How Real is YOUR Computer?

“Students have to learn what’s real!”

tree frogThis was offered by a New Jersey biology teacher who had just heard my presentation at the NJEA Convention on the changing perceptions and expectations of students with respect to K-12 animal sacrifice for purposes of dissection. This teacher had every reason to be upset with me, as I had implied that students who didn’t share the thrill of dissection perhaps had a point.

Modern students need or expect some sort of technological solution to the ways they interact with the world. Case in point, frog dissection, where in many states, as in California, there are regulations that require teachers to provide an alternative to dissection of live or preserved specimens. Frequently those alternatives involve some sort of digital simulation. The objection commonly heard from teachers is that is not an authentic or valid experience in terms of science learning. If you use a computer, you’re just “playing” science rather than “doing”science, right?

From my perspective I share that feeling and perception, as in my own experience I was immersed in dissection of animal and human tissues from high school through graduate school, and my ways of relating to these phenomena were informed by that experience. I wasn’t keen on pithing the frog in high school, but my dissection skills were second to none in college, including human cadavers. I loved it no end, and I still have my box of “ghoul tools.”

Digital natives, on the other hand, have created extremely vibrant social communities in digital media, and that experience clearly, on many levels, is an enhancement of community-building and overall interaction, an experience central to personality development in adolescents. Students have, as a consequence, become more socially reflective and instantly reactive to their friends’ needs. These networks may not rise to the level of deep, mature insight, but at their level of maturity they have been central to peer community-building, so among them has grown the expectation they be provided with a digital means to explore topics of interest to enhance or even substitute traditional pedagogical practices.

Perhaps those of us who don’t consider digital experiences “authentic” need to consider the fact that many modern surgeons and interplanetary explorers are using technological interfaces to do 100% of their work. In the world of nano medicine, genetic therapies, forensics, and innumerable other professions, there is nothing but a digital interface for getting the job done.

Before we leave this idea of “real” experience, it might serve the secondary life science teachers well to consider how we’ve changed what’s “real” for modern kids. For the last couple decades, science curriculum has been 18th century prosection theatercreeping into younger grades, with 5-7 year-olds learning about food webs, life cycles, and the interdependence of life forms on our planet. Their media are full of stories of endangered species and their changing, threatened planet. Do we adults have the liberty to question why they feel as they do about animal sacrifice? How would we feel if we were expected to study anatomy as our predecessors? I don’t know about you, but I’m not particularly up for grave robbing of the freshly-hung for my anatomy class. This was fairly standard practice a scant hundred years ago.

The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has responded to their changing student body by replacing the traditional dog cadaver anatomy lab with study of plastinated specimens, and the one-way kill practice-surgery has been replaced by a guided spay/neuter procedure, an experience providing not only the animal with a post-surgical future, but also the pre-vet the satisfaction of doing what it is they came to school to learn, healing and helping skills.

Any educator over age 25 or so would do well to periodically crack open this idea of “authentic” for themselves, and do the standard “compare/contrast” of what is authentic for us versus what is authentic for our students who will never accept that our authentic experience is more valid than theirs. The teacher who gains access to their students’ world view and connects new meaning to that world will be in the position to actually do the world-changing we came into this profession to do in the first place.

For future posts it might be interesting to explore what this means for teacher professional development. Are the skills we should be nurturing in our teachers more about practicing analytic empathy than it is software expertise?



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