Finding Answers to Questions

(a repost from an earlier entry on my other blogs: EL Biology and the defunct, Teaching Biology)
Catching trout in the Rockies
Last spring, I made a life-changing decision—I decided to become a fly fisherman. I have been fly fishing off and on for about five years but I had been fighting making a commitment to this new avocation. I was afraid of the time and resources that I’d have to commit in order to fulfill this passion. I’m not sure of the exact moment but I’m sure that it was in the spring along an Ozark trout stream. While I’m born and bred a prairie biologist, I do revel in the beauty of spring in the Ozarks.

There is real substance to the mystique of fly fishing—skills and knowledge that can take a lifetime to master but the rewards, while subtle, are great. For a biologist, I can think of few avocations with as much reward. As Norm Maclean explains in A River Runs Through It, “It’s not fly fishing if you are not trying to find answers to questions.” So, this essay is not really about fly fishing—it is about trying to find answers to questions……

Fishing and thinking

In the hands of an expert, the fly rod is a thing of beauty and nothing looks so easy as casting flies with a fly rod. Of course, the key here is “in the hands of an expert.” For most novices, mastering the fly rod is the first of the skills needed for fly fishing and it is anything but easy. I’m not aware of any physical activity that looks so easy but turns out so hard to master. Fly casting is extremely sensitive to little nuanced differences in timing and balance. Naturally, I was sure that I could teach myself how to cast a fly rod by just reading about it and I was correct up to a point. I was able to acquire enough skill with the rod to catch a few fish and get my fly into the water but in four years of trying I never felt that I had acquired the casting skill that I thought I should have. I would cast great for a short time and then inexplicably would be unable to put my fly anywhere near it’s intended target. I seldom felt smooth and in harmony with the rod; I was always fighting it. Moreover, after fishing for an hour or two, instead of my casting improving, I usually found that my casting deteriorated to the point that I would have to quit. Normally I personally find that passion is a good path to mastery but not with fly casting. I struggled.

Finally, last spring, I swallowed my pride and attended a free fly casting clinic. The instructor, Andy, a former physics teacher, provided a little impartial observation and advice. Later, that week, while fishing at our neighborhood pond, I found myself falling back into my old habits. But this time it was different. This time, I was able to successfully evaluate my technique, reflect and correct it. Later, I told my wife that despite not catching any fish, I had had one my best days of fly fishing, ever.

I was not anywhere close to becoming an expert fly caster but I knew what it would take to become one. I knew I was on to something—the feeling of mastering my frustrations was truly liberating. I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time—not since I was a child. As my wife says, “As adults we employ many different strategies when learning new material—forgetting what it was like when we struggled earlier in life.” It was empowering—and it was an epiphany.

Suddenly I had a greater empathy to how my students must feel when they are trying to learn biology. It’s not that they are not trying—my students just haven’t quite gotten to the point that they can evaluate and analyze their own learning strategies so that they can be efficient learners. I spent 4 years flailing away at the water with little improvement—I wasn’t correctly evaluating my technique. Likewise, my students often frustratingly apply the same study habits and skills they acquired earlier in their careers—not understanding why these same strategies are not working now. Earlier in their learning careers most of their learning could best be characterized as recall and memorization. These strategies simply do not work well if you are trying to understand biology at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Application, evaluation and synthesis require completely different strategies. Meaningful learning involves higher level learning.

To meet my students’ needs, I kept trying to find analogies, interesting discrepant events, engaging projects such as the Monarch Watch and any number of other strategies to make biology interesting and accessible for all students. These were, by any measure, successful strategies but something fundamental was still missing. My fly fishing epiphany confirmed what I have suspected for the last half dozen years—students need help to develop effective learning strategies for themselves. One of our first goals in curriculum design should be to prioritize embedded formative assessment so that students can develop and evaluate their own learning strategies. For now I will point out that for our students a critical component of this assessment is that it should be non-threatening. That means it should be anonymous and non-graded. Most formative assessment is targeted to informing curriculum delivery but I think the most fruitful use provides empirical data to help students inquire into their own higher level learning.

For me, and I suspect most biology teachers, biology as a subject has always been inviting and easy to learn. I am passionate about biology. This passion drives my teaching—my desire is to share this wonder for my students. But this passion can be blinding. My students respond to my passion for biology and I always assumed that they would eventually discover their own individual strategies for learning—just like I assumed that I could learn to fly cast on my own. What I learned on the pond is that my students have just been flailing at the water, hoping for an occasional good cast and like me they need some guidance to find more effective strategies to evaluate their own learning. Teaching, like flyfishing, is not teaching unless you are trying to find answers to questions…

KABT president Randy Dix looking for and finding answers to questions:

Randy catching a trout




4 thoughts on “Finding Answers to Questions”

  1. Nice thoughts, Brad. I tied my first fly back in the fifth grade, following instructions in an Outdoor Life magazine article. I’ve since moved on to other fishing techniques, but I’m still mystified by the art and craft of teaching. Your contention about embedding formative assessment in our lessons is well taken. To that end, teaching students how and when to ask their own good questions continues to be my fly casting goal.

  2. Great insight Randy. I fly fish some, but an avid fisherman in general. Patience is a must for a fisherman and a teacher!! Techiniques in teaching change, but your desire and passion must stay the same. Keep up the good work

  3. I followed your story with the attentiveness of both a flyfisher and a biology teacher. I too hope to instill passion and understanding of biology to my students. I wonder if I will see the moment when a student has that “aha” moment. Or will I be one of the lessons that only lead up to that moment of self evaluation?

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