Evolution of science education as story telling and story revising

Paul Grobstein's picture

For years, I've been exploring ways of being a "less wrong" teacher.  And that means, among other things, noticing new problems that come along with creating new ways of being.   Science as story telling and story revising has a lot of appealing features to it, ones I expect to go on using.  But it also creates some problems that in turn need to be recognized and addressed.  The refusal to take as a goal the conveying of a particular set of observations and understandings risks leaving at least some people with an uncomfortable uncertainty about what to reach for.  What is one trying to achieve, as a student, as a teacher, as a community, in a science as story telling classroom?  In hindsight, I think I've never taken that problem seriously enough, made it sufficiently explicit what I am asking of people who study with me.  Perhaps I've never made it sufficiently explicit to myself either.  To begin addressing this problem, I've done some rewriting of the course materials for Biology 202, a course I've been teaching for more than two decades.  Below are excerpts from the rewritten materials for  2010 and, for comparison, the materials as they were in 2009 and had been more or less unchanged for several years.
Yes, Bio 202 is still about science as story, about the process of creating and revising understandings, but it is now, hopefully, more explicitly about using stories, both one's own and other peoples', to conceive new less wrong individual and shared stories, both by oneself and in interaction with others, both for oneself and for others.   
 

From 2010 course home page
Students (and visitors) should be aware that this is a "non-traditional" science course in several respects (see course information).  Its primary goal is not to convey a particular set of observations and understandings but rather to facilitate the sharing of observations and understandings so as to generate understandings as yet unconceived and further inquiries reflecting them.

From 2009 course home page
Students (and visitors) should be aware that this is a "non-traditional" science course in several respects (see below, and Science as Story Telling in Action for further background)

From 2010 course information
Learning objectives:

  • To become more familiar with the observations and interpretations that studies of brain and behavior make available to expand ways of thinking about what it is to be human.
  • To enhance skill at evaluating the usefulness and limitations of such understandings in the context of more general individual, social, and cultural concerns.
  • To acquire greater ability to engage in productive public discussion of research in the area of brain and behavior and its practical and conceptual significance for enhancing understandings of life, human and otherwise.
  • To achieve new, previously unconceived understandings for oneself and contribute to others doing so. 

Course philosophy: Science is neither "Truth" nor a body of facts and understandings to be learned.  Science is instead a particular approach to making sense of the world and one's place in it, an approach characterized by

  • a reliance on observations, rather than authority of any kind, as the root and continuing test of understanding
  • the use of the implications of existing understandings  to motivate new observations that might in turn yield new understandings making sense of a wider array of observations
  • the public sharing of observations and understandings so as to motivate new observations and understandings that make sense of a wider array of observations
  • an optimism that existing understandings will always be the source of new and more useful understandings yet to be conceived, itself rooted in a skepticism of all existing understandings, including those generated by science

The primary function of this course to to provide you with an environment in which you can become more skilled at scientific exploration in the area of neurobiology and behavior, rather than to convey a particular body of existing observations and understandings.  Existing observations and understandings, both those of other people and your own, are relevant insofar as they contribute to the development of new understandings and associated new questions in yourself and in other people.  Accordingly, the course is organized to facilitate an exchange and exploration of existing observations and understandings, both from the scientific community and from our own lives, with the objective of generating, individually and collectively, understandings as yet unconceived.  As such, the course may be of interest to students expecting to do more advanced work in any of a variety of fields. It is also a course that requires a serious, active, and continuing engagement from students, including regular attendence, a reasonable amount of self-motivation outside of class, and a willingness to work and think publicly as well as privately. Lecture/discussions will provide you with useful observational and conceptual foundations from which you can proceed to explore interests of your own that you in turn will share with others, in this class and elsewhere. You will do so by additional readings, discussion, and writing based on your own current understandings and directions of interest in new understandings.

From 2009 course information
Prospectus: The objective of this course is to introduce you to the prospects and problems of trying to understand behavior in terms of nervous system function, and to involve you in ongoing thinking along these lines. It is a comprehensive treatment neither of research on the nervous system nor of that on behavior, but rather a consideration of the relations between the two. As such, it is largely a course on how to identify and investigate problems, rather than one intended to convey a predefined body of information, and may be of interest to students expecting to do more advanced work in any of a variety of fields. It is also a course that requires a serious, active, and continuing engagement from students, regular attendence, a resonable amount of self-motivation outside of class, and a willingness to work and think publicly as well as privately. Lecture/discussions will provide you with useful observational and conceptual foundations from which you can proceed to explore interests of your own that you in turn will share with others, in this class and elsewhere. You will do so by additional readings, discussion, and writing based on your own interests.

From 2010 course information re writing
Each web paper should convey a new understanding you have reached as a result of your explorations, one that you think may be helpful for others in their own explorations, and show directions for future inquiry that follow from the new understanding. It should be an informed, clear, and interesting discussion, using at least some materials on the web as references so others can readily access the to pursue their own inquiries, and exhibit the concern for both observations and rigorous interpretation which is fundamental to science.

From 2009 course information re writing
Each web paper should be an informed, clear, and interesting discussion, using at least some materials on the web as references so others can readily access the to pursue their own inquiries, and exhibit the concern for both observations and rigorous interpretation which is fundamental to science.

 
Addendum:
The project, for both teachers and students, is not to transmit/acquire new understandings but rather to create new understandings.  And this is not such a daunting task.  One starts with whatever understanding one has, made explicit, and looks for observations (including other understandings) that challenge that, responds to the challenge by the creation of a new understanding, and repeats.  Central to this is persuading everyone that they in fact have relevant understandings (see "expertise" in 2010 course notes) and that differences in understandings between people are valuable in creating new understandings (see "the crack" in 2010 course notes).    

randomness