Getting It Less Wrong: Some Thoughts on Introductory Science Teaching After Biology 101, Fall Semester, 1993


PAUL GROBSTEIN

DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY

BRYN MAWR COLLEGE

BRYN MAWR, PENNSYLVANIA 19010

(610) 526-5098 pgrobste@cc.brynmawr.edu


Science and life are both processes not of becoming "right" but rather of becoming "less wrong." Briefly discuss why this is an important distinction, and illustrate it using whatever concrete "less wrong" understanding about biology you acquired and were most impressed by during this semester. (Biology 101 final examination question)

"Science and life both involve constant experimentation, not that solutions and answers may be found (because, not having been give a blueprint for all of existence we don't know that answers really are answers), but that the best available summary of observations of existing data may be given... The "less wrong" understanding of biology that I gained is what I just discussed above. It was life affirming for me to know that it isn't the business of science to find truth ... as the few attempts of scientists to do so have been so horribly limiting and narrow minded. It was this new freedom in science that impressed me most this semester."

"Science and life are by and large trial and error processes. In both, you try out something (an experiment) based on what you know to date (hypothesis) and you make some conclusions which you then add to what you know to date. This is a cyclical process in both sciences and in how you lead your life ... During this semester I became more aware of the interdependences and similarities between many aspects of biology, be they different body systems, different organisms, different ecosystems of populations, different molecules or atoms, etc. There are concepts which underly all of which biology which I was not aware of before and which I had not gained an understanding of from previous biology class experiences."

"I was most impressed by the fact that behind the immense diversity and variations of existing life forms and observations there is nevertheless a commonality below life forms, namely that all living organisms are composed of atoms and differ only in the highly improbable arrangement of these atoms. I simply did not know about this common principle that all living organisms share."

"There is no "right" answer, just as there is no perfect organism ... No one species is better ... Similarly, there is no one right answer, because what is right for one may not be for another ... Studying Mendel and counting the corn kernels in lab pointed out to me the pleasing interplay between simplicity and complexity in biology, which also made me personally "less wrong"; biology is logical but whimsical at the same time."

"This moves us in direction of not necessarily toward "the truth", but away from ignorance. This process is paralleled in science and life. Throught the semester, I gathered my own observations about biology as a discipline, rather than as a series of facts. I learned how science and, in our case, biology, incorporates other disciplines, and how it can be subjective. This moved my thinking away from the notion that biology is a huge amount of memory work."

"In both science and life organisms are constantly trying to determine what is less wrong - this is how we learn. The "less wrong" understanding that I acquired and was most impressed with was the similar qualities and needs of single-celled and multicellular organisms: both are semi- bounded, semi-autonomous, semi-homeostatic, and reproducing with variation. That was stated at the beginning of the semester, but it really became clear at the end of the semester, once I could see parallels between glycolysis/cellular respiration and digestion, cell boundaries and the skin, the water needs of the cell and the water needs of the blood. This has really unified things for me and, I hope, allowed me to see a "less wrong" big picture."

"It is important to distinguish between becoming less wrong as opposed to becoming right because there is no such thing as becoming "right". The understanding of this concept in itself is one which impressed me most strongly this semester. One can never be "right" because an hypothesis can never be proven, it can only be disproven or supported. The best available summary of existing observations to date is not right but just less wrong than previous summaries which had less information or had synthesized the information in a manner inconsistent with further experimentation. This is an exciting idea for me to contemplate with regard to both science and life (which are, of course, the same) because one is never allowed completing, one is always encouraged to make sense and synthesize a new observation, one is always forced to revise perceptions and to avoid paradigmatic thinking. Being right is death to thought, is growth to life. Being "wrong" opens up exciting worlds of possibility and development. I discovered that being right was wrong and that this was alright!"


I've just finished grading final exams for Biology 101, and they reinforce a feeling I've had all semester that something has gone rather dramatically less wrong this year. It is not just the enthusiasm and sophistication displayed in the answers to a particular final exam question (one of four essay questions and twenty-five short answer questions completed in a three hour exam period, so students were writing off the tops of their heads and must have been thinking about these things). The whole semester has been unusually pleasant, low-key, and exciting. There has been much less concern among the students about grades and what they are supposed to know, and much more genuine interest and interaction on a whole array of matters in biology and beyond. Something has definitely gone less wrong. The interesting questions are what?, why?, can I keep it, mommy?, and could we maybe get even less wrong in the future?

I suspect it is not actually a what, but rather a whole interacting series of whats. There was, though, at least a symbolic keystone: a decision by the group of us teaching the course to eliminate assigned textbook readings. Students were required to purchase a textbook, and encouraged to locate and read relevant sections, but at their own initiative rather than by assignment. This change had two concrete motivations. Introductory biology textbooks have become overwhelming accretions of facts, and we had found in prior years that students were confused by the relationship between lectures that treated broad concepts and the mass of detail they found in assigned readings. The elimination of assigned readings was intended to reinforce the message that the intent and level of the course was defined by lectures and not by a textbook. The second motivation for dropping assigned textbook readings related most directly not to students but to faculty. We had found in past years that faculty, despite their commitment to an introductory course different from that defined by available textbooks, nonetheless tended to use textbook chapters as a foundation for their own lectures. If we were genuinely intending to teach a fundamentally new and different course, it seemed essential to free it from even this residual dependence on the definition of biology used by textbook publishers and the biologists from whom they seek advice.

Colleagues aware of our plans expressed considerable skepticism about whether a course could be taught without assigned textbook readings. "YOU try it, and let me know how it comes out" was among the most encouraging reactions. Many predicted disaster and major student rebellion, on the grounds that students would insist on being told exactly what they were supposed to learn from the course and complain vigorously if they weren't told. If you are not going to use a textbook, we were advised by many, you must at least provide detailed lecture notes. What we did instead, with some trepidation, proved, I think, to be at least as important as our original motivations for dropping textbooks assignments. We decided to take the bull by the horns and include the following statement in the course syllabus which all students received on the first day of the course:

Biology 101 is not a "typical" science course, one in which the primary concern is to efficiently summarize a particular body of facts that students are expected to learn. It is, instead, a course predicated on and structured in terms of the fundamental activities of science itself, a process in which facts (observations) motivate ideas which in turn motivate observations which in turn motivate ideas in a continuing recurring interaction. One immediate consequence of this is that Biology 101 may place on you somewhat more responsibility for your own education than you have become used to from previous science courses. You will be given no list of particular things you are "supposed to know." You will instead be invited to listen to, read about, work through in your own mind, and contribute to an ongoing discussion of the relation between observations and ideas in biology. It is our belief that the experience of you making biology make sense to yourself is the most valuable thing you can take from this course, and also the most effective way to define and learn what one is "supposed to know."

There was no student rebellion on the first day of the course, nor on any other day. In fact, there was very little reaction at all to what we had come to think was a highly risky, revolutionary step. There were a few questions the first day, some of the let's see how seriously they mean this kind, others asking what this meant for studying and exams (the syllabus discussed both). And, during the semester, students would come in to ask again how they should use the textbook (read it, see what interests you, and how it relates to lectures; read it several times; do not try and learn it by underlining it). The great revolution was, on the face of it, a fizzle. For me, that was an important lesson in its own right. I too have had students yelling at me because I am not being clear about what they are supposed to know, and had begun to presume that that was simply the way this generation of students behaves. In fact, I now think that's not true. Students, as always, are quite willing to follow the lead of teachers, so long as the teachers send clear and nonconflicting messages about what the educational experience is about.

In subtler ways, though, the no-textbook decision did contribute to a revolution, or at least to getting things less wrong sufficiently quickly to make it noticeable. It put students on notice that the course was intended to be something different, and, even more importantly, that it was to be something in which they themselves were to be actively involved and responsible participants. The no-textbook decision had, as intended, the same effect on the faculty. Teaching introductory biology, indeed any introductory science course, is frustrating with everyone looking over your shoulder, trying to tell you as a faculty member what your course is supposed to achieve. Textbooks symbolize that. One needs to teach this, because the medical schools want it, and that, because some students might actually major in biology, and the other thing, because some students aren't much interested in the environment but might get hooked by a human interest story, and so on and so forth. Its conflicting, with nothing hanging together except by the arbitrariness of what has to be there, and no fun. Without a textbook, one is free to think by oneself about what is really interesting and significant about biology, not what someone or other outside thinks students ought to know, but rather what really matters. To anyone. Space suddenly opens within which to move, to try and make something of one's own. Scary? Perhaps. Time-consuming, certainly. And very exhilarating. At least that's the way we responded to it. Alright, let's clear the decks and do this RIGHT (or, at least, less wrong).

The no-textbook decision was important, for all three reasons mentioned, but I'm pretty sure the course would have fallen on its face (or worse) if we hadn't also done some other related things less wrong as the course proceeded. Several of these had to do with examinations and grading policies. The course syllabus laid these too out at the outset:

Examinations
Consistent with the philosophy of this course, examinations will be structured to encourage you to consider the relations between observations and ideas. You will not be asked for particular facts. You will, however, be required to display the kind of concern for concrete observations which is fundamental to scientific discourse. A typical question might, for example, ask you what particular observations would support a particular conclusion. Such a question might be answered in terms of observations described in lecture, but could equally well be answered by clear descriptions of relevant observations gained from your readings or elsewhere.

Grading policies
Diversity is fundamental to successful biological systems at all levels of organization (including that of human societies). It follows necessarily from this that no single measure can adequately reflect the distinctive efforts and achievements of any individual taking a given course, nor can your grade in any given course be taken as an adequate indicator of your performance in other contexts .... During the semester grades will be reported as percentages of available points ... Final percentages in the vicinity of 85% and above have in the past fairly consistently translated into final grades of 4.0, those in the vicinity of 75% into grades of 3.0 ... You should take this score as only one measure of your performance, taking into account as well your distinctive objectives and your own sense of what you have achieved in relation to them. Should you have questions about the significance of your grades in relation to career objectives, faculty members would be happy to discuss these with you. Our general experience is that extended discussions of the legitimacy of particular grades is, however, not only unproductive but detracts from the broad perspective on life and its challenges which this course is intended to encourage.

What is more important is that we consistently followed this guidelines, so that students became progressively less skeptical not only about examinations and grades but about the more general intellectual atmosphere we were trying to create.

Midterm and final examinations all consisted of short answer and essay questions, which were designed to assure that they could in fact be answered in a variety of different ways. We willingly met with students to talk about what they "meant to say" but insisted on evaluating written answers in terms of what was written (and insisted that what was written had to clearly distinguish observations from interpretations or conclusions). Examinations were marked and returned with a set of sample answers, usually with additional general comments (including, in one case, an apology for a poorly constructed question). In addition, we stopped posting grade distributions for the class, on the grounds that each student's performance was being evaluated individually, so that relative measures of the standing of a given student in relation to others was irrelevant. As the semester wore on, we saw fewer and fewer students primarily interested in talking about their grade on particular questions and more and more wanting to talk about the differences between scientific writing and what they were used to prior to our course. We also willingly and happily met with increasing numbers of students wanting to talk about their career choices. And increasing numbers who wanted nothing more but to talk about how something they had seen (or heard or read or thought) related to something talked about in the course. In short, despite grading and examinations (or, more accurately, because of the simple and straightforward spin we put on them), students came to see us as we wanted to be seen: as colleagues sharing a common task of getting everything less wrong rather than as prescribers of the right.

All of this helped to create a mood of mutual trust, but it would, I'm fairly sure, have felt increasingly artificial and ultimately collapsed if the pedagogical style and the actual course content weren't mutually reinforcing. There is no way on god's green earth that students can feel personally and responsibly involved in dealing with subject matter so focused that it requires a graduate school education to appreciate its significance. And no particular reason why students should feel inclined to try and become personally and responsibly involved with such material (other than that it is in textbooks or on national examinations). There is, however, every reason for students (like anyone else) to be personally and responsibly involved with questions like what is science? and what is life? and why are people different from one another? and how and why are we different from other living organisms? and what's inside of me? and where did it all come from and where is it all going? None of these (and many other similar ones) are answerable questions, not in the sense of there being a "right" answer. But that is part of the point. They are questions about which one can quickly become "less wrong" by exploring subsets of the enormous mass of observations that is modern biology, and, equally importantly, questions which students are interested in and have thought about. Needless to say, they are also questions that interest biology faculty, insofar as they can shake off years of professional education that tend to make them vaguely shameful to think about, much less to talk about openly. In short, they are a natural take off point not for faculty "teaching students biology", but rather for a mutually informative set of interactions among people who have varying amounts of relevant observations. In any case, in lieu of a textbook, we used as a touchstone in deciding what to include in the course, not what biologists think students should know, but rather what really MATTERED, to anyone.

This, of course, also freed the faculty to take a fresh look at biology themselves. Evolution, of course, is fundamentally not about getting things "right" but rather about getting them "less wrong". So too is immunocompetence. Both depend heavily on apparently random processes, which play a critical role in diffusion, chemical equilibria, and how the brain works as well. Chemical reactions exhibit aspects of homeostasis as well as autonomous behavior, as do cells, organs, organ systems, individuals and communities, for not entirely dissimilar reasons. The biosphere consists of interacting populations, which consist of interacting individuals, which consist of interacting organs, which consist of interacting cells, which consist of interacting molecules, with some common principles holding everywhere one chooses to look. In short, given time to look and think, it turns out there is actually more cohesion to biology than is apparent from either its textbooks or its history. One needn't necessarily teach biology as an apparently arbitrary series of disconnected topics. It can instead be taught in terms of broad themes, with the various topics both illustrating them and drawing from them. It goes without saying that this makes a course not only broadly more appealing but also more comprehensible in its parts. Cell biology taught by itself has to be remembered by itself. The parts of a cell as an example of the general phenomenon of multiple interacting parts are remembered because of a host of connections to other things. Observations, ideas, concepts don't do very well by themselves (as the parts of living systems don't) but have a robust existence as nodes in larger and richer webs of connections.

Why did things go less wrong this semester? There were five faculty members involved in the course, and six teaching assistants, and more than two-hundred students. Ask any one and you'll get a different answer, I suspect. That's as it should be, a course too is a complex web of connections. What you've got here is my answer, and even that is not simple. A number of interacting and mutually reinforcing things all went less wrong. Still, it seems to me there are some general themes to hang on to, and maybe even to try and use to be even less wrong in the future. The first, of course, is to begin with the proposition that science does not deal in "truth"; its progress and movement is instead away from ignorance. The second theme, made possible by the first, is to invite students to engage in the process, as opposed to being passive recipients of its product at any given time. And this, in turn, means talking about science that matters, that relates to the questions that are common currency to all human beings, regardless of their background. Underlying all this is the dependence on a new freedom for the faculty teaching introductory science, the freedom to create, to define the field, as cannot reasonably be done by its specialists, in the act of developing and teaching the introductory course.

That the subject matter of biology is so obviously a developing, progressively "less wrong" complex system might, I suppose, make it seem that biology is a special case, one in which the subject matter motivates a particular pedagogical style which would be less successful in other introductory science courses. In fact, I think there is nothing unique about biology among the sciences. Our focus on biology as a developing, progressively "less wrong" complex system was idiosyncratic, an acknowledgement of a reality about biological systems which many biologists choose to ignore. My suspicion is that, with substantial intellectual validity, the same choice to view the subject matter of any science as a work in progress can easily be made. In any case, science itself certainly has that character, in every one of its disciplines, and that suffices for the purpose. One might also argue that biology is unique in being a young, relatively fragmented, and atheoretical science in comparison to more mature more hierarchically organized sciences in which certain things simply need to be known before others can be discussed. This too seems to me more a matter of temperment and choice than of reality. None of the sciences sprang de novo a graven set of tablets. They all began in natural philosophy, as efforts to make better sense of experiences common to all human beings. They can accordingly all be treated as they in fact emerged historically, in ways that continually address, involve, and make sense to all human being.

In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. Why did it take so long? and have we now got it right? No, of course we don't, and not only because there is no such thing as "right". There are very real obstacles against teaching science in even the beginning "less wrong" way described here. Teaching science as a work in progress, one in which students are active participants, is enormously more time consuming than teaching science as truth. And it is a kind of teaching which depends on faculty who have not only the time, but also the inclination, background, and experience to treat science as a broad human activity. Rewards for concrete demonstrations of knowing more and more about less and less, the touchstone of our training and evaluation of scientists, is neither good preparation for the kind of teaching described here, nor adequate encouragement for those inclined to do it. The proper question is not "why did it take so long?" but rather "how did it happen at all?" To which the answer is there was a fortunate concatenation of compelling circumstances and able faculty members who were willing, for a variety of reasons, to take substantial time away from activities which promise greater immediate rewards. Alright, but its done, at least? We now at least have a course, and it might trigger some better teaching elsewhere as well? No, you haven't been listening. Its "less wrong" this year, but being "less wrong" isn't being "right". The general lessons are certainly less wrong, and implementable, but they are not actually so surprising and they have to be made concrete anew in ways which are different in each discipline and in each institution and, most significantly, in each year. Can appealing and engaging "less wrong" science teaching spread through disciplines and institutions and become a stable part of undergraduate science education? Yes, of course, but some other aspects of our educational and scientific communities are going to have to become "less wrong" too if they and we seriously want it to be so.

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