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Evolving from a Classroom

Student's picture

In our class, we were asked about evolution. We were asked to respond to Ernest Mayr’s book, What Evolution Is, and we were asked to think for ourselves about what this story of evolution could offer us. Unconventional for many classes, we weren’t told facts, nor were we dictated to by a professor. Making use of what we could was what we were asked for, along with independently thinking about these stories in our own mind’s eye. What did we learn? Ironically, this discussion on evolution seemed to show evolving in itself- the classroom was not, as it often is, a place for students to sit and teachers to teach, but a place for discussion, for learning, for thinking, and for changing.

Many of us were used to sitting in a classroom, taking notes, and reciting facts. These notes we were writing, and these facts we were memorizing, were thoughts that others before us had had, and, as it seemed, was all we needed to do in order to do well in the way of gaining academic success. I wondered to myself how memorizing some things that meant so little to me could be useful, beyond an arbitrary number grade, which more often that not seems to define academic success. It seemed that if we all were taught the same facts during our education, then when would we be able to explore more, in an academically enhanced setting? If evolution, which is hard, if not impossible to define in itself, is best understood as a process, or product of development, or growth (1), then our educational system is stunting the evolutionary process. There are only so many ways to recite a fact, making curiosity dwindle down with each memorized concept being rewarded by a checkmark and a point on a piece of paper.

Our class was not a conventional, or a traditional class, in the sense of a teacher lecturing and a class quietly copying. We were given a topic, and left to explore, and to question, and to think. Our ideas were valuable, and there was no fear of failure or of being the one that was wrong. After all, we were told by Professor Grobstein that we’re all always going to be wrong- that figuring out life, or the world, or any concept, was a matter of being less and less wrong each time (2). By this logic, we weren’t as torn between thinking for ourselves, versus repeating what we thought the professors would want to hear. There was nothing expected for us to recite back, and, as a result, the discussions went in directions that we could talk about- that we could get engaged in- because we were interested. Maybe we disagreed with someone’s idea, maybe we didn’t quite understand it- but that person, who had thought it, was there, and could discuss the confines of their idea, play with it, and let the rest of us grow and build off of it. It was in these discussions, in this unconventional emergent pedagogy (3), that we could see a kind of evolution for ourselves, and in ourselves.

Within the classroom, we had many different individuals. Granted, we we’re all humans, and by that, biased, in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. By biased, I mean that we have our own, unique set of DNA and genes, and our own, unique, interactions and experiences with the environment around us. Broken up into smaller groups, within our group, we were given a designer, to start us off, and to lead and to help us. Similar to the theory of intelligent design (4), but different in that our designer had no ultimate plan for where the discussion would lead to, or end up. After being asked about evolution- what we thought of the evidence, of the ideas, and of the presentation, we were able to form our own beliefs, our own stories, and our own system of ideas. We were then given the opportunity to express our thoughts, and to have them questioned, and our assumptions that played a large part in our opinions were broken down as we were amazed at how many paths one idea could take.

Some of us were more forceful with our ideas- less comfortable thinking that concepts, such as evolution, which has lots of evidence in the form of fossils, etc. (5), could possibly not be “right”, let alone, as Professor Grobstein suggested all was, “wrong”, to one degree, in one form, or another. Some of us enjoyed the chance to be creative, to suggest ideas that may seem far-fetched, but, in light of Professor Grobstein’s theory, could be closer to being less wrong. Some of us were quieter, preferring to carefully observe and listen and respond silently, in our heads, and later on the blog on the computer. I preferred the latter- I preferred watching gestures, and watching facial expressions react to thoughts and to words. I preferred to watch- to try to get as much, as complete, as full an idea as I could out of someone, and thought the best way to do that could be by just observing, as selfish to the rest of the class as that may have been. Then, there were those who fit into no category, if categorizing is at all effective- there were those who were louder sometimes than others, who expressed themselves differently every time, with different gestures, and new ways of presentation. All the while, our designer keeping us on track, prodding us to reconsider, to define, what we’re saying, without making assumptions others have told us- to just use our own minds to think independently, and to bounce off of each other, and think, for ourselves. It seemed to me that this must be such a clear example of evolution, or of the process of evolving.

If the classroom was the setting of our environment, and we, the organisms learning, and developing, and growing, then I think our discussions were evident of evolution, itself, in the most useful sense. We all emerged from the room with different understandings, questioned beliefs, and the discovery that the assumptions we have been making we, ourselves, know little about. After reading about some of the features of emergent pedagogy (3), and experiencing it from the student’s perspective, I think that, since much of evolutionary change is gradual, seeing our class, seeing our ideas change, is probably the closest, and most-in depth, in the moment, way we’ll ever get to experience evolution first hand. While there may be no right, or no answer, there is the process- the story- of evolution, left for us to consider and to be as useful to us as it can be. Experiencing it, ourselves, and being able to acknowledge this change- this growth- is something valuable, in that it creates not only a comfort in showing us that we can independently think, and independently create our world, without falling to the assumptions and beliefs we’re so often fed, but in showing us that evolving, and evolution, takes place in every organism, and that, if we’re given the chance to think and explore, we can evolve at anytime.





1. Evolution

2. “Getting It Less Wrong: Some Thoughts on Introductory Science Teaching After Biology 101, Fall Semester, 1993”- Paul Grobstein


3. “Emergent pedagogy: learning to enjoy the uncontrollable—and make it productive”- Anne French Dalke, Kim Cassidy, Paul Grobstein, and Doug Blank.

4. Wikipedia- Intelligent Design

5. What Evolution Is – Ernest Mayer, 2001


Anne Dalke's picture

evolving pedagogy



Well, you know you have an interested audience in me for this paper! And it’s nice to hear how much you’ve been noticing all that has been going on in the classroom. It certainly pleases me to think that our theory is playing out in practice—

Though, know what? Although I very much WANT to be convinced by your paper, I’m not quite, not yet. Your description is a lovely one, and the pedagogue in me wishes it were true. But where are the observations—concrete observables—on which your claims are grounded? You have a nice story (a very nice story!) but where is the data? What is an example (or 3, or 6) of something that actually evolved, actually mutated, actually changed in the course of the past three weeks? Does evolution in the classroom take place more quickly than the biological process that Mayr describes? In particular: how quickly can change (in learning styles, in particular) occur?

The first red flag for me showed up on p. 2, when you said, “there was no fear of failure or being the one that was wrong.” That is of course the theory, and the ideal. But I’ve had a lot of experience (way too much experience, this past semester; see my travel blog for lots of details!!) in getting it wrong in public, and feeling bad about it, to believe that it’s that simple. Just saying “there’s no failure” can’t enable students—who have been socialized for at least 12 years, probably more, to avoid the embarrassment of being wrong in public—to speak freely and without fear. I’m not convinced that all students (most students? hm…need some quantitative analysis here!) take comfort in thinking independently, and independently creating their world. There’s a comfort (surely?) in being led.

Which gets us to the characterization of the profs as “designers.” There are some gaps between the process of evolution, which does not have an architect, and a classroom, which does. How to negotiate those differences?

The other thing I want to talk about is of course your characterization of yourself as “selfish.” We’ll be talking, over the next few weeks, about Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and I’m quite intrigued by this idea that a student who doesn’t speak in class—who withholds from the “pool” whatever contributions she might add to the mix—is holding back the evolutionary process that is the classroom. That's the gauntlet, of course--mightn’t the real evidence of this being an evolutionary classroom be your easy (vocal) participation in it?

and I'm very much looking forward to your answer!