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This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Is knowledge acquisition the summit of education? #change11

I read "Systematic Changes in Higher Education" by George Siemens and Kathleen Matheos this weekend. The article has gotten me thinking on a number of topic, but I'm going to focus this post to one unspoken assumption that I've seen in a number of articles on the use of online networked learning and the role of the university; namely the idea that knowledge is what is transmitted during a course.
It is true that most courses are knowledge based, and there are some of my colleagues that focus only on the transmission of knowledge. Yet I see the transmission of knowledge as only a minimal part of a teacher's job. Of more concern is the training of a student in they ways to think. This post represents a building of this idea, as I'm still working this concept out.

The idea starts with thinking within your discipline. Even though they are both scientists, biologists and chemists approach matters differently. This is easily seen when you get them together to talk about specific topics we cover in both area. We sometimes even have different terms for the same thing. While we both may use the hypethetico-deductive model of reasoning (aka, the scientific method), our application is different. By the time I get students in my Principles of Biology class, they have come across the scientific method in high school and college chemistry. They can recite the list of steps, but they don't understand it. Not just the application, but what it means as a model of reason and knowledge acquisition. Part of my job is to dedicate them, not on a memorized list, but in terms of what it means to think within this model. Literally, train them in thinking.
I could give the students papers and notes, but until they exercise their brains by working through implications, it becomes a meaningless mental task. It is here that a teacher is invaluable. The teacher, by their own knowledge and experience, knows where the pitfalls are in using the model, and how to get around them. People have written books on this, but until you try it, with someone watching over your shoulder, it is just meaningless.
Part of this training in a reasoning model is also information filtering and knowledge management. Biology is an information dense discipline, with new information coming out weekly. So students must be mentored in knowledge filtering. This could be reading scientific articles, a task which is even daunting to graduate students, or just finding valuable non-peer reviewed information. Last week, I was on open study answering some questions when I saw a question about the nuclei in the heart (cardiac muscle). The first response linked to a page called Heart Nuclei. I don't the the poster even read the page, just the title. The page was a new-age mystical article about linking the heart to a higher power. It had no relation to the known cellular or physiological properties of the heart.