Our biology/English course recently dived headlong into the world of dichotomous keys. It’s a relatively simple concept to master, but the idea behind the use of dichotomous keys is lost on students. Students view the simple choice between A and B as normal practice in many classes. But the difference is that in those classes they are often told exactly how to define A and B. A popular video “I Choose C” makes the rounds at teacher’s in-services to demonstrate how the educational system takes the creativity from a student and gives them a tool to solve a task in the classroom–choose C. Not very helpful for the young lady in the video who is being asked to do a task for which she hasn’t been specifically trained. A dichotomous key–on the surface–seems like the same concept. Students must identify one or the other characteristic and move on in order to identify any particular organism.
When our students first begin applying the use of a dichotomous key we begin small–with beans. Even if they don’t quite understand the use, most students can identify a black bean if necessary. When they had to apply a dichotomous key to conifers the task grew more challenging. What we are always amazed by is that the students are often more challenged with having to make a decision from their own knowledge and trust their decision going forward. How does one identify “leathery” in a two dimensional sketch of a conifer branch? The fear of being incorrect in the decision makes some students panic. We always tell our students that they need to make a logical, well-thought out decision and go forward trusting that they have applied the basic tenets they have learned, experienced, and tested. Then trust that their application will lead them to the correct solution. And sometimes, we warn them, they will be wrong. And when they are wrong to evaluate the solution and process and go forward–try something different.
We need our students to graduate with knowledge, but we need more students who are capable of applying knowledge with the understanding that getting the correct solution the first time is a rare occurrence. When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Yesterday we received the largest compliment ever!!! A student informed us that through her mistakes everyday she is learning the material. As teachers we want our students to succeed, but the speed at which they succeed is always a debatable point. If they succeed at everything new, the first time they attempt it, is it rigorous enough to be called learning? I did not learn to walk the first time I tried. I also almost drove my driver’s ed instructor into the ditch once. Students need an opportunity to struggle. And an opportunity to step outside of easy and really have to, as another student so eloquently puts it, “you make my brain hurt.” Don’t be afraid to allow your students the opportunity to learn to walk. If we carry them the whole way what will they do when you aren’t there?
Armour’s AHS bio/English course along with our math counterpart visited A Tail for Tales Taxidermist to gain a greater understanding of the design cycle along with a lesson on how content areas can not be contained within a single classroom. Thank you Larry Wold—you are the best.
Students in a problem based classroom are often presented with a conundrum they didn’t know they had until a question is asked. Although Armour, SD is a rural, agrarian area many students weren’t aware that GMOs affected their individual lives as much as they do. Many of our students had knowledge of the infiltration of GMOs in the daily food supply and the affect on the family farm, but many were simply not informed about either side of the debate.
So, why GMOs? It’s relevant to their lives today. It’s a concern in the media and markets across the world. In science it allows students to examine the natural plant, the genetic structure, the manipulation of the DNA, the workings of a plant, among other things. In math, they can focus on the financial side of our food supply, cost of raising genetically modified crops, how many more bushels can be obtained at what cost, etc. And in English they have to analyze research and biased sources as well as the debate we held in class. History plays a part with that ever present question: What will happen if and what happened before: the law of unintended consequences.
Nothing makes a teacher’s heart swell than when a student says: “I never thought about that before.” It’s a phrase that shows a student’s critical thinking and application to their own lives.
The town hall debate and all classes can be viewed on YouTube by searching for South Dakota Innovation Lab. The GMO link demonstrates what our students can do without direct instruction and some guidance by the side.