Monday, January 19, 2009

Thinking with Charles Darwin

On February 12th we are going to celebrate (some would probably prefer to say "deplore") Charles Darwin's 200s birthday and on November 24th 2009 the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" - in short called The Origin of Species. Another milestone of his work is the book "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" which he published in 1871.

Although many other scientists have worked on evolutionary theories, Darwin is the one who built his on the principles of mutation, variation and natural selection and the common descent of living organisms. The convergence of Charles Darwin's theory, with Mendel's findings on heredity, with the discovery of the DNA and it's role in heredity, but also with Wegener's theory of the continental drift and with many other theories have conducted to our modern view on the origine and the development of the living organisms, the face of the Earth and the Universe.

Ok, this is all stuff that you can read up in most science books and on the Internet. But there are two reasons why I think that it is important to bring this up on my blog on educational matters.
First, teachers are those who have to deal with the conflict between scientific findings and beliefs. Second, teachers have to encourage the development of critical thinking and scientific thinking - at least that's my point of view.

Regarding the first issue, there is a serious risk that science is not taught as it should because,"Teachers hesitate to offend to religious beliefs of their pupils even when these directly contradict scientific fact." as Richard Dawkins puts its. (For more information see: "The Genius of Charles Darwin" Richard Dawkins; ; in 10 episodes.)

To get a feeling of how serious this problem is taken you should read the report "The dangers of creationism in education" by the Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Council of Europe published June 8th 2007 (Doc. 11297).

But there's the other issue. There is a risk that science is not taught as it should be, because schools continue to rely on a concept of transmission of knowledge which has much more in common with indoctrination and brainwashing than with teaching or with scientific thinking. I would even go so far as to say that this is not a risk but a fact in most classrooms.

To open a science book, to paraphrase the content of a chapter on evolution for example and to impose on the students that they memorize and recite the theories that have been presented has nothing - nothing at all - to do with anything that comes close to scientific thinking. Such a practice fosters belief, not very different from religious belief, but not thinking.

I see the same risk when students are asked to choose a "science" subject, to gather information on the Internet and to translate them "into their own words", during a few so called "project work" lessons. Even if this maybe more motivating and even challenging than to follow chalk-and-talk lessons, this isn't sufficient to produce thinking young people either. In my view this approach mainly produces superficial and fragmented knowledge and seldom helps students develop a transferable critical attitude, particularly if gathering and assembling of information is a substitute for discussion, negotiation of concepts, formulation of questions and hypothesis, reconstruction of scientific interpretations, justification of choices, evaluation of different viewpoints and analysis of their dependency on the sociocultural context in a specific period in history etc. (see also

What's the use of such teaching if in the end, most of what is left of it are some simplistic beliefs (why should I call them concepts?) of how things work, were it mathematics, language, learning, intelligence or evolution.

Am I asking to much from school? I don't think so. I am asking less but more in depth work, much more time spent on one project and a lot of socratic dialogue. If you are of those who persist on thinking that past teaching methods were useful to develop scientific and critical thinking, I suggest that you design a test like the ones that have been developed for the PISA survey, but for adults - parents, teachers, whoever you want. You will see right away what I mean - as sure as death and taxes - and you will acknowledge that a lot of teaching has been, continues to be and will be for long nothing but a big waste of time.

But, we started with Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory.
How does it work again? ……………………………………………………? Who cares?
If it's important, and if I need it, I'll find it easily on or in some other bible.
And if you give me some time, I'll put it in my own words if you prefer.
But there's this question that I can't get out of my mind:
Do I believe what I read or do I understand what I read?
Let's see if I can find the answer to this where I found the other one.
If not, maybe it's not a good question after all.

image sources:

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain

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