Friday, November 18, 2011

"What are they teaching them in schools today?"

Something I've noticed with a lot of my students is that they don't seem to have a lot of mental flexibility (for lack of a better term).

For example, in one of my classes, I was teaching a dihybrid Mendelian cross. This is where you have two unlinked traits, you have to be able to figure out the combinations of offspring two parents could have. The most complex situation of this is double-heterozygotes, such as AaBb x AaBb. The main trick to this is figuring out the types of gametes each parent could make (in this case, AB, aB, Ab, and ab) and then properly recombining them.

So I worked out an example of the double-heterozygote for my lab students. And then turned them loose on the exercises, which include figuring it out for a DIFFERENT double heterozygote (same exact situation but different letters/different traits) and a double heterozygote crossed to a double recessive.

I was kind of startled at how many people shut down on the second problem...I thought I had emphasized that the "trick" to this is figuring out the types of gametes, and had gone through a couple examples, but the students couldn't look at an aabb individual and see that ab was the only type of gamete it could make.

What startled me even more - after showing the AaBa x AaBb example, and then the students having a RrTt x RrTt example in the book, how they COULD NOT TRANSLATE what they learned from the AaBb example to the EXACT SAME SITUATION WITH DIFFERENT LETTERS.

I see this a lot - knowledge seems to be very 'compartmentalized' - it's all cook-book, it's like some students are just learning to pull a certain combination of levers without thinking about what those levers do, and so if the levers change - even if it were a minor change - they're lost.

Now, I realize, people who become professors were atypical students, but I find this kind of attitude tough to deal with. Surely in everyday life you're met with new and different situations that are kind of like what you faced before, but also kind of different, and you learn to adapt to them?

I wonder if some of this...flailing...that some students do is a result of being taught to the test: that they're learning content, but not learning what to DO with that content. That they can solve the kinds of problems most likely to show up on a standardized test, but they're not taught that those problems are "templates" or guidelines for dealing with similar problems.

I don't know. Somedays I think what we should do is scrap public school 'as she is taught' and go back to the Trivium and the Quadrivium. (Logic, grammar, and rhetoric; arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.) Or something. I'm really amazed at how many of the students coming through my's like they're intellectually out-of-shape, they're not used to thinking hard about stuff, and instead of being like me after the holidays and going, "whoa, I got really pudgy, I probably better get back in training!" they complain about how "haaaard" everything is and shut down.

I DON'T think they're stupid. I don't even really think they're lazy. I just think the people who can't do this stuff (a small percentage, true, but they're enough of a drain on my energies that they seem like a lot) have never been faced with this kind of a challenge and they don't want to take it on. It's frustrating, because from where I stand, to succeed in med school or dental school or at need to be up to those kinds of challenges.


Jill said...

I see this all of the time at work. The students who rotate through (Most are undergrad seniors) know the lecture material, but translating that knowledge to the lab is so hard for some of them. They've learned in more then one class that strep is catalase negative and staph is catalase positive. They've done the catalase test on both in college labs. Now they are at a real lab in a real hospital with a real patient isolate from a real wound. The gram stain is gpc -- what are the two major genus that we need to differentiate? Ummm... What biochemical do we use to differentiate them? Umm... If I gave them a quiz on a sheet of paper they would know the answer. If I give them a petri dish with an isolate and some peroxide...


Kate P said...

Yeah. . . I've got sixth-graders who completely messed up a homework exercise because they didn't read the direction and look at the really, really, REALLY well done example. (My guess? They're in a hurry and are dashing through it because it's not an "important" class. We meet once a week.)

So I'd also say that they're being taught to do everything fast. If the answer doesn't come quickly, it's not worth doing. Or getting, apparently.