Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Something strange in lab that bothered me.

I do a tree-identification lab with one of my classes. We did it today. What I plan for the lab is this: I get out herbarium sheets (dried, mounted specimens of leaves and twigs), set them out, give the students some guidelines of characteristics to look for. After they've spent a while examining and drawing and writing descriptions of the specimens, I take them out on campus and show them what live trees I can (the ones we have representatives of on campus; not all of the trees they need to learn are planted right on campus).

This year, something new: several student whipped out their cell phones and began photographing the specimens rather than looking at them, drawing them, etc.

I didn't make too much of a fuss - after all, we're all told "PEOPLE LEARN DIFFERENTLY" but I have a feeling these students won't know the trees as well as the people who went slowly around the room, sketching each leaf, writing down details and characteristics of it.

And one thing I tried to convey when we were out on campus was that you often need to use multiple senses to identify something. Yes, I can identify most trees on sight - looking at the growth-form, the leaves, in some cases the bark - but I also like to feel the leaves of some species (there are a few that you can tell closely related species apart by the fact that, for example, one has hair on both sides of the leaf and the other only has it underneath). Or that some species feel especially waxy. And in some cases, you can use smell - my "verification character" for one of the cherries is to scratch a bit of the bark and smell for bitter almonds - because they make a cyanide compound in the bark.

(In a way, it's like being an old-timey ME or crime-scene investigator: you have to consider everything. You have to smell stuff, feel stuff.)

A few people halfheartedly photographed the trees in the field.

Part of me wonders: in the future, when there are "apps" for everything - tree identification, bird identification - where does that leave those of us who learned it the old-fashioned way? I admit the idea that everything can be called up on the cell phone makes me a little sad; I have put in many hours learning my trees and herbaceous plants, and I used to pride myself on how well I knew stuff and how fast I could identify things. Is an electronic brain going to replace the human brain?

But on the other hand, I think of my Grasses of North America professor, who would bring four or five species into the lab each week and then FORCE us to spend fifteen minutes looking at and drawing each one. "You should spend more time looking at it than you do drawing it" he'd say. Meaning - look at the details, pay attention to the characters, learn what's important.

One thing that worries be about the too-easy "e-learning" is that maybe people aren't stopping to look for what's important - that they get information overload and learn things in a very superficial way, but never plumb the greater depths.

I used to annoy some of my labmates in grad school when I knew a plant really well and could identify it fast. They'd ask me "How do you know?" and I'd sort of shrug and go "Gestalt". But that's true - that's how I'd do it. I'd have looked at the plant so many times that I developed a mental image of it, and I knew what characters to look for without even thinking about it. (I also have an excellent visual memory, I've found).

But I do wonder sometimes if by making things seem fast and easy - like taking a cell-phone photo of plants you're supposed to learn to identify - if people aren't somehow short-circuiting real learning.

I don't know.

It does make me sad that maybe my way of learning stuff - the time-consuming, slow, but ultimately rewarding and satisfying way - may seem outmoded now.

But we'll see - I made a mental note of who used the "slow methods" and who snapped pictures and scrammed. In a couple weeks I take them out in the field and it will be interesting to me to see if there's a difference in the knowledge levels and memory. I suspect there will be, but I don't know for sure.

1 comment:

Dave E. said...

I wonder if the pic takers are among those who think that they really don't need to memorize things anymore as they can always pull the answers off the internet when they need them. Kind of like the guy I know who doesn't bother carrying a compass in the woods anymore because he has a GPS unit. I'm not at all against taking advantage of technology, but assuming it will always be at your fingertips seems a bit foolhardy to me.