How can it be learned? How can it be presented in a factually correct and concise succinct (the word choice here was actually very important since “concise” can mean only a few really complex words, while succinct implies brevity AND clarity without needing further elucidation) manner. This is the kind of discussion which needs to be had among educators as well. Word choice is actually quite important for factual accuracy, clarity, and brevity. The list of falsehoods so prevalent in education is absolutely emetic and results, at least in part, in gross misunderstandings of science which I shall refer to as “overextending the metaphor.” Examples of this have previously been discussed here and at Dr. Laden’s blog. (with two more in the works here) This post isn’t about examples, though, it’s about how to fix the issue of falsehoods. Many of these are quite easily remedied by not using the metaphors regardless of how much easier they make the explanation. Unlearning is far more difficult than learning.
I will be playing some word games with you, the same basic phrase (originally a falsehood) will be repeated, but the implications will vary substantially:
- DNA codes for proteins
- DNA is the template for proteins
- DNA is the template molecule for RNA
- DNA is a regulated template for the conditional synthesis of RNA
- DNA is a polymer which, when bound by enzymes under certain conditions, is a template for RNA which may have one of many possible functions
I can get even more intricate, but I think you get the idea. Let us look at the problems of these:
1) Factually incorrect and very succinct; will require unlearning lest the child thinks his or her DNA was written in COBOL
2) Factually more correct, and still succinct, but ignores an intermediate step; will require unlearning upon the discovery of RNA
3) Factually mostly correct, very succinct, but ignores all of the other aspects of DNA; additional uses of RNA and DNA sequences are not at odds
4) Factually accurate, slightly less succinct, but still manages to convey most of the idea; additional knowledge of DNA and RNA have space prepared
5) Factually more accurate, not at all concise, and still doesn’t convey everything; bulky, verbose, and still requires room to be made for regulation…
Statements 1 and 2 can be eliminated from use, evolutionarily, because they are inaccurate while 5 can be eliminated due to not fitting in our confined time allotment. Statements 3 and 4 can be variably used depending upon the audience. Any child that needs to know about DNA or evolution should at least know the words “regulated” and “template,” but some variability is easily allowable so long as it meets the prerequisites of being succinct and accurate.
How does one modify his or her language to do so? If you are guilty of using falsehoods as a teaching tool, explore the way in which you present this information. Write down the common phrases you use to describe things and deconstruct them critically. (I cannot even begin to tell you how many of my own essays resulted in “redo” written in big red letters by my own pen) If so much as one word makes the difference between a statement being incorrect or correct, define that word. I could, for example choose:
1) DNA is the hereditary material for all organisms
This would be inaccurate, since we do not know of every organism, the addition of “known” solves this issue. It is also somewhat misleading as it ignores epigenetic inheritance as a means of heritable traits. To solve this, we could add “primary” before “hereditary” and thus the phrase is still succinct (though slightly less so) and mostly accurate, conveying even more information than the previous statement. It additionally admits we do not know of every organism and that other means of heritable traits exist.
1) DNA is the primary hereditary material for all known organisms
Seemingly minor modifications in a phrase or sentence can have a drastic impact on the perception of science both among students and the public. The damage of many falsehoods (for now) is mostly one of educational time. Some, however, do result in very real consequences (the nature of sexual orientation and gender, for instance). Presenting a dichotomous view of anything can often lead to detrimental effects on children, as well (rich/poor, male/female, man/woman, black/white, republican/democrat, liberal/conservative, homo/heterosexual). Animals are interesting because they have so much variability. While simplification is useful and necessary, teaching isn’t about presenting false information, it is about what gets the student interested enough to explore the topics further. One of the easiest ways which accomplishes this is to prepare a space for what he or she could and would quickly learn upon their own curiosity serving as both the motivation and the reward.
Select your phrasing judiciously.