Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
First and Last Words from the Trip Director

This is
a handout
for every student
in every course I taught.


In this course we
approach learning in a way
that is new to some of you. Rather
than studying isolated facts, or elements,
we study elements as they relate to other
elements. We see groups of related
elements as wholes, which we
describe as systems.

We study whole systems.

As I sense
your growing readiness
to consider wholes, I introduce more
and more complexity and
illustrate more
of the dynamic properties of systems.
These properties all involve interactions
between elements, called functional
interactions because they refer to
how elements influence how
other elements function.

are independent if they do
not influence each other at all, dependent
if they are controlled by others, and interdependent
if they are mutually influential in some way.  Systems with
many  interdependent interactions are interdependent
Biological systems in general are highly
interdependent on many levels and here
we will study systems that
are especially so.

To study
systems is to study change.
Elements of systems change in response to
each other and whole systems change in response
to external conditions. 
We see biological systems on
a wide range of scales of time and space. Biology
stretches in time from millions of events per
second to billions of years, and from mito-
chondrial explosions to the whole
biosphere in scale.

On the
time scale of an
academic year I see elements
of your understanding change as
you integrate them with other elements,
and your system of understanding change
you use it in new ways. 
I want you to use your
system of understanding to explore the concept
of interdependence. 
Some of it will be review
for you, but much of it will be new. Review
repeatedly as you go along, don’t save it
till the end, and continuously keep
the Big Picture in mind. 

See how what
you just now learned interacts
with everything you learned earlier and
discover new kinds of interactions among
In this way, your system of understanding
will grow broader, deeper,
and more powerful
than you may yet dare imagine. 
Your system
of understanding will continue to
evolve as you continue
to learn.

One of the
worst ways to study in
this course would be to consider
elements independently and memorize
them as facts without integrating them
into a logical system of thought.  That
would be even worse than waiting
to study til the last minute.

In addition
to checking back and forth between
details and the Big Picture, systematically review
each system we study,
discover its system properties,
and explore functional relationships
among its elements.

Watch them
change in response to changes
you impose in your imagination, predict
what you expect to occur in response to the
changes in conditions that you impose,
work out how to test the validity of your
predictions over a wide range
and test them.

As you
play with this way
of learning, you will discover how
you learn evolving and growing more
powerful because of it. 
With each system,
continue testing until you are aware of the
limits of your understanding.  D
those limits as precisely as you can, then
discover precisely what else you
would need to know to
extend them.

After you
have thoroughly
explored each system we
have studied in this way, learn
to view that system as an element
of a larger system.
Integrate systems in
this way until you can see clearly the
dependent system properties
of everything we
have studied and all you have learned and
again make predictions, test them, and
specify what you would need to
further expand your system
of understanding. 

When you
have done all these
things, you will have created
your model of  biology, and as it
changes with your experience it will
serve you for the rest
of your life. Please
make a serious effort to study in the way I
I sincerely believe that the best
way to study something old is to make
something new from it,
and I will
do everything I can to help
you learn to do that.

I began
using versions of this
handout in 1969, as a PhD student
studying hummingbirds, learning to
teachers to
teach creatively and teach for
in their students.  That was a
tall order and I’m still working on it.
This handout got in on the ground
floor and has stayed there
the whole time.

Even now
in 2022, what I wrote
near the beginning of a 40-year
teaching career expresses how I’ve been
thinking about teaching and learning for over
50 years and experiencing it for or more the 70.  What
I said in this 1969
handout still resonates for me
on many levels.  It comes as close as anything
else I’ve written to the core of what I
think learning can be about. 

As I suggested at the end
of the handout, I think learning in
this way not only generates a self-generating,
self-regulating, self-guiding, self-perpetuating
learning machine that continues to the end of
life, but satisfies all traditional objectives
of courses more effectively than
what we do, traditionally,
to meet them.

This handout is the closest I’ve gotten
to getting it all down in one go.

An aspect
of classroom culture that
developed quickly in
every course
is that it is
much, much easier and faster
if more risky personally, to do this kind of
cooperatively with others than to
do it alone.
That theme runs through so
much of my speaking and writing

that I don’t think I could
list  them all.

The original
title of the handout was
Last Words from the Trip Director
because I distributed it the first time near the end
a course.  When students read it they complained
that I hadn’t given it to them at the beginning, so I apolo-
gized, changed title and timing, and started handing
it out twice as First and Last Words from the
Trip Director.

Since then,
every student in every course
I taught got one the first day and sometime
near the end. 
During courses, I pointed to the
handout frequently in various ways.

‘See what
we just did? 
Did anything
about what just happened feel sort of
familiar to any of you? 
Did anyone
catch it?  Where have you
seen this before?’

After the
first time through that
little act they rarely let me get that
far.  Increasingly, they saw questions like
that coming and answered them before I’d
asked, which was wonderful to experience.
After ensuring that all reflected on Last
Words and resolved to read it
again and again, we

There were many ways to remind them.

We may
have just fused two
enormous bodies of thought that
had been totally separate in their minds
the day before, isolated, alone, interacting with
nothing at all, independent, then suddenly because
of the fusion, their ability to understand things in
both domains had gone through the roof of
their imagination and they were in a
new place but didn’t know it.

when they made giant
leaps like that,
nobody noticed until I
caught them using their new powers particularly
powerfully and pointed it out to them,
their noses in it and heightening their
sensitivity for the next
time around.

When I
said in the first sentence
that the approach to learning
would be new to some students,
I should have said all of them. 
To imply
some first year university students had
already learned in this way vastly
understated the reality, and in
many ways. 

The leap in
rate of development
this one handout offered was
profound. What students in that
one first year course could achieve for
themselves was far beyond what
any of them could or
would imagine.

The first
students to ‘get’
deeper messages of the handout
and the invitation that it implied were
usually older female students, so-called
‘mature’ students,
most of whom were wiser
and had seen more, experienced more, and
were more able to use their intelligence to
solve complex real life problems
than younger students
of either sex.

They got it,
which lent enormous advantages
at first and usually they didn’t know it.
They thought of themselves as
too old and too stupid
to learn.

Some students,
most young and male, held out
as long as possible, hoping and praying
for the easy way out,
memorization, but sooner
or later everyone got the message and either got with
the program and got down to work or transferred
out of my course. 
Increasingly, I learned to keep
those who would have transferred
and make them glad
they stayed.

The greatest
value of the approach this
handout hints at, I think, lies in the
fact that it invites, generates, maintains,
and makes practical use of the Big Pictures
of what students study.
Big Pictures provide
places to put details, give them salience and
meaning, make them easier to remember, and
make them thousands of times more useful.
The approach helps students develop
ways of learning that serve
them forever.

That’s the idea in any case. 

All I know
is that almost everyone
who took this handout seriously, in any
way that I found out about, dramatically
improved their ability to think about
complexity and to speak and
write about it.

The thoughts
in this handout
strongly influenced my
Educating for Sustainability
editorial in Ecology and Society
and pervade most of my stories
about Teaching and Learning.

Edited May 2022

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