Lab teaching in anthropology

3 minute read

The AP reports that high school science labs are poor. The story comes out of a study by the National Research Council.

"For literally 150 years, laboratories have been the sacred cows of science education," said Susan Singer, chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report and professor of biology at Carleton College. "Nobody has stopped to question what the value added is, or how we should go about using labs to improve learning. We haven't asked the right questions."

Of course, there aren't very many (if any) biological anthropology labs in high schools, so this doesn't address us directly. But anthropology is a very popular lab science on many college campuses, including UW. My read is that it's popular because it has a "cool" factor, and it's popular because it isn't as reductionist as many other biological courses. But I've seen my share of uninspiring bio anthropology labs, so I for one take the message about high school labs sciences as both a warning and an opportunity.

The way I see it, the problem with most lab sciences is that they always are set up with a predetermined result. You're "supposed" to see a certain outcome, be it an exothermic reaction, acceleration, similarities between Qafzeh and modern Europeans, or whatever. It's just a way to "get your hands on the materials."

How many problems are there with this? Of course, to start with, half the students would probably rather not have their hands on the materials. You can't believe the number of undergraduates I have who won't put their hands on a skull. Now I'm sure a few are real consciencious objectors, with some kind of ethical problem touching human bone. I've never had a student tell me that, but I can imagine it. But for the most part, they just don't want to --- either because of the "ick" factor, or because they are superstitious, or because they're afraid somehow they'll look like idiots.

I would guess a lot of the fear of embarrassment comes from past lab experiences --- sometime, somewhere in high school, some lab instructor or lab partner either made them look bad, or just allowed them to be passive observers while someone else did all the work.

Some of the superstition is native. Some of it is probably inspired by my first day warning that if they drop or break a skull, the tortured soul will return to haunt their nightmares (OK, that's a little severe, but I haven't had a dropped skull yet on my watch).

But my worst problem is that most students just don't know how to look at things and think critically, without being told what to think. They are used to having the answers fed to them in advance. Dealing with a lab where the instructor won't tell them the outcome really seems to phase a lot of them.

It usually takes me a couple of sessions to get them comfortable with the idea that I'm not going to tell them the answers. And I'm not going to grade them based on a predetermined result. I want them to observe what is there, systematize it, and use it to make comparisons. When I split them into different stations, I observe an interesting thing: different people observe different things! We talk about the different observations, and how they arrived at them. Students put themselves in the head of their colleagues by seeing them describe the fossils with their own observations. And at that point is the time to introduce terminology, and history, and alternative views.

I'm always looking for ways to make my labs better --- more interesting, more useful, and most importantly, better at getting measurable results. Any suggestions? Let me know, and I'll post some!