Ruminating on educating

Back in December, I was working on a rant/post about my preparations for a ‘flipping 101’ workshop. I’m new to blogging, and more used to flogging my writing until it’s as perfect as I can make it… and that post was just not shaping up. Thus the Acadammit! lacuna. I often suggest that my students just circular-file unsatisfactory writing, or use it as a word-mine when starting over. I really want to get the workshop behind me, and start turning my attention to my sabbatical interests. So here’s a second try:

The workshop was presented at the CSUPERB symposium last weekend. My co-presenters were CSU chemists Koni Stone and Jen Lillig (funny to have 3 chemist’s leading a biotechnology workshop! interdisciplinarity blah, blah, blah), and an outside expert Catherine Halversen – an Oceanographer from Berkeley who runs various ocean science education development/outreach programs there. I was really pleased to be included as a presenter in this lineup, partly because it was my idea. But I had complex feelings, too. I’m willing to admit that I’m overly enamored of my own opinions, and also leery of an organization as diverse, dynamic, creative as CSUPERB looking outside itself to see its way forward… see the recursive egotistical grumpiness? In the end, though, I’m an introspective guy, and I was also glad to participate so that I can learn how to play well with others! Is that too complex an admixture of gumption, assumption, and presumption?

When it came down to it, Catherine was great, and I learned some important lessons, beyond merely engaging in the redistribution of my not-insignificant idea-wealth to all and sundry! To introduce: the most important lesson I teach in my biochemistry course is: there isn’t always a right answer! Anything (like textbooks and carved-in-stone definition lists) that says otherwise is just not training you to be a scientist, or even a thoughtful human being.

So Catherine contributed a great practical exercise in exploring the limits of one’s understanding, which of course I love. Basically we melted ice in fresh or salt water, but coupled this activity to a hypothesis and prediction about which would melt faster. The lesson was even more poignant as the audience was 125 Ph.D biologists, chemists, engineers, and computer scientists, all of whom had logically-arrived-at opinions. You can well imagine the results (especially if you remember that people always think they know more than they actually do!); but the greatest aspect of the lesson was that there was no ‘ta-da!’ moment that revealed the answer. Since at the end many participants asked the same question as many students do, “ok, but what’s the answer?!”, one wonders whether the resistance to active learning methods derives from the instructors’ own biases, and not the oft cited time, technology, and content barriers. Anyway, we were modeling the stuff teachers must do, and the participants were modeling the stuff teachers have to cope with. Fun, instructive, and ironic all at once!

Not to dwell, but I love it when we just can’t know the answer (as long as we are allowed to pose testable questions about it!!!): Google, e.g., the ‘mystery tube’ or ‘mystery box’ activities hailing from the dawn of time (and see this National Academy of Sciences text from back in 1998), and thanks Koni for introducing them to me! Did I appreciate my co-presenters enough? I did; I do!

As for my own contribution, it mostly had to do with 1) the philosophy and literature that underpin my efforts at reforming my classroom and 2) the mechanics of how I enact this philosophy (why and how I inverted my biochemistry course). Probably it was the least interesting portion of the workshop, but anyway I love a chance to rant.

Returning to the ideas in my 3,000 word unpublished Acadammit! post in just few sentences. Why do I have to justify eschewing highly structured, content-heavy lectures in favor of hands-on knowledge construction? The answer is that I don’t! The literature is dense and stretches back deep into the mists of history… Here’s an instructive quote from a 1924 (1924!!!) issue of the Journal of Chemical Education:

“… teachers… have been able to counteract this [failure to see the connections between school work and life work] by bringing newspapers and periodicals into the classroom and so showing that what they were teaching was not something dead and gone, but a vital part of the stream of thought and action in the world today.” — E.D. Slosson (1924) J. Chem. Ed. 1(1):3 

1924!!! But my point is more complex. Even though it’s the literature that’s giving us the pass to make the change, the literature need not be our bug bear. We need not spend energy proving that every instrument we introduce into the classroom is publication-ready, with literature surveys and 95% confidence intervals! We just need to spend the creative capital (yes, it’s effing hard!) to make up good projects, and have the strength of conviction to try them (no, you won’t have time for every concept in your inventory!). Try them – try them even if they fail, try them even if they fly in the face of the students’ satisfaction, try them even if they do not lend themselves to success in the American Chemical Society exit exam, try them even if they do not obviously make our students more competitive in the race for ever more banal jobs. A colleague once advised me to do nothing that would not lead to a publication, and I have tried to heed him (see J. Chem. Ed. article), but I also feel that there’s too much litter in the literature, that there’s a preponderance of instrument-bound and ungeneralizable studies out there, so why add to the pile of over-interpreted research?

I’m coming up on my 1,000 words, so I want to wind up by saying that, in the end, I loved the chance to spend a few weeks conversing with a few new friends (my co-presenters) about ideas, and a few hours chewing on these ideas with dozens of colleagues. Hopefully, Acadammit! has pulled down something coherent from the idea maelstrom. The best thing about the workshop, though, was coming home to the kids and drawing pictures about our week…

photo (1)


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