Biology: Basic Concepts
Book Commentary – Experience and Education by John Dewey
This course has given me many new insights into biology. One of the most valuable is the understanding of how truly interdisciplinary it is. Whereas before I had viewed all the sciences as very distinct from other fields and extremely self-contained, I now understand that there are many untraditional ways of looking at and connecting with any of the sciences, especially biology. With this mindset, I set out to deconstruct Experience and Education by John Dewey. Experience and Education is actually classified under educational philosophy, as Dewey essentially sets up the foundation for the current incarnation of the American public school system. However, there are many aspects of this book that, upon examination, are quite relevant to the study of life.
One of the most obvious ways in which Dewey’s ideas relate to the perspectives we have explored lies at the heart of the “non-traditional” science course methodology of exploring biology. Before learning about the characteristics of living things or their improbable assemblies, we explored the idea of science as a “loopy story telling perspective.” In order to do this, we compared it to the traditional “hypothesis leads to experiment leads to conclusion” model in science. This dichotomy between traditional and more progressive approaches in science resonates with the split between the traditional and progressive models of education. As Dewey notes in his book, the traditional model of education is characterized by the strict assignment of the teacher as a vessel of knowledge and the student as a passive receiver of knowledge. This approach is also marked by practices such as rote memorization, standardized testing, and lecture. In the traditional “hypothesis leads to experiment leads to conclusion” approach to science, the same rigidity exists. This approach views the exploration of science as a linear path, not accounting for the fact that discovery, and often, the human mind does not function in a linear fashion. The rigidity of “hypothesis leads to experiment leads to conclusion” pushes the process of discovery into neat little compartments, which cannot contain the “loopy” way in which discovery is made.
The “loopy story telling perspective” approaches a science as a process of becoming “less wrong” rather than being “right.” In this perspective, science is like an ongoing story because it is an unending process of making observations, interpreting and summarizing these observations, then making new observations, interpretations, and summarizations. Being that there is no “right” and “wrong” in this approach, something can become a “fact” when enough people in a community agree that it is the “least wrong” out of all the available interpretations. The progressive model of education is similar to this in that it allows all the actors in school system more freedom. Rather than a linear path of knowledge from the teacher to the student, progressive models acknowledge that it is actually more of a constant flow of exchanges between the teacher and the student. It is less important to get a question “right” than it is to understand the question and the reasoning behind different answers, so that eventually the student learns how to ask his own questions.
Just as I have learned how to apply concepts from other fields to biology, it is also possible to apply concepts from biology to other fields. An extremely interesting concept in biology that crosses the border into educational philosophy is the idea of categorization. Categories are human constructs, built to help us better deal with and adapt to the world around us. They do not truly exist outside of our minds, but they are useful in certain contexts and for specific reasons. Analogous to this is the idea of social control in educational philosophy. When a group of children gather to play a game, tag for example, they all follow a set of rules. According to Dewey, these rules are not tangible at that moment; there is not necessarily someone supervising to make sure that these rules are followed. Yet, most people will follow these rules as if they were more concrete structures. No one will disobey these rules because as a community of tag players at that moment, they are exerting social control over each other. This control is subtle; there is not necessarily one person issuing commands or exerting the control in a way that would distinguish him as the leader. Instead, because they are all following these silently agreed upon rules, the community of tag players will maintain them since no one wants to be outside of the community. Social control and categories, like “facts”, are agreed upon and put into use by a majority population, a community of people who find that that method of categorization or control suits them for a purpose at that moment. Categories are maintained by people until they cease to be useful, at which point a new system will emerge. The label of “social control” is in itself a categorization that will remain until a large group of people decide that it is no longer adequate.
Experience and Education, being a book about educational philosophy,raises the question of what is the best way to teach science. Biology requires a certain degree of rote memorization before you are equipped enough to ask questions. However, once the stage for rote memorization passes, there can be so much creativity in provoking intellectual debate. Or, you could choose to bypass the rote memorization altogether and choose to focus more on teaching based on the questions that students already have. Dewey’s reply to this debate is that educators should embrace and incorporate progressive ideas, but without completely abandoning traditional ones. Thus, he suggests a combination of traditional and progressive models as the most useful way to teach. Can this be accomplished in science? How would you go about combining the rigidity of “hypothesis leads to experiment leads to conclusion” with the motion of the “loopy story telling” approach?