Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do Whales Eat Bears?

This is a post about messing around, but it's also about background knowledge, conceptual change, and inquiry. The genesis of this is described below, but the driving force behind the final YouTube video was a chance to entertain Joseph. This one's for you, compadre.

Sebastian (age 5) asked me today, "Daddy, do whales eat bears?" I thought it was an interesting question, and a good opportunity for me to practice building conceptual change. So I failed right out of the gate by not asking him why he thought whales might eat grizzly bears. But then I quickly redeemed myself with the following line of questioning:
Me: Where do grizzly bears live?
Sebastian: Grizzly bears live in caves.
Me: Right; where do whales live?
Sebastian: They live under the ocean.
Me: So can whales eat grizzly bears?
Sebastian: No.
Me: Why not?
Sebastian: Because they don't live in the same place.
Sebastian: Then what does eat bears?
This was fantastic. I asked what he thought, and he didn't know. It turns out I didn't really know, either (my guess was "some humans"), so I asked my good friend Google. Then Sebastian and I read this website together:

Here's a screenshot, so you can follow along:

Here was our line of questioning:

After the first paragraph:
Me: So what eats bears?
Sebastian: Bears eat other bears.
Me: Wow! That's messed up. What else might eat some bears?
Sebastian: [points to the newt from the unrelated picture to the right] This?
Me: Let's go back to the text to find out.
Sebastian: Oh, bears.
Me: Read the first sentence for me again. [He reads it.]
Sebastian: Oh, so tigers eat bears sometimes.
Me: You're right. Do they eat all kinds of bears?
Sebastian: No; they only eat little bears.
I actually think this was the right sequence. Going back to look for evidence is a good place to start, and I'm starting to see, as a teacher, that there is a huge connection between the practice of looking for text evidence to support an assertion and the idea of conceptual change: We're looking to confirm or refute what we believe, and the way to do it is to look at real evidence.

So Sebastian reads me the second paragraph, and we dig into which types of bears are most dangerous to other bears. We have a short conversation about grizzly bears, Sebastian assures me he is not afraid of grizzly bears because he knows Tae Kwon Do, and I remind him that he actually should be afraid of grizzly bears because they are dangerous and will eat you:

Me: If a grizzly bear and a black bear are in the same place, which one might eat the other?
Sebastian: The grizzly bear might eat the black bear.
Me: Why?
Sebastian: That's because grizzly bears are bigger and stronger.
Me: And if, instead of a black bear, a grizzly bear is standing next to you, what might happen?
Sebastian: The grizzly bear might eat me.

Bingo. I don't want my kid going all Tim Treadwell just because he is a yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do. Notice also that we've covered a bunch of topics in some surface-level depth that we will continue to build on in lots of future conversations: Asia, the fact that there are many types of bears, the vague idea that you can't be eaten by something that is far, far away from you, and some sort of a reciprocal relationship between A-eats-B and B-is-eaten-by-A.

Then, in an homage to the great Joseph Yrigollen and Kyle of fame, I wrap it all up with a meta-lesson on Key Points:

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