"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, March 2, 2017

When We Think We Know What We Do Not Know

Intuition is our ability to understand something immediately without conscious reasoning. Intuition is shaped by our experiences. As a child grows, intuition is influenced by peers and elders. Thus, when a child enters a classroom, that child does not have an empty mind. We have recently and increasingly acknowledge the important role preschool years play on basic education. Children who were provided greater opportunities for exploration and play enter kindergarten more prepared. We do not really begin with a clean slate in basic education. Children begin school with some knowledge. Oftentimes, we see this as an advantage. However, this can also be a hindrance for learning especially for the sciences.

For instance, we often neglect water pollution. Nives DolÅ¡ak and Aseem Prakash cite one reason:
Water pollution is less visible. Of course, water is key to human existence. But one important insight is that water pollution often is not visible and therefore is overlooked. Citizens tend to focus on problems they can see and experience.
There are a lot of pollutants in water that are not visible to the naked eye and this of course clashes with our quick judgment that water is clean if it appears clear and colorless. Biology, like chemistry, is also affected by what students think they already know. And intuition can serve as a huge obstacle to learning. The theory of evolution, central to modern biology, frequently goes against what we have learned from our own limited experiences. Evolution takes place on a time scale that is obviously longer than our life span making the concept quite difficult to grasp. Coley and coworkers have worked on analyzing how our intituitive thinking is affected by learning biology. Their work has been published in the journal Cognitive Psychology with the major finding that intuitive thinking is so persistent that it should really be considered as a major challenge in science education:

Intuitive biological thought: Developmental changes and effects of biology education in late adolescence 
John D. Coley,Melanie Arenson, Yian Xu, Kimberly D. Tanner 
Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, United States, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, United States, San Francisco VA Medical Center, United States, Department of Biology, San Francisco State University, United States
A large body of cognitive research has shown that people intuitively and effortlessly reason about the biological world in complex and systematic ways. We addressed two questions about the nature of intuitive biological reasoning: How does intuitive biological thinking change during adolescence and early adulthood? How does increasing biology education influence intuitive biological thinking? To do so, we developed a battery of measures to systematically test three components of intuitive biological thought: anthropocentric thinking, teleological thinking and essentialist thinking, and tested 8th graders and university students (both biology majors, and non-biology majors). Results reveal clear evidence of persistent intuitive reasoning among all populations studied, consistent but surprisingly small differences between 8th graders and college students on measures of intuitive biological thought, and consistent but again surprisingly small influence of increasing biology education on intuitive biological reasoning. Results speak to the persistence of intuitive reasoning, the importance of taking intuitive knowledge into account in science classrooms, and the necessity of interdisciplinary research to advance biology education. Further studies are necessary to investigate how cultural context and continued acquisition of expertise impact intuitive biology thinking.
As mentioned in the above abstract, the researchers specifically looked at three components of intuitive biological thought: anthropocentric, teleological and essentialist thinking. Anthropocentric thinking, from the name, implies placing ourselves at the center of biology, that is, we use ourselves as the foundation for understanding biological concepts. We place ourselves apart from other species in the process. Teleological thinking always requires a goal or purpose for every event or existence. With this, we often incorrectly attribute natural occurences as purposedful events, like the sun shines for flowers to bloom, which is really no different from claiming that it rains when a political party that we do not like is holding a rally. Essentialist thinking is overgeneralization in the face of complexity. It is normal for us to assume that children are no more than carbon copies of their parents. All three can easily be seen as a major hindrance to understanding the theory of evolution. I have heard from a lot of people that they would never accept the theory that we humans and other primates share the same ancestors.

Clearly, how much a child uses intuitive thinking in biology can be measured. An example used by the researchers is a test on similarity, below is an example:
Of the following, which two are more similar biologically?
Choosing the pig and hen as the answer is an anthropocentric response. Both pig and human are mammals, both give birth to live young, both nurse their young with milk. A hen is obviously different from these two yet with a conviction that humans are unique from animals, we will always pick the two non humans as the answer in this type of questions. Amazingly, even biology majors think in an anthropocentric way given the following results:

Above copied from Coley et al, 2017
Students were given five questions similar to the example shown above and anthropocentric thinking is demonstratively present. Eight graders, colleges students, and even biology majors think that the human species is unique and should be set apart from other animals.

The above does illustrate a major challenge in science education. Yes, we do often complain about how children are not prepared to read and do arithmetic when they are young, but as they grow, science educators have to deal with the difficulty of making students unlearn what they think they know about science. And it is not easy and as the above results show; even those who receive direct college-level instruction on biology cannot easily unlearn.

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