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BSIE 2010: Session 21

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education
K-12 Summer Institute 2010



  Session 21

Case Study: Development, Order without a Conductor

Greg Davis

Greg Davis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Bryn Mawr College.  In addition to studies of the intersections between developmental and evolutionary biology, Greg is interested in the history and philosophy of science.   Greg has also been helping the department think more about how to integrate assessment into its programs. 

Picking up  from Friday

As educators, we must be mindful that a classroom is a diverse population, and becomes a disability when there is inhibition.  It becomes an ability when viewed as a support ... Paul tends to tell members of the group what they do well, and suggests that they could possibly look at it another way in order to arrive at a better explanation to a puzzling question.  He conveys to each member of the gtoup that their input is valuable and desired.  The atmosphere of the classroom is open and uninhibited ... Mattie

Paul offers the shared story, the science, as perspective. He does so with his words and projected narratives complete with visuals from Serendip. He answers our questions and listens to our examples and restatements of his stories, and in doing so, engages us in the process of co-constructing a story ... elicits conversation between our unconscious and conscious brain, challenges us to reflect and problem solve in conversation and narrative ... Susan

I like how his sessions start out with quotes from everyone's comments on the forum because it allows us share each other's understanding and prepare for learning about what makes different students different ... Shoshana

"The unconscious will back off and shut down if it feels that the conscious is being too direct." ... Don't let your unconscious conjure up some not appropriate comment at the wrong time ... Jack

This morning's conversation which connected the unconscious with the conscious loop to the interpersonal loop to the culture/society loop got we to thinking about diversity and individuality ... Paul stimulated something in my unconscious that expressed itself in my conscious that caused me to pause and say what if....?  The what if's are the doorways to the mind and to creating unique situations not only for me but for my students .... Judith

The most important concept for me is the idea of “co-constructive conversation”.  During the last 2 weeks I gained new understandings of myself, and others (including my students).  By being willing to listen, without judgment, to others allowed me to make connections to previous knowledge and come to a deeper understanding.  By being willing to share some of my thoughts I, hopefully, allow others to reach new understandings.   This process is very liberating to the “soul” as well ... By engaging in this type of conversation, you are not only climbing, but you are helping others to climb with you ... Regina

Differences can exist theoretically, but until there is a problem to solve the differences do not really come into focus ... Species do not evolve in a vacuum and new understandings in humans do not arise without a problem to solve ...  All differences are useful somewhere and in some context.  But, not all differences (different stories/theories) are equally useful for solving  A particular problem.  Therefore, a problem to solve also gives educations a way to adjudicate between stories ... 

encourage diversity, in others and in one's self, and  set up problems and pose questions that give common purpose to the construction of new understandings through open-ended empirical, transactional dialogue/inquiry among the diverse individuals ... Wil

Important point.  Thanks, Wil.  One suggested modification of Wil's modification: "... that give INDIVIDUAL AND commmon purpose ..."  The key here is that it would be nice if everyone shared a common purpose but it is enough (and minimally necessary) if everyone sees SOME purpose whether or not those are "common."  Ditto re the product: everyone needs to feel they achieved new understandings for themselves.  So much the better if there is a sense of new common understanding ... Paul

What puzzles me is how to use co-constructive dialogue in situations where there is no opportunity to assume that role, specifically when dealing with those in supervisory positions granted authority by their title and position in the Institution. Are there situations where teachers have to "know when to fold?" ... Susan




Greg Davis's picture

thanks to all for your feedback

Thanks to all of you for the opportunity to get some feedback on my butterfly eyespot presentation.  Both Keith and Regina (and perhaps others) suggested I need to get some butterflies in everyone's hand so they can see them up close.  What I'd like to do is to allow everyone to look at them through a microscope on their own.  Regina (and perhaps others) suggested that I have a written handout, with major points but at a minimum a glossary of important terms. Those are both great suggestions.  Hopefully I'll have a simulation that students can run on laptops in the lab.  If this wasn't clear already, please feel free to modify or use the ppt presentation in any way you see fit.
As to my particular prompt concerning the right balance of entertaining alternative explanations versus "moving on", the reason I asked this was because this point was particularly frustrating for some students in the portion of introductory biology I taught last spring. Each section was about 40 students, so this perhaps explains the frustration. Jessica in particular got to witness this in introductory biology but wrote above that it worked well in this context (the summer institute), probably because the group was small enough to make it manageable. I do think that students' frustration with giving air time to students or alternate perspectives/explanations is partly due to previous experiences with more authoritarian modes of teaching and just wanting to know "right answer", with less appreciation that the textbook descriptions of many phenomena are, in fact, merely our best guesses at our current place in history (this is a brief discussion I had with Keith in the hall). Nevertheless, when the group gets to be large, one has to be sympathetic with students that are frustrated with just too many viewpoints taking up too much time.  Mattie suggested that 35 students is just too many to be trying to entertain all voices, and I suppose that is probably true.  Although changing formats and breaking up into pairs or small groups seems to be a good strategy to give voice to as many students as possible. I also think it just depends on the group; one may reach a point with a small but very engaged, vocal group when it is time to move on lest the conversation stagnate.  This is a tough judgment call that experience likely makes easier.  I think two years ago I presumed that students in my classes were more bored than they in fact were. I learned that I needed to slow it down and be more interactive.  For intro biology last spring I think didn't calibrate for the larger size of my class and the pendulum sort of swung a bit too far in the other direction.
Thanks again. Best wishes for the rest of the institute and next year teaching. If you have any questions or comments for me please feel free to email me (

Keith Sgrillo's picture

A Job Well Done


First I think it is worth mentioning that you did a spectacular job handling the technology issues.  I really felt your pain.  Ha ha.  I use lap tops with the students in my class and I cannot tell you how much time seems to be wasted trying to get those things to cooperate with what we are trying to accomplish. I really liked the way you continued to talk to us and ask questions during those periods of computative noncompliance.  I just wanted to provide you with a list of observations of what I saw and experienced during your presentation.


-You did not come off as an authority on the topic.  In fact you stated "You would know more than me."  This really levels the playing field as it were and makes students/learners feel comfortable.

-staying poised duiring tough times.

-gave plenty of and varried think time.  I like that you differentiated the amount of think time based on the level of the question you asked.  Great management technique.

-Great explanations both technical and then putting things in a working definition.

-Great analogy using the flags.  this really helped me to understand the point.

-PASS THE BUTTERFLY AROUND (ha ha).  I was dieing to see it.  This could create some distraction as it did for me because I was thinking about the butterfly when you were talking.  


I think this was a great lesson. 

Gregory Davis's picture

Thanks Keith. I will

Thanks Keith. I will definitely try to have more actual butterflies and scopes when I do this next time.

Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Inquirying Minds

After reading some of the comments from the session, I am worried that we have a incomplete story of what Inquiry is and why inguiry is just one form of learning.  As teachers, we need to be able to have several degrees of inquiry.  Sometimes if we just allow our students to just think about what they think and express what they understand without the terminology we would see what they know is a lot .  And what they might need to know might not be that different.  Sometimes we bombard our students with so much terminology that they shut down before they even start. Take one step at a time!

Paul Grobstein's picture

inquiry skills

Delighted to have Greg contribute to the conversation.  Among the things that struck me, picking up on Ingrid, was the need to have a session on "inquiry skills."  There are methodological practices that have developed in science (among other places) that it would be useful to talk about more generally.  Among them:

  • distinguishing observations from interpretations
  • more and less effective interpretations
  • using interpretations to motivate effective new questions/observations
  • recognizing that interpretations influence observations
  • understanding that randomness plays a role in observations
  • isolating causal factors
  • recognizing that correlation is not equal to causality
  • recognizing the difference between observations implying necessity and those implying sufficiency

Maybe a session for a future institute?

joycetheriot's picture

Tangential Conversations

In any size classroom, I believe that it’s necessary to develop alternate ideas. My large classes start out exploring their own thinking and I’m looking for a variety of responses. Then we shift into a small group setting and the group facilitator may be one of the original respondents whose job is to gather all the opinions of their own group using my constructed frame similar or sometimes different to the one I used initially, and engage in the same process. The frame will have them identify the similarities and differences of the opinions, discuss and see if it’s possible to ultimately come to a consensus based on the evidence and/or logic of the arguments.
We come back to a whole class discussion and the groups present what idea or ideas that they value now. Again the whole class discusses the differences and similarities mostly facilitated by the group leaders. Lastly we take a step back and decide what we all perhaps value as our class consensus which may still be multiple ideas. With a printed frame and structured time limits this rich interaction can be accomplished in one class period.

Often when the class lacks consensus and the students are emotionally charged; I will do one of two things: first allow more time on another day because I’m very interested in what the students are revealing about their content understanding or I will simply end it that same day and tell them that they are feeling what scientists themselves go through. I describe that when scientists collaborate, they get frustrated, and perhaps angry but eventually go back to work on gathering m

How I organize the information that I gain from this and other methods I use in my classroom is described in my portfolio: Probing Understanding.(under construction)


GShoshana's picture


It was interesting for me but hard to follow the teacher and to understand the material. it was missing information in the beginning in order to understand his lesson better. When we were trying to solve the problems and work with a friend it give us the opportunity to practice what we had learned and a good way for most of us to participate in class.
I felt like a student in class who was having a hard time understanding new material with no introduction to the terminology needed to understand everything, and needed more examples and activities. That's why the teacher needs to be much more alert and paying attention to everyone's needs in class, because everyone learns differently
until they come to a certain level of understanding and comes to class with certain preconceived ideas.  More dialogue, activities and practicing in class in order to engage in the lesson would be more helpful.

Gregory Davis's picture

I agree. I think I could try

I agree. I think I could try to "keep tabs" on everyone a little better. Also, having a list of vocabulary terms handed out or on the board might have helped.

Jessica Watkins's picture

Cells...or People?

I really enjoyed Greg's presentation, particularly the way he started it off by saying he wanted our help in making his lecture  more interactive.  The fact that he immediately told us how important our feedback was to him transferred a lot of authority from him, the "conductor," to the rest of us and put us in the mood to learn with open minds.  I found myself more receptive to his teaching techniques knowing that he was expecting us to be critical in a way.  However, I actually felt less critical because he had started out saying this.  Beginning with 'learning objectives' seemed like a good way to structure the lesson, and it certainly contributed to a sense of "common purpose" toward which we were all working.  But does this preemptive structuring limit free-flow thinking?

Because I had taken Greg's class before and was familiar with much of the terminology in his lecture, I had the luxury of being able to think more passively and abstractly about the material rather than actively learn it.  I was surprised at how many connections I made between cells and morphogens and students/people in general.  For example:

  • Camouflage: Butterflies use it to hide from predators in the wild. Do we use it to blend in to what we perceive to be "right" or popular so we can avoid "predators" like stereotyping or discrimination?
  • Cell fate: Each and every cell in our body is "fated" to turn out a certain way or be directed to a certain part of the body for a specific task.  It's interesting to rethink the concept of free will, or even just true freedom at that, when we are entirely composed of things whose fate is predetermined.
  • Different cells are shaped by concentration gradients via morphogens, but specific patterns of things like pigment are dependent on environmental factors: Just like students! We are all shaped by a greater culture and understanding of life, but on a closer level we are affected by factors such as family life and personal experience.

Overall Greg's use of the participants' opinions to answer questions and devise experiments was quite good. I did not think that his entertaining alternative explanations was detrimental to our conversation at all; in fact, at multiple points I discovered that the answer I had thought up that I thought was "right" could really benefit from the opinions of others.  I think his technique worked because he could balance group discussion and thought with actual lecture time during which he would "teach" us in the traditional sense of the word.  However, I think the size of our group also helped this along. Because we are in a setting of a small, close-knit seminar (and because Greg teaches at a small liberal arts college) it is easier to listen to individuals' opinions and take them all into consideration within a discussion.  On a larger scale this might not work because the time needed to answer every question and satisfy every raised hand would be immense in comparison to the time needed to actually get through material, and class time is often limited.

Greg Davis's picture

hmmm...interesting question.

Hi Jessica (I assume this is Jessica),

How is a cell fundamentally different from a multicellular organism or different from a primate or different from a human? (Old question, but obviously not completely answered.)

Jessica Watkins's picture

Communication and Growth


I really can't think of many differences; similarites are what comes to mind. Both cells and multicellular organisms are gifted with the ability to communicate (cells through the release of chemicals and signals, humans through conversation and other vocal abilities), meaning they are not passive, static beings but rather interact with their environment.  They both have the power to change things arounds them, although the extent of this varies.  I guess one difference is that cells mature and reach their "final" stage of being much more quickly than humans--they have much less wiggle room to change.  In fact, they  are "fated" to a certain part of the body to perform a certain function, whereas with humans the idea of "fate" is seen as something that inhibits growth and individual will (particularly in our country, where individuals are treated as things that can shape their own destiny and become whatever they want).

cdivo39's picture


I must admit I wasn't very taken with this lecture. Like Jack, I was taken aback and didn't quite understand the terminology. Some of the ideas were interesting, but not quite as compelling as I would have liked. This type of biology would take time for me to take everything in and understand.


Greg Davis's picture

Thanks for your frankness.  I

Thanks for your frankness.  I think (and hope) that when this is supplemented with more problems and excercises in lab that it will be more accessible.  I think a clearer set of definitions will also help. Thanks for the comments.


Wil Franklin's picture

Follow Up Question from Greg Davis

Greg would appreciate if you could comment of your thoughts of his presentation as well as respond to the following question:


Was too much time spent entertaining alternative explanations from the participants?  Is there a threshold size to a class where entertaining tangential conversation becomes detrimental?

Mattie Davis's picture

Entertaining tangential conversation: time alotted + class size

For our purposes, this morning,  I felt a sufficient amount out time was allowed for entertaining alternative explanations from the participants.  This seemed to be evident from the groups' responses to questions at the end of the lecture, which were designed to check the groups' understanding of the information presented in the lecture.  Our group size matched the time alotted.  After the lesson, I felt that we had used our 'valuable time' wisely.  Yes, I truly believe that a group is a diverse population.  Yes, I do believe that most members of a group have relevant and important information to share on various subject matter. However, given a much larger class size, it would probably be "overkill" to entertain explanations and comments from every, or even most members a large group.

In the preparation of a lecture/lesson, there are certain outlined key points the teacher wants to "bring home" to each participant.  Once these key points have been mentioned in the culminating conversations, it may be time to move on before it becomes boring, drawn out, redundant watered down, etc., or simply just a waste of "valuable time".  Consider the lesson that has been alotted one hour.  If there are 35 students in the group, should each student be allowed time to speak?  If each student is allowed to speak, what should the minimal amount of time be?  How much time would actually be left for implementing the lesson?                                                                                                                       Each lesson and group are different.  Individual consideration should be given for each individual group, with consideration given for size of group, maturity of group, familiarity with subject matter, etc.

RecycleJack Marine's picture

Why do you build me up a butterfly?

I really enjoyed Greg Davis's interactive lesson on a butterfly's morphogen system. I immediately thought of my own career path when Greg defined morphogen in his lesson as,  "how can a morphogen system be altered to cause a change in the resulting pattern?" I looked back on my career as a teacher and where I am ending up this fall. Wil told me today that this position may be the best place teaching for me so far (in my career). I don't want to stray so far from commenting on today's activity and focus more on Jack Marine. But the metaphor is strong and must be attended to! My teaching career has been a pattern of desiring opportunities to teach through inquiry. But my impovershed management skils and the population of the school's I've taught at have prevented me from changing the pattern. I know what systems generated the pattern. It was easy for my mentors to establish the "eyes" in my teaching style. On one side they saw an educator who has a passion for science and a love of the environment. On the other hand they saw an educator who did not function well in the Inner-City environment.

Now let's look forward to this coming school year. If you look inside my "cocoon" now, which is the bag of tools I am now preparing for this year's teaching position, you will see that the cells forming my (butterfy) wings are already partially formed. They are formed by my twelve years of classroom teaching and my committments to learning by doing. My distalless proteins have begun to form my new "eyes" that will make me more successful than I have been at any other teaching job, at least during the past four years. I am being magically transported from one part of the butterfy's wing   (last year's school) to another part of the wing (my new school), where my "eyes" will successfully appear, albeit in another confifuration of the talented educator that I will soon become. Whew!! What a metaphorical impression Greg's lesson created in my imagination. I hope whomever is reading this will be able to preen from it the positive comments about Greg's lesson today.

Keith said that he has to decide how much content to cover in his lessons, whether the lake should be deep, or be wide, and Greg said that he "trims" the content from his presentations so his students really get something out of his classes. The students I had this year were not very interested in what I had to say about anything, so I'm hoping those I have this year will have some interest in our subject matter. If Ingrid says that you have to develop a lab that is deliberate and has directions that are very specific, that's because labs need that rigidity. But in class, we need to take students well beyond their level of comfort, well beyond the basics. I hope I'll find out this year that using an inquiry approach after teaching the neccessities, will create the new "eyes" on our student's wings that will lead them into an ever evolving metamorphic world.

Greg Davis's picture

Cool metaphor

Hey Jack,

I love the metaphor.  Most teachers would view themselves as the "focus" of the eyespot...with a morphogen diffusing out and influencing surrounding cells (students).  But to make the metaphor work for us, maybe we should think about how each of those cells, depending on where they are in the wing, will respond to the same signals (or lesson plan) very differently.  Food for thought?


Regina Toscani's picture

Session 21


    First, thank you for your presentation.  My worst science subject in high school was Biology.  I could never "get" most of the content that the teacher was presenting.  I am pleased to tell you that I was able to follow your presentation.  There are a few points that I am mulling over, but that's ok.  Since I am more of a visually learner a written hand-out would have been beneficial.  Also, if you write on a blackboard, make sure that all can see and read it. 

     You covered a lot of difficult, somewhat abstract material.  The used of the 2 national flags gave me a concrete hook into understanding.  Perhaps another concrete model will have been helpful.  Definitely pass the butterfly around, perhaps while you are setting up any technology equipment.

     As far as a how much time is needed to spend on participants sharing alternate explanations depends on the group.  It helped me to hear some of my fellow participants thinking.  However because the size of the group was relatively small, the sharing did not distract me.  I do not know if there is any "threshold size" to determine the "right" amount of sharing.  I do believe that using your own judgment and experience, you will be able to determine the best time allotted for such conversation. 

     Again, thank you for your time and interest.  The best of luck to you in your teaching career.

Greg Davis's picture

Thank you for your

Thank you for your comments!


RecycleJack Marine's picture

Entertaining Mint

Forgive me for the play on words...No, in our case there is never too much alternative dicussion among institute participants because we are educators and we love hearing our own voices! No one is there to judge us and Paul seems to find our "jewels" among our "common stones." But since you are teaching (paying for college) students, there should be a limit, and in your case I would suggest that you welcome further written responses if you have students who are overzealous in their desire to respond.

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