Emulating Evolution by Involving Students

Evolution is one of those topics I really enjoy learning and teaching, particularly with open activities. The War of the Evolutionists Web Scavenger Hunt and Mock Trial, and the Evolution and Adaptation games are just some of my attempts to engage students in ecology and evolution.

Of these The Evolution Game, created by Simon Boswell and Phil Lewis, comes the closest to emulating the process and product of evolution. The rules and gates of the game are the processes of ecology and evolution; it is not a trivia game, a passive one, nor one like charades whose play has little semblance to evolution. As such The Evolution Game exemplifies that rare and powerful quality game that embeds students in their learning by forcing them to deal with and adapt to the “rules” or processes of evolution and ecology. It is however a long-term activity, like Risk, of both strategy and chance.



Just yesterday, I came across another great activity that comes close to emulating both ecology and evolution. The activity, created by Tyler Rhodes and featured by Scientific American, consists of two parts: a student-centered exercise and a technical exercise. The student exercise takes about an hour, or one period, to conduct. The technical one — creating a video — took Tyler, who claims to be expert enough to work efficiently, three months to complete. So feedback in the form of product is delayed, though formative feedback is immediate and embedded in the students’ own activity.

The idea is simple, if not elegant, and follows the same design premise as The Evolution Game and Bernie Dodge’s formula for game design that “Elegance = congruity between the forms of the game and structures within the content“.

Tyler drew a nondescript salamander-like creature and enlisted five independent groups of students (from five schools) to draw copies of this creature.



Once the students compared and discussed the new creatures, Tyler “exposed” the creatures to some ecological stress or change. The students had to vote which creatures perished based on the new ecology and the features of the creatures. According to Tyler, ninety-eight percent of the creatures perished (in a class of 30, where each student drew one creature, one creature survived). Tyler gathered the extinct creatures and repeated the exercise five more times with the survivors, each time with a new ecological event wiping out ninety-eight percent of the creatures. The six generations were kept or labelled apart.

The exercise illustrated branching phylogenetic evolution and coevolution — rather than the defunct linear evolution — as shown in the following drawing, where each “arm” of creatures came from a separate class of students, so giving five arms.


A Wheel of LifeA Wheel of Life © 2012 Tyler Rhodes | more info (via: Tyler Rhodes)
Click on the image to enlarge it.


What is nice about this exercise is that the students actively engage in, and embed themselves in, the process of natural selection by ecological change. They, being the active agents in both the creation and voting off of these creatures, were given the opportunity to experience and learn about the fundamental processes of evolution, much like The Evolution Game.

Tyler designed this process after a “Chinese Whisper” or “Telephone” game, where a message is passed from person to person and changes through mutation as it is delivered. In fact he presented it as a game. The message, however, was visual — the drawing of the creature — and the changing ecology affected the message. Tyler was specifically looking for a way to branch the creature evolution like a phylogenetic tree and his use of the “Chinese Whisper” or “Rumour” game enabled this.

Here is the final video.


The creatures in this video are those from the top-left arm of the Wheel of Life tree illustrated above. Tyler promises four more videos, for each of the remaining four groups of students. And he invites teachers to take his initial nondescript salamander-like creature, repeat his method and e-mail him facsimiles of the creatures created. If teachers take him up on the offer, he can bank, analyze and share some really interesting evolutionary results from the project. His conclusions should be interesting.

For more information on Tyler’s project, visit his blog, Evolution!, documenting his progress.

How can we emulate Tyler’s project for outcomes in our classrooms? Or have you done so already?


Math Begins With an Answer?

We all hear it; we all say it. Students want the answers; teachers want the learning. But now, it seems students might also begin with, and not just want, the answer, or maybe they ignore everything but the answer, despite our effort to encourage and facilitate learning.

I am in the middle of reading Nat Banting‘s post Measuring Roots. He makes one statement in this post that I wish to address (indeed, my response below is cross-posted as a comment on his post).

I found this statement so profound, I had to stop reading the post and respond to it.

Nat’s statement is here:

For students, no matter how young, math begins with an answer.

Here is my response:

I stopped reading this post as soon as I read the point that, for students, math begins with an answer. (Don’t worry, I plan to read the rest of the post. But I needed to respond to this; it is so mind-blowing.)

I learned under Dr. David Pimm of Open University (UK) and the University of Alberta (CAN) during my Diploma in Math Education studies. He argues that math begins with a question; in fact, it does not exist until a question is asked. All the demonstrating and lecturing about math in the world does not involve math until a mathematical question is asked.

This discrepancy is very revealing. It tells us what math is and what math education is. Most students learn to expect math questions and problems to be short, quick, to the point, solvable and structured around “clean” answers (often related in some way to integer components). They anticipate the answers before they anticipate the questions. I am not sure if they even consider the math, and if they consider the questions mathematical, or mathematically.

I wonder what they are really learning? Is it math? What to them is math? Is this why so many students are so disconnected with math and why they are proud to have failed it and ashamed to have aced it? After all, from their perspective, if answers they anticipate before math, what have they aced?

I think we have done students a great disservice if they ace math in elementary, secondary and even tertiary school without ever actually learning that math is all about the question, the quest and struggle to tackle it and the discovery of pattern that possibly limits to (an) answer(s). They completely miss the point and the empowering strength of math process and pattern. And in the end they really have nothing to use in their lives beyond the “math” lesson.

So, why do they need to learn this? That question makes so much sense now.

I shall now return to your post.

Further Reflection

It is easy to lose sight of our students’ understanding of what we teach. Sure, we anticipate their individual problems and our scaffolding of these problems. We tailor our lessons to help each student. We ask leading questions or offer leading hints to open the door for them to learn. But then we learn that they have a completely different fundamental take on what we are teaching (and how) and what they are learning (and how). Sometimes these takes are so fundamental in fact that we can not even conceive them, never mind address them.

And this is where professionally developing with our PLNs really helps us to grow, to learn, to better ourselves.

Sometimes what we think makes sense only makes sense because we think about it within a certain frame and from a certain premise. David Hewitt would consider this generated, rather than necessary, knowledge. Until the moment I read Nat’s statement, I thought that students shared the same fundamental sense I did; that is, I thought this sense was necessary and common. They might want the answer and to skip the learning, but they start learning when a question is considered and asked, regardless of who asks it and whether it is internal or external. Thinking, in short, starts with a question.

All it takes is one statement, simple to others, even the author, to change our view of what we are doing forever.

Are we teaching our kids that thinking starts with an answer? That an answer even always exists? Do our kids think backward from us — speculating an answer then working through, rather than on, the question and its “solution” until they match their guess or verify no match? Are we teaching them the wrong way, literally?

The way we teach (think) now, we solve problems. Do our students anticipate solutions and then test them, like a computer batch tests scenarios or a player navigates a game? These are very different ways of learning, teaching and thinking. Much skill and strategy is lost by exchanging deliberate problem consideration and solving or playing for rapid testing of many outcome and solution (scenario) possibilities. In a very real sense, problem solving is deductive, while answer testing is inductive. New skills and strategies are needed to solve problems this way. And new methods of teaching need to be added to our portfolios and lessons.

What do you think? Do students start learning by considering an answer or a question first? Are we teaching them the “right” way? Should we teach both directions, or are their still more directions, more senses, we need to consider?

Any thoughts on Nat’s claim and its implications?

I am seriously considering that there is some truth in his statement. Perhaps kids approach learning inductively and deductively. Perhaps some kids approach learning one way under certain circumstances, the other under others, and different kids apply different strategies or strategy mixes differently.

Either way, is there a premise change here?

Three Things I Learned From My Nephew



This week my nephew is on Spring break and visiting his Uncle Shawn. It is a busy week to say the least. During this week so far, we have engaged in several activities, three of which I thought I would share.

A frog, a snail and a cricket



One can only play Go Fish so many times before one wants to throttle one’s nephew.

Same for Memory.

But what if one plays Go Fish with Memory cards? How does that change the game?

The idea to play Go Fish with Memory cards was my nephew’s.

Go Fish with no pip cards is different. Uncle Shawn doesn’t know the names of the cast of Diego and Dora characters. He doesn’t even know the difference between a cartoon raccoon and a cartoon fox. (That’s funny, Uncle Shawn. Me: It is. I swear, folks, the fox has raccoon eyes!)



The first few games of Memory Go Fish with a cast of Diego and Dora character face cards were rather fun, and funny. One has to describe the card one is looking at without showing one’s opponent. And the opponent has to match the description to a card that might be in his hand. It’s like Picture Charades.

Then one plays Go Fish.

This game was fun for both uncle and nephew. But the lesson here is that kids can create rich, engaging learning opportunities on their own. Sometimes we teachers forget this.

By the way, the title of this section, A frog, a snail and a cricket, refers to the description of the face of one of the Memory cards. It was the most complicated card in the Memory deck, but the easiest to describe. Others are Girl Holding Flowers and Girls With Blue Dress and Book . Try to play Go Fish while describing cards like that.

Uncle Shawn is magic

So what does one do with a bundle of energy and curiosity after tiring of playing Memory Go Fish?

One calms him with magic!

Nothing like a Mobius Strip to entertain a six year old.

So, the second lesson I learned from my nephew: astound him and gain thirty minutes to an hour worth of focused exploration.



The trick, however, is to keep astounding him. If he wants more, you are doing well.

My nephew and I constructed the Mobius Strip together; I cut the pieces, he taped them together end to end. I twisted the subsequent strip, making sure he understood what I was doing; I marked the ends of the strip on the same side and held the marks together while he taped the final ends closing the loop.

Each time he asked what were we doing (now), I answered that he would see. Of course, if one is going to make such a promise, one needs to deliver.

Next, I asked questions. Will we get two strips if I cut the original in half? (Amazingly, the obvious answer, and his, is incorrect.) If I cut the new strip in half, will we get one, two or more strips? (Again, the logical answer is incorrect.) How many strips will we get if I cut this brand new original strip in three pieces (thirds)? (Don’t you hate “I don’t know” answers? Force him to give an answer; provide choices: one, two, three or more?)



Then get him coloring. When cut in thirds, the Mobius strip produces another Mobius strip half the arc length of the original and a two-sided strip twice the arc length of the original strip. Mark one side of each strip with one color and the opposite at the same spot with another color. Then let him go.

Concepts of number of sides and number of edges naturally evolve, making the entire exercise rich with play and learning.

Every subject has its Mobius Strips, things that draw the students into play and learning. One has to identify these “strips” and sell them. Delivery is the key.

A puzzle: Sophisticated abstract

Finally, I offer the following object that my nephew constructed yesterday. Think of it as a riddle.



What is it? When my nephew told me what it was, I was flabbergasted. I promise I will reveal what it is in a comment, but I thought I might get any guesses you might have beforehand.

I will give you a few clues.

  • The object is an abstraction of an abstract concept.
  • The concept is one I am interested in.
  • The object contains several recognizable real concrete components that are way out of scale relative to each other.

This is the third lesson my nephew taught me during his visit this Spring break. Kids can think and represent abstract concepts abstractly. Or is this concretely? We teachers need to allow our students to think and communicate in many ways. When we do, they can surprise us with their higher levels of understanding and communication.

And a final picture

What do you think? Another avatar for Stefras?



I would like to thank my nephew for inspiring this post.