A Second Look is Often More Revealing

Sometimes the simple challenge to think concretely about abstract concepts can be effective.

Sparks of Genius, p. 64


Perception is how our mind interprets data. Those interpretations are influenced by our surroundings, experiences, and biases. Root-Berenstein (1999, p.43) point out that "objective observation is not possible" because of the own influence our mind has on our senses and how they interpret information from observations.

I started this exercise by thinking about how we make observations in the biology classroom. Much of high school biology is focused on micro-scale systems - cells, molecules, etc. Observation of these systems often take specialized equipment which allows us to diagram, document, and otherwise describe what we see. I had a hard time reimagining how we experience those systems in meaningful ways, so I shifted my thoughts to macro-scale observations which relate to structure and function.


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by gingerbeardman

A car's structure helps it function effectively as a mode of transportation. We can look at diagrams and plans for different cars' structures and what their likely function is (eg. comparing a minivan to a drag racer). But a car is so much more than functional. A car can provoke emotional reactions - gut feelings about it's carness.

Perceiving is much more than just observation. The smell, feel, and sounds in addition to visual information help us form an entire picture. The car example I described is something we can all relate to. The feeling of acceleration, the smell of the gasoline...each adds to how we experience a car. The same can be true in the classroom.

Biology is a collision of abstract and concrete. If our metabolic processes were to shut down - an abstract idea to students - we would die in very concrete terms. Unfortunately, in many classrooms - mine included - the reality of concrete biology is lost due to the hyper-focus on abstract ideas. Students only see life as described through a textbook. Michael Doyle is a biology teacher in New Jersey who often writes, "stuff is stuff...nothing can change that." Even though that stuff is very small, it's still there, and our students need to experience it in new ways.

Diagrams and models are important, but there's a lot more to things that what we see at first glance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *