Taxonomy!

My older students are learning about forests. There is a large range of prior learning in the group. One girl can name and spell all the taxonomic groups in Latin, a couple think it pointless to put things into groups because ‘everything is different’.

These days (she said, as she waved her walking stick at the kids on the lawn), there is a horror of learning facts. It’s not WHAT we know, it’s what we can do with what we know. And in a world where all facts can be googled, why learn them at all?

Here are two literary passages to illustrate how I feel about this school of thought.

“‘..Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

[…]

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’”

Hard Times C. Dickens

Thomas Gradgrind is a gigantic arse. His philosophy of teaching is short sighted, unsympathetic and obsessed only with what he can measure.

But even Sissy Jupe knows some facts. Maybe not facts that Gradgrind values, but she surely knows what you can feed a horse, what you need to do to tame one, how they can be ridden and other particulars. She would not say “Hang on, dad, I’ll go to the library and check in an encyclopaedia.” as the kids today are supposed to do with their googling. She does have a factual basis for her conceptual understanding of horses. They’re just not the ‘right’ facts. This is a whole different argument than concepts vs facts.

Bitzer, bless him, heaven knows if he has a conceptual understanding of horses. Probably not. It’s not what Gradgrind asked. But if I had him in my class, I could probably get him to apply those facts and see. If that’s a definition of a ‘horse’ how are donkeys different? What are mules? Are there any other creatures that match the description? Why does he think so? I could even show him horse skeletons throughout history and help him understand how horses have adapted down the years. I would have something to work with. More so than a boy or girl who has maybe heard of horses but does not really know anything more than what they have picked up here and there.

Here is my second excerpt:-

Matthew says , “Hold everything. Thomas Edison didn’t need any sleep.”

The guy from the other booth says, “Well, how about that? I guess I knew about the ponytail and the spectacles — well, and the kite, of course — but the insomnia is a new one for me.”

[..]

Mr. Norman says, “Thomas Edison said, ‘Hey, Watson, come here I need you.”

Mrs. Norman says, “No, honey, I think you’re thinking of Alexander Lloyd Webber.”

Matthew says, “Edison never slept and he invented electricity.”

Bear V Shark. C. Bachelder

If all that matters is what you can do with facts but you don’t actually know any, you are doomed to have misinformed arguments for the rest of your life. Being able to google a fact is great, a wonderful new tool in our toolbox. But to think that people will google every fact they think they know? Nobody has time for that.

People do need some facts in their brain. They are the building bricks of concepts. Anyone that tells you different is selling something.

Why do we learn taxonomy? It’s just strings of words and definitions. We can surely learn about ecology and climate change and food chains and all that meaty good conceptual stuff without knowing how a mollusc differs from an annelid.

But taxonomy shows something amazing about science.

Firstly: on the surface. You can see a family tree of all earth life and trace it back. It gives you an idea that we are all related. Even if you hate the theory of evolution  on religious grounds, you can see that something is going on with how living things are related to one another.

Secondly: not only do you see the evolution of life with the categories but the evolution of the field of biology. There are defunct groups, evolutionary blind alleys, groups that scientists were wrong about, living things that defy classification.

There are some great concepts there. Not least that even though ‘dogs’ are different from ‘spiders’ there are similarities and we can be very specific about what they are.

My first lesson with this class was to divide them into pairs or threes and they had to teach themselves the names and definitions of the different groups, then teach their group.

This did not work AT ALL. My students found it incredibly difficult to draw the relevant facts from the sources I gave them, even harder to be systematic about learning them and forget about teaching others.  Many got distracted with irrelevant (to the lesson objective), details and hardly anyone made any progress.

So, back to the drawing board.

I made two worksheets to help guide them. The first was a traditional list of questions. I had more than tests of simple recall on the sheet, I wanted them to use the facts they were learning to build some concepts. I gave it out at the start, to help them while they researched. (If you want to use it, feel free to take out references to the IB system). This worked pretty well. Having questions that are just a little harder than what you can already do is incredibly motivating.

(If they were all high end conceptual $10 questions, maybe my students would have given up because at the start of the lesson they probably did not know anything that would help them access the activity.  If they were all easy peasy google-this $1 questions, my students would have done it but I doubt they would have discussed the questions with each other and had the interesting arguments they did. Plus, since the answers are just on the business end of a search engine query, the answers are obviously disposable.)

The second worksheet was a bit of a gamble. It’s just a memory technique that I asked them to apply to the area of study. (If you want to use it, you’ll probably want to take out the references to my commute) Some students said they already knew this technique wasn’t for them and could they make index cards, some students said they already knew the words and other students did not really try it.

I was interested in seeing which students wanted to give it a go and how well it worked for them. It’s not for everyone, this technique, but it’s super-valuable if you can get it to work.

Then I made them flashcards to use at home.

My intention is to leave this area of study for a bit and talk about food chains/webs. Then I will reinforce these ideas by getting them to apply taxonomy to feeding relationships.

We are going to go on a trip to a local greenhouse with three types of rainforest and I hope to take them to a wood for a field study for further opportunities for application of facts and concepts.

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