A Biology Lesson

Our biology “spine” book for the past two years has been The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland, illustrated by Bert Dodson. This book breaks a few of Mason’s rules. It is illustrated, for one. Enzymes are depicted like lumpy potatoes with hats, photosynthesis as a ballet, amino acid production like a donut shop. Miss T is enjoying Hoagland’s creative metaphor making.

You might think that a book with many illustrations would harbor some pretty poor writing, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. In fact, I’ve been captivated by some of the ideas he expresses, the creative ways he manages to describe phenomena that are fairly complex. For example, to explain how the process of cell differentiation begins in the embryo he introduces it thus:

“The first step toward the creation of a body comes when a few cells occupying a space no bigger than the point of a pin begin to take on the general character of what we’ll call “topness,” and others adopt “bottomness”; still others assume “frontness” or “backness”; “outsideness” or “insideness.” There’s no sign yet of a head or a tail, a backbone or belly, skin or internal organs – to say nothing of things in between. Multiplying cells that have made the commitment to, say, topness will, generation by generation, make small changes in their character and forge new relationships with their neighbors so as eventually to become a recognizable head.”

How would a cell know, I wonder, that it will be on top someday? Can a cell sense its destiny? I rather like the idea that even the lowest cell has a certain quality about it.

The problem with richly illustrated books is that Miss T. can be tempted to simply copy the illustrations without thinking much about them. She made one of those errors last week. She has been studying the process of speciation in one book, and cell differentiation in this book – coming on the heels of DNA replication, and our study of genetics last year. The book compares cell differentiation to a cook that starts a soup with onions and parsley, and then divides the soup in two pots. One pot is likely to have more onions and the other more parsley. Into each pot the cook adds different ingredients and then divides them again, with unequal results. And so on.

When I looked at Miss T’s illustration and had her narrate it to me, I realized that she’d confused this cell differentiation process, which the author calls “the lineage plan,” with the process of hybridization and the actual creation of lineage. The cook metaphor had confused proteins with alleles in her mind. If I had not been paying close attention to her narration, and had her show me her notebook, I would have missed that. Is that a problem with the book? Possibly, but I think it could have happened with any book.

It is generally important to have your child draw from their own mind, but my daughter finds this to be beyond her capabilities. My challenge has been to find what she can do with an illustrated book like this. This is similar to saying: put this in your own words, which is the process of a verbal narration. I want to ask of her: put this idea in your own pictures.

Living science, then, demands more of the teacher than science out of a text – which will have built in quizzes and questions to test comprehension of at least the main points. And it demands more of the student. The student has to be able to effectively teach a process, an idea, or a set of related facts as a whole, not merely to spit out bits and pieces in response to questioning. To be an effective receiver of narrations, then, you will need to read the material along with your student, just as with history and literature. If this isn’t realistic, it behooves you to enlist your spouse or a sympathetic friend to help out.

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