"The scientist is not the one who provides the right answers; it is the one who asks the right questions."
So I was looking over the answers to a science test from a school I don't teach at today. I came across this answer to the question, "Explain what survival of the fittest means":
"It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."I thought it was a bit of a weird way to describe it, since - as I understand it - survival of the fittest literally just means the individuals (not species) who are most fit for an environment are most likely to survive in it (an obvious truism and an important part of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection).
I puzzled over it a little more. I don't think it's a description of survival of the fittest, but is it even true? A species which is "most responsive to change" is more likely to survive? Are different species more or less responsive to change? Maybe, but I wasn't sure about that, and it certainly didn't sound like one of the fundamental elements of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which I think I have a solid conception of, and which is what was being taught in this unit.
So out of curiosity I looked it up. Turns out it's probably a simple misquote of Darwin made up by a business professor trying to teach people about how we should behave.
My instinct was correct; the quote does not belong in a middle school science class.
On a deeper level, this is a symptom of an issue I've been running up against recently. When I teach, should I teach facts or skills? Should my students spend every lesson copying from slides or from a textbook, and every night memorising those notes, and be assessed based on how precisely they can quote the information from memory? Is it important that, when learning about evolution, students (especially students who find English challenging at the best of times, which is very relevant to my current job) can define the following list of terms (and only these) in isolation: "adaptation, extinction, immigration, emigration, fossil record, vestigial organ, speciation, overproduction, variation..."?
The problem with rote memorisation like this, what I've heard called "guess the teacher's password", is that it's vulnerable to the kinds of errors like the Darwin misquote above. Textbooks (or any other sources of information) are not infallible and students need to learn how to acquire knowledge given a fuzzy world where there are few black and whites. Far better to teach concepts rather than quotes, to encourage synthesised explanations rather than word for word textbook answers, and even to learn how to think like a scientist rather than just a list of things that scientists have discovered.
After all, it is not the strongest students who survive, nor the ones with the best memory, but the ones most responsive to change.