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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, October 3, 2011

Terminology

Over the last week, I've been looking at digital scholarship (#change11) and reading through papers on a variety of eLearning  topics.  One thing that kept hitting me is the use of terminology.  One of the classes I frequently teach is an introductory biology course to our majors, and I spend a great deal of time trying to untangle misconceptions.  A common thread that I have seen in elearning papers and blogs deals with ensuring that students utilize resources that are valid (i.e., not some fringe knowledge that does not apply to the topic).  Well, this brought me to a pet peeve I have about certain words that I regularly have to disentangle from my student's thinking.

I'm going to start with one that most people are familiar with: Theory.  There are two main ways people define this word: one colloquial, the other strict. When I first ask students to define a theory, over 90% will tell me that it is a conjecture or a guess.  This is the colloquial definition, and one held by may people.  Yet, to a scientist, the word theory has a much stronger meaning, and one that is counter to the idea of a guess.  For a scientist, a theory is an idea that is supported by a large, and often growing, body of evidence.  A theory is an idea that is so robustly supported by data, that we consider it a good working model of the universe.  Another idea that people have a hard time with is that science can not provide Universal Truths, instead, we build models of how the universe works.  The more we can predict and control with these models, the stronger we see their value.  A theory is not a guess, but a model that is robustly supported.  It takes students a while to change their mode of thinking on this word, and it is one reason that there are so many disputes between scientists and non-scientists regarding scientific theories, like evolution.

Evolution is the next word that has to be disentangled.  When I first ask students to define the term, before we even go into the theories, I get two main responses:  it is about the origin of life and it talks about how organisms change.  While there is a fringe of evolutionary science that focuses on how life began, most work is actually done with existent species.  Now comes the big challenge; evolution describes how traits within a population changes over generations.  It is not about how an individual changes.  A common misconception is that individual organisms change over the course of their life, and that is what evolution describes.  In evolutionary theory, you are born with your adaptation range (your ability to survive), and you will life within that range, breed, pass your adaptation range to your children, and then you die.  Unless your gametic genes (egg or sperm) mutate, none of your life experiences will go to the next generation (if you know anything about epigenetics, then you will know that there is some flexibility in this).  As I often say to my students:  "you do not evolve, the human population in an area evolves."  Of course, we have the concept of psychological evolution, self-help gurus tell you of personal evolution, and new-age groups will tell of spiritual evolution.  The meaning of the word has degraded to a colloquial definition of change, but it misleads and detracts from the beauty of the strict meaning (and there is a great deal of beauty in evolutionary theory).  Even the concept of co-evolution, which again can be a truly astonishing event, is considered an individual alteration.

The last word of this pet peeve is ecology.  As an ecologist, there is a strict meaning of the word to me, but I know that colloquially, it represents relationships between organisms and other organisms, or organisms and their environment.  Sometimes, it is degraded to just being a mere habitat (or virtual habitat).  Ecology though has become a power word, symbolizing something new.  If you want to give a new spin, an intellectually inclusive spin, you tack on the word ecology.  Instead of dealing with urban blight or inner city social injustice, you deal with Urban Ecology.  Now, don't get me wrong, there are studies in Urban Ecology that are amazing and beautiful, but like so many thing, people use this umbrella term too broadly.  My pet peeve around the use of ecology is that once it is used, people then start to add in systems theories, complexity theories, and community theories.  Why is that a pet peeve?  Because they are already explicit in the word ecology.  When I see the word, and as I try to get my student's to see, my mind shifts immediately in to systems thinking; complexity is just another component of systems.  Modern community and ecosystem analysis, and even good population ecology, relies on systems and complexity.  As I've read papers over the last week, sometimes I feel as though I could not find why the author used the phrase learning ecology (more to the point, why ecology was used).

Now, I understand that terms change meanings over time, and that misconceptions are rampant.  I also acknowledge that different disciplines have co-opted terms with varying degrees of success; social sciences for instance have numerous human ecology sub-disciplines (many of which really look at the ecology of the interactions).  Most of the time, I find myself trying to figure out what an author means when they use a term.  For example, are they using evolution to say that individuals change to a stimulus, or that over time there is a change in the group?  Is ecology being used as a place holder for higher order relationships, or is it describing the complex dynamics of the overall system?

Ultimately, these are terms that many students have misconceptions about.  It's a pet peeve because every semester I have to disentangle the colloquial from the strict meaning of these terms.  So, more than anything, this post is about getting this pet peeve off my chest.

One final note:  Though I may have a pet peeve when I see these terms, I have to say that all the papers I've read over the last week have been enjoyable and educational.  There is something I have gotten from each of them, and my evernotes is growing with the ideas stimulated.  So, please do not take what I've written as a pejorative.