Learning to Learn

I’ve been recently reading about early American history, especially the revolutionary period, and have especially appreciated authors including Joseph J. Ellis (The Founding Brothers, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, and His Excellency George Washington), and David McCullough (John Adams and 1776). One of the things that struck me was how dependent the founding brothers (fathers) were on books to learn new things. I know this is not a new idea, but in light of our challenge in schools in general, and science education specifically, one wonders how to instill the love of learning in our students. Science education prides itself on developing approaches to learning that incorporate student inquiry as the centerpiece. Yet, inquiry is not the dominant method of teaching used our middle and high schools. So, how can we help student with the notion of “learning to learn?” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as two examples, read to learn how to do things (build a house, become an attorney), and learn about new philosphies that were being published in England and on the Continent. They were laying the ground work for a new nation, and they had to forge ahead, without the aid of a “playbook” or “guide,” but with their strong beliefs in their abilities, and their courage that they were doing the right thing. How can we grasp this attitude, and create environments for students in which they pursue with passion something (anything) that is vitality important to them, and their community?

Inquiry: Learning to Open the Mind

One of my favorite columns appears in Newsweek Magazine entitled The Last Word by Anna Quindlen. In a recent piece (May 30, 2005), “Life of the Closed Mind,” Qundlen is concerned that in recent years (after 9/11), America has become a country that sets its young people the terrible example of closed minds. What is needed, according to Quindlen, is to create more uncomfortable experiences in schools and colleges, such as “exploring new ideas, encountering people with different values, learning a new discipline’s way of thinking and having someone point out a flaw in one’s argument.” In teaching, the way to help people develop an open mind is through intellectual inquiry. As she points out, inquiry is: “Learning to ask: ‘Is that true? Maybe there’s something to what she just said. Let me think about it. That’s interesting. Maybe I should change my mind. I changed my mind.'” Teaching that follows this path is artful and courageous. What do you think?

Using the Web to Transform Learning Possibilities

Fifteen years ago, a team of educators from Georgia took 6 Macintosh SE 20 computers, modems, and printers to the then Soviet Union, and then proceeded to install one computer, modem and printer in five different schools we were collaborating with (2 in Moscow and 3 in St. Petersburg). We connected each computer to a telecommunications system using the school’s phone line and modem. The World Wide Web as we know it today, had not been in use, so we only had email as our means of communication, but given the fact there were very few computers in the Soviet Union’s schools, this was a remarkable event. The five schools in the USSR were linked by a network known as the Global Thinking Project with five schools in the USA (four in Georgia, and one in Pennsylvania). Students collaborated on a series of environmental projects in which they conducted local research projects and then used the Network to share their findings with their partner and collaborating schools. Today we have the Web, laptops, and wireless environments. We also have 15 years of research on the problems and benefits of using these technologies to promote learning. The Web has transformed the way we do business, and the way we communicate with each other; it can transform the way we learn, and the way we impact learning in schools. For example, the Virtual High School enables students at any participating school take courses online. Online curriculum projects have been implemented and field tested over the past ten years including GLOBE, CIESE Collaborative Projects, Hands On Universe, to name just a few. The Web has great potential. What do you think?

The Case of iBooks in Cobb County Schools

This is the county in Georgia where I reside. I followed the story in the local newspaper on the Cobb County School District’s decision to provide Apple i-Books for all teachers, and students in grades 6 -12, beginning with an experiemental phase beginning next school year in four of the district’s high schools. It created an outrageous stir, especially with the editors of the Marietta Daily Journal. Not only did the paper print many negative letters to the editor (as expected), but the editorials were biased against the implementation of the program in the schools. Fortunately, the district’s superintendent held firm under intense criticism, and the first phase of the program, known as the “Power to Learn” will soon be underway. In my opinion, this is a couageous undertaking in light of our experiences with technology in schools. Putting iBooks in the hands of every student is a powerful idea, but will require a shift in the way teaching takes place, day-to-day. For example, the iBooks, with the district’s move to create a wireless environment, will enable teachers to link their students with students in other parts of the world in a variety of projects. One example of this is the work of I*EARN, which enables teachers and students to collaborate on a variety of projects in writing, language, science, geography, history and culture, to name a few. We’ll discuss other aspects computers in schools at this site. This gets us started.

Free Minds

“Dogmatism and sectarianism must go, for Almighty God had made the mind free,” said Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago (See Edwin S. Gaustad’s book on Thomas Jefferson). For decades, dogmatists have tried to convince us that its okey to teach evolution, as long as it is questioned, and as long as the “theory” of creationism was included along side evolution in the school curriculum.

The problem with this is that evolution was not the result of dogmatism, rather, it was the result of scientific investigation. However, there is some evidence that evolution might be taught using dogmatic teaching methods, but that is the subject of another discussion topic.

Creation theory might have a place in school, but not as a viable alternative to the concept of evolution. Creation theory (or any other idea such as intelligent design) on the other hand is not the result of scientific investigation, but rather myth or religious ideology. There are many stories of creation drawn from various cultures around the world. These do not constitute scientific thinking.

The theory of evolution as we know it today was the result of very careful field observations, collecting of specimens, measurement, cataloging, and analysis. For example, Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a contempory of Charles Darwin, and first to recognize the idea and mechanism of evolution, was a prodigious collector.

He sent to London 125,660 specimens of plants, animals, insects, and birds of the islands of the East Indies. He spent 8 years in the East Indies, and from that location came to an understanding of evolution, wrote it down in a paper and sent it off to Charles Darwin for his critique! Only after his very careful investigation of the organisms living in the islands of the East Indies, and over a long time, it “suddently flashed upon me [Wallace] the idea of the survival of the fitttest—that individuals removed by these checks must be, on the whole, inferior to those that survived.”

Wallace went on to formulate his idea, and send it onto Darwin. Teaching students about evolution is the perview and responsibility of science educators. Trying to equate the Biblical story of creation with evolutionary theory not only denegrates science, but religion as well. Science and religion can and should co-exist.

For more information on Wallace, you might want to look at Simon Winchester’s book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.