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The Burning Question

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Figure 1 Just a small part of photosynthesis that contributes to the success of the entire system.

 

Dr. Hosler is one of my biology professors this semester. In his section of the class, we are learning about the finer points of photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and currently about how surface area and gradients help plants or animals carry out their respective processes. He draws marvelous diagrams and has a way of explaining complicated and dynamic processes like photosynthesis and cellular respiration so that the layman can understand exactly what is going on. He is a marvelous teacher and like any good teacher he asks us questions, and like good students… well most of the time we just sit there in silence.

That sentence should have ended, “we raise our hands high and proud to answer the question because we think we have a fairly good answer.” But we don’t, at least not often and definitely not all of us. Dr. Hosler pointed that out to us today in class. And it is not just us; professors from all departments at Juniata and at other schools have noticed a definite decline in people raising their hands to answer questions. Even back at my high school, it was the rare occasion when one of us would raise our hand to answer a question and it would always be the same set of people.

Why? What has changed so much on the student side of the learning process that we no longer feel the need, or want to ask questions? One of the many reasons I liked Juniata was the small class size because it is, quite simply, easier to learn when the teacher’s attention isn’t divided among a lot of students. Smaller class sizes allow for more teacher student interaction which also means more ability for a student to be able to voice their opinions in class. But as I have grown older, that has become less and less true.

From conversations I have had with friends and classmates, there are two big factors (probably more but these seem to be the most prominent) that affect how and when we choose to raise our hand. The first is the fear of being wrong. I think we have been trained over the course of our academic careers to fear bad grades and wrong answers because in our minds that is equal to failure and failure means not achieving your goals. But failure is not always bad. Unless you just inherently pick up on a subject, you will not know the answer the first time around. This is why we have professors: to be able to ask and answer questions. Learning is not always having the right answer; it’s a process that uses practice to go from a relatively poor knowledge base in a subject, to a broader and more solid grasp on the material. The second factor is fear of being the “know-it-all” kid who always has an answer.

The know-it-all does not always have the right answer, and when they don’t, the professor will correct them and open up the question to someone else to get a new perspective. Learning is a dynamic process, much like the processes I am learning about in Dr. Hosler’s class. If only one plant cell carried out photosynthesis, that plant would not last very long because it just would not make enough glucose. But all the plant cells working in concert to produce glucose make a thriving plant. Similarly if there is only one student per class that answers questions, they are really the only ones getting the benefit out of it. Sure, they may ask about something you didn’t understand, but in the end the class as a whole will do a lot better if everyone participated.

We come to places like Juniata to improve our minds, but also our person as a whole. Part of that is developing the critical thinking and social skills to voice your own thoughts on a question and to be able to back it up with supporting evidence. We will not always be right, because we don’t know everything, but we will be better equipped to think about the right answer and how to approach questions like it in the future.

So raise those hands high, for even though you may not have the right answer, you will be better off for having answered.

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