Oct
28
2009

The Essential Biology Teacher

A week or so ago I started reading the new Dawkins book, The Greatest Show On Earth. Greatest Show It was on the recommendation of my Aussie friend, Stewart Monckton, (see his Amazon review at http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R1II4L8RD2QWWM/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm.)  Although there is much to think about and to comment upon in Dawkins’ latest discussion of evolution and evolutionary thought, it is the idea of essentialism or Platonic Philosophy that has stuck in my mind right now.

What is Essential Thinking and how does it relate to evolution and maybe more of why it is floating around my head and just what is an Essential Biology Teacher?

Let me explain in Dawkin’s own words:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and rabbits, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The rabbits that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of rabbit, the ideal, essential, Platonic rabbit, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood rabbits may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of rabbit.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bunnies. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we all rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Dawkins continues with his discussion of rabbitness and essential thinking and paints a picture of how essential thinking can put a stop to our understanding about how organisms are related to each other and how evolution itself occurs.  Great discussion!!   But as I was reading this I started to think about teachers.  Science teachers.  Specifically about biology teachers.  Is there an essence of biology teacher?  The perfect picture of biology teacher?  In fact lets have some fun with this.  I am going to take Dawkin’s words and do a little substitution.  I’ll be right back, I’m headed for my word processing application to play with this idea of word substitution.  Sit tight, I’ll be right back.

Here we are:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and biology teachers, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The biology teachers that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of biology teacher, the ideal, essential, Platonic biology teacher, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood biology teachers may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of biology teacher.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in biology teachers as a messy departure from the essential biology teacher, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real biology teachers were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Biology teacher In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard biology teacher‘, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bio teacher. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call biology teachers will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent biology teacherness, no essence of biology teacher hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous (this may be going a bit too far, but I continue,) whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Fun, but lets think about this for a short time.  The Essential Biology Teacher ! Is this what the Standards Movement is trying to create?  The perfect biology teacher!  The biology teacher template!  Even the word standard starts to take on a shaky meaning.  Is there a Standard biology course?  Is there even Standard biology knowledge?  Maybe I push too far?  We certainly want our students to have a basic understanding of the biological world.  Should we keep the bell-shaped curve in mind?  I certainly teach biology in a slightly different manner than Wally Hintz did/does (see an earlier post about my mentor Walter Hintz.)  If it was radically different maybe I could not be called a biology teacher, but slight variations are necessary.  Just as Dawkins says “There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit….”  We have to keep an open mind to variants of biology teacher. That is what this blog is all about.  ”Here’s how I do it….”  ”Maybe I need a few new tricks in my classroom….”  ”Did you ever think about trying this web tool?”

Sometimes I get fearful that the “tests” are creating Essential Biology Teachers. What do you think?  I would love to have some of your thoughts about Standards, Testing, and National Curricula.  I dont care what you say, my ears are NOT  longer than Wally Hintz’s!!! AND Becky is NOT growing a beard!!!

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Rich Benz--Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006

Rich Benz–Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006 (Student of Walter Hintz)

Becky Haller--The "New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich BenzBecky Haller–The “New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich Benz