Dancing Mitosis and Designing a Fish: A Sneak Peek at Future Wise by David Perkins


David Perkins is a senior professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-director with Howard Gardner of Project Zero. Below is an excerpt from Perkins’ new book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, which will be released next week. If you like this sneak peek, you can preorder your copy here.

Dancing Mitosis and Designing a Fish
[from Chapter 2: “Learning Agendas”]

A while ago, I enjoyed working with a number of teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area. The teachers were exploring various approaches to teaching content for understanding. I was continually impressed by the ingenuity of their ideas and the dedication they brought to their enterprise. I learned a lot about what a measure of effort and vision could bring to youngsters’ learning. Two treatments of content in biology particularly caught my eye with a provocative juxtaposition: dancing mitosis and designing a fish.

Dancing mitosis first: mitosis, you may remember, is the process of asexual cell division. When a cell divides, a number of complex transformations occur to accomplish the split into two daughter cells, including duplicating the genetic material. Meiosis, sexual cell reproduction, which involves the exchange of genetic materials between two parent cells to yield four daughter cells, involves even more tangled maneuvers. Quite complicated enough, mitosis involves the following steps, each with its own pattern: interphase, prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase, and cytokinesis.

How to help learners get the story straight? Dance offers an intriguing approach. In dancing mitosis, the students adopt the roles of various parts of the cell. They enact in small groups with their bodies the narrative of mitosis, playing out the reorganizations of cellular material that yield the daughter cells.

A brief investigation on the Web revealed that there are canned versions of this activity, where you can purchase a CD with the mitosis square dance, along with step-by-step instructions about the moves the students should make. The teacher who talked to me about dancing mitosis seemed to have a more creative approach: the students themselves invented the choreography, taking their cue from the steps of mitosis as described in the text. Their active efforts to map the genetic catechism into bodily expression amount to a recoding of the process in a new medium. Such a representational somersault here, as in many other contexts of learning, amplifies memory and understanding.

Now designing a fish: This unit also tackled a fundamental aspect of biological understanding: ecological fit. Each student had to create a profile of a fictitious fish suited to some ecological context. What was its morphology? What were its feeding habits? How was it adapted to survive and thrive? Each report required sketches, fish biographies, and arguments for the viability of the proposed organism. Students also were asked to position their fish in the biological taxonomy of fish in general, gaining some sense of the process and rationale of classification. I had the opportunity to thumb through several student writeups. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and care. Many learners seem to approach this fantasy exercise with energetic commitment.

I loved both units for the active inventive involvement of the learners. Very likely, these experiences would build a measure of genuine understanding. I also cherished the central significance of both mitosis and ecological fit to their home field of biology. However, I saw a complicated trade-off around lifeworthiness. I was less sure of mitosis as a learning target. Technically fundamental though it is, what would learners do with their insights? How would the details inform other aspects of basic biology, never mind reaching beyond the boundaries of the discipline in the classroom? We don’t need to banish mitosis from the curriculum, but acquaintance knowledge would suffice.

Yet I was happy to see dance become part of the pedagogy. Not that everyone is going to become a dance enthusiast, but what the students learned about dance and its expressive significance and the craft of putting a dance together appeared to have far more potential for mapping widely into their later lives than mitosis itself. I couldn’t help but feel that the experience of dancing mitosis was more worthwhile for the dancing than for the mitosis.

Designing a fish was just as creative and just as likely to cultivate understanding of its topic as dancing mitosis, but the learning target of understanding ecological fit seemed more lifeworthy. A sense of adaptive alignment is a theme that comes up repeatedly. We read about species at risk, about programs to foster their recovery, about which plants and animals capitalize on ballooning urban and suburban contexts and which find them alien terrain. We hear about the risks of plant and animal species transported between continents to new environments, where lacking natural enemies they may explode into exponential growth and drive out native species. Sometimes we need to exercise responsibility on such fronts. When we travel, we may need to be careful about what fruits we carry from one continent to another, something customs laws commonly regulate. As householders, we may become aware that conventional lawns are resource-hungry ecological deserts. We may act or not, but at least we understand something of what is at stake.

Let me round this out with one more story of mitosis. I have used the example from time to time in presentations, and a while ago a friend and colleague I don’t see very often happened to be in the audience. He came up and announced, “Well, I remember the stages of mitosis.” He ran through the list, using a mnemonic he had learned in high school. Very impressive! “However,” he continued wryly, “I have no idea what any of those words mean.”



Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing WorldHow to teach big understandings and the ideas that matter most.

Everyone has an opinion about education, and teachers face pressures from Common Core Buy Nowcontent standards, high-stakes testing, and countless other directions. But how do we know what today’s learners will really need to know in the future? Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World is a toolkit for approaching that question with new insight. There is no one answer to the question of what’s worth teaching, but with the tools in this book, you’ll be one step closer to constructing a curriculum that prepares students for whatever situations they might face in the future.

“I have worked with David Perkins for close to half a century and whenever I am in his company, I still learn from him. In this seminal book, David powerfully and gracefully shares with the world of educators his incomparably deep thinking about teaching and learning.”

—Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

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