind the new tree of life that reduces the number of branches from five to three. Well, that description misses all the wonder and grandeur of Woese’s contribution. Yes, tree goes from five branches to three, but the three branches are gigantic, and only one of them contains plants, animals, fungi, and protists, four of the branches in the old tree, all tightly bound together. Most of life, Woese tells us, we’ve missed.

Anyway, that’s not really what I’m writing about. In the article, Dr. Woese makes the assertion that students shouldn’t learn about evolution until college, essentially because high schools do such a poor job of teaching it. I’m the last to defend traditional school curriculum, and I certainly won’t defend the No Child Left Inspired test-and-punish approach currently in vogue. But Woese misses the point that to get kids to go to college, to go into these fields such as microbiology where they can really start learning complex ideas like evolution, they must first want it.

The ideas of evolution – of the universe, of life, and of ourselves – have just such inspirational power. The story of evolution is epic, grand, and stirs the soul. To eliminate it from school curriculum leaves that curriculum that much less inspiring. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. What is left in biology, then, if evolution is removed? What’s left is rote memorization, and we have an abundance of that already.

But Woese is right, too. He’s right that the evolution taught in schools is bad evolution. I have so many problems with traditional school education that I’ll never get through it all in a thousand posts, let alone one. To me, school is like this. Someone said, “You know, we really need to educate our children so that they can become productive adults.” Someone else said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, let’s start a school.” OK, now we’ve got a school. We need money. Let’s gather in some money through taxes. Oh, wait a minute. If we’re going to get tax money, we’d better prove that we’re actually teaching something. How do we do that? I know, we’ll test students. That will show how much they’ve learned.

“But wait; it’s really, really hard to test understanding of deep and complex concepts like evolution. That’s ok, we’ll just pick out some facts that arise from the deep and complex topics. If students can recite the facts, then that indicates understanding of the deep and complex topics, which is what we’re after in the first place.

“Ooh, first results are in, and some students couldn’t recite the facts very well. We must have taught them wrong. OK, we’ll change the way we teach until we can get them to recite the facts. There, we’ve made a slight improvement in fact recital, we must be getting better. There, even better that time, hey this fact recital thing is going pretty well. Wow, look now at all the facts our students can recite! Most of them get around 70% of the facts right, and only 30% wrong! I think we’ve really got something here. So now we’ve taught our students to pass the test by getting the right answer 70% of the time, demonstrating that they have a deep understanding of a complex topic like evolution, which was our goal in the first place. Aren’t we cool?”

The problem with the above is of course that while being able to recite facts from a deep and complex topic may well be a necessary condition, it is by no means a sufficient condition. In other words, someone with a deep and complex understanding of evolution would likely have little trouble reciting facts drawn from this understanding. But it is possible (and in a certain way much easier) to learn just the facts themselves, and leave the complex understanding out. The complex understanding then becomes something that “won’t be on the test, so don’t worry about it. Just know these facts, or at least 70% of them.”

The situation reminds me of the person looking for a dropped watch under the street lamp. “Where do you think you dropped it?” “Down the block, but the light’s much better here.” Standardized tests of facts are bound to show us something. The light’s better there. But they don’t show complex understanding, and that I think is what Woese is (rightly) criticizing.

So what’s the answer? I believe the answer is teaching. Teach for understanding. Teach so that your learner can become a teacher to others. Teach to inspire. I have no idea how to test that, but I know when I’ve done it. I can see it, feel it, almost taste it in the air. Inspiration is real, it’s powerful, it’s my drug, and it’s available to everyone, not just ph D microbiologists.

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