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PALPATING PACHYDERMS:

How Do We Interpret Observations?

Prepared by Steven M. Dickhaus

Revised By Sidney Hammontre,
Joyce Rodrick, Lon Zimmerman,
Larry Flammer

THE NATURE OF SCIENCE

 

Science's Social Context

Bias, Collaboration

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 SYNOPSIS

 This lesson is built around the poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887): "The Blind Men and the Elephant". Through small group activity and class discussions, the limiting influence of incomplete data and bias, along with the value of collaboration, are experienced.

 PRINCIPAL CONCEPT

 Interpretations may be limited by the completeness of the data.

 ASSOCIATED CONCEPTS

1. Scientists have biases that influence their work.

2. One's background experiences may affect the interpretations of observations, resulting in non-scientific conclusions.

3. Science is uncertain and changing.

4. Each of us may see the same reality differently, depending upon one's own background experiences.

5. Several hypotheses may exist simultaneously for the same reality.

6. Observing several smaller pieces of reality may not always equal total reality when all are added together.

7. Making consistent observations using proper techniques should lead to better conclusions about the natural world.

8. Collaboration leads to more reliable knowledge.

ASSESSABLE OBJECTIVES

 Students will.....

 1. distinguish observations from interpretations.

2. recognize that observations by many should improve accuracy (as contrasted with isolated and independent observations).

3. be able to list examples of how personal and cultural experiences and biases may influence one's interpretations of observations.

 MATERIALS

1. Poem by John Godfrey Saxe: "The Blind Men and the Elephant" (see last two pages of this lesson).

a. Original poem (minus its last stanza, which is not relevant)

b. Modified version with obvious references to "elephant" replaced with neutral terms.

 TIME

 one 45 min. - 55 min. period

STUDENT HANDOUTS 

(see end of lesson for the formatted handouts)   

 See master copies, at end of this lesson, of...

1. Modified Poem (copy of different part for each of 6 teams)

2. "Original Poem" (1 complete copy for each of 6 teams)

 TEACHING STRATEGY

 Because this lesson provides an excellent opportunity to understand important elements of the Nature of Science , be sure to read our General Background Information, with our Rationale and our Approach, and tips for Presenting the lessons for maximum effect and Dispelling some of the popular myths about science.

In any of the discussions expected with the class, select a few key items (important concepts) that lend themselves to interpretation, and introduce class to the Think-Pair-Share (TPS) routine dealing with those items. This is how "Active Learning" is done.

1. This activity might be a useful introductory activity before the "mystery boxes" lesson.

2. Cut apart the Modified Poem, so that there will be a different 6-line portion for each team (numbered 1 through 6).

 

 

PROCEDURES

 1. Divide class into 6 groups of approximately equal numbers.

2. Initiate a short discussion with students about the differences between observations and interpretations in general. Teacher elicits and records student responses on board or overhead projector. Offer a few examples of each to check class' understanding.

3. Read the first part of the poem (first 6 lines) to the class.

4. Explain that you will be handing out a different part of the poem to each team. One person in each team is to read its part to the team, and the team decides what animal is being described by that part. Hand out the poem parts, one part per team, randomly.

5. Prepare two columns on board or overhead, headed: "OBSERVATION" and "INTERPRETATION", respectively. After each section is read (next step), ask students to indicate the observation and interpretation(s), and you can list those in the appropriate columns.

6. After a few minutes, all teams should have reached a decision. Ask for each team to select a team reader, who is to read that team's selection aloud to the class. Begin the readings by [the teacher] re-reading the first 6 lines, then team 1, 2, etc., and the teacher reads the last 6 lines. For each selection, record the observation and interpretation, as indicated by class.

7. Ask students to suggest the identity of the animal by analyzing all the data.

 

8. Hand out the complete (original) poem (one per team, to share), and have them read it aloud in their respective groups. Note that the capitalized words were the ones replaced with "animal" or less obvious clue words in the working (modified) poem.

9. Initiate discussion with the whole class:

a. What has this poem to do with "science"?

STUDENT RESPONSE (desired!): "Scientists can't always see every aspect of a problem"; "Scientific explanations can be influenced (biased) by prevailing climate (culture, politics, experiences, etc.)"; "Most science is done by teams"; "Scientists can reach different interpretations for the same observations."

b. How would the observations of six blind scientists change the poem?

STUDENT RESPONSE: "There would be mention of measurements, recording of observations, use of other senses, and collaboration or sharing of data."


c. How could the observations of six people who happen to be blind be more valuable than the observations of just one person?

STUDENT RESPONSE: "This would bring out a greater richness of details and interpretations which would enhance the final conclusion."

d. What are some other possible interpretations for the observations made? (Ask students to close their eyes, and imagine all the things a particular observation could indicate; here's a chance for creative imagination to work, showing how scientists need to look at as many alternatives as they can, because the obvious solution may not be the real one.)

STUDENT RESPONSE: "The broad and sturdy side might be a heavy carpet hanging on a line, the tooth might be a horn, the squirming nose could be a thick tail, the knee might be a rump, the ear...a frilly decoration, and the tail could be a skinny neck or leg.

e. How might the background, culture, or experience influence one's interpretation of these observations? (give examples).

STUDENT RESPONSE: "If an observer had never seen an elephant, or had only seen animals native to Australia (e.g. confusing the trunk for a tail, like the thick tail of a kangaroo)..."

 ASSESSMENT

 1. Students in groups re-write the poem describing a different animal. Exchange with other groups and see it they can guess the creature.

2. Each student is observed in a subsequent lesson (e.g. the Mystery Boxes lesson) to see if they demonstrate an understanding of observations, interpretations, bias, and the value of collaboration.

3. Ask students to write a paragraph answering the question "How could the observations of six people who happen to be blind be more valuable than the observations of just one person?"

 EXTENSIONS

& VARIATIONS   

 1. Provide each student (or pair of students) with a copy of the original complete poem, and a worksheet with the following questions:

a. What does this poem have to do with science?

b. Why did each man observe the same animal but "see" it differently? (Also, see item "f" below).

c. Is there a problem with having different ideas about the same object at the same time?

d. Although you "know" what an elephant is, attempt to DRAW one (do your very best) using the descriptions provided by the six Indostans.

e. Describe how a scientist would observe an elephant.

f. How do your ideas compare with another classmate? Working with a classmate, compare your list of reasons (to item "b"), and together, generate a list of reasons that might explain why these human activities have been divided into two groups (observation, and interpretation).

When this assignment is completed by most of the class, discuss their answers with the class.

2. Have students collaborate in small groups and present their ideas by summarizing on one sheet of paper per group.

3. Have students make concept maps of the major ideas (individually, or in small groups).

 OTHER RESOURCES

 1. Consider doing the Mystery Boxes lesson after this Palpating Pachyderms lesson.

2. To see the complete poem (including the omitted last stanza), search on-line with Yahoo or other search engine, searching for the author's name (John Godfrey Saxe).

 ATTRIBUTIONS

Some of the ideas in this lesson may have been adapted from earlier, unacknowledged sources without our knowledge. If the reader believes this to be the case, please let us know, and appropriate corrections will be made. Thanks.

 1. Original Source: unknown

2. ENSI / SENSI original developed by: : Steven Dickhaus

3. Modified by: Sidney Hammontre, Joyce Rodrick, Lon Zimmerman, Larry Flammer

4. Reviewed / Edited by: Martin Nickels, Craig Nelson, Jean Beard: 12/15/97

5. Edited / Revised for website by L. Flammer 1/20/98


STUDENT HANDOUTS

 The first poem set below is for copying, and cutting into six stanzas for your six teams, and also shows the first and last stanzas (to be read by the teacher).

The second poem set below is to be copied, one for each team to read AFTER their discussion.

These two poem sets are also included at the end in Adobe Acrobat's pdf format, structured so as to be copied easily onto two separate pages directly.

 

FIRST POEM SET:

MODIFIED MYSTERY POEM
(Original by John Godfrey Saxe, 1816-1887)

 TEACHER READS TO CLASS------>

 

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 1:

 

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 2:

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 3:

 

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 4:

 

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 5:

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 6:

 

 

 

 

TEACHER READS TO CLASS------->

 It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the animal
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

 

The first approached the animal
And happening to fall
Against its broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the animal
Is very like a wall!"

 

The second, feeling of the tooth,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an animal
Is very like a spear!"

 

The third approached the animal,
And happened to take
The squirming nose within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the animal
Is very like a snake!"

 

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the animal
Is very like a tree!"

 

The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an animal
Is very like a fan!"

 

The sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the animal
Is very like a rope!"

 

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

SECOND POEM SET:

BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
Original poem, minus its last stanza
by John Godfrey Saxe, 1816-1887

 TEACHER READ TO CLASS------>

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 1:

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 2:

 

 

FOR TEAM 3:

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 4:

 

 

 

FOR TEAM 5:

 

 

FOR TEAM 6:

 

 


TEACHER READ TO CLASS------->

 It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the ELEPHANT
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the ELEPHANT
And happening to fall
Against its broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the ELEPHANT
Is very like a wall!"

The second, feeling of the TUSK,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an ELEPHANT
Is very like a spear!"

The third approached the animal,
And happened to take
The squirming TRUNK within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the ELEPHANT
Is very like a snake!"

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the ELEPHANT
Is very like a tree!"

The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an ELEPHANT
Is very like a fan!"

The sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the ELEPHANT
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

PRE-FORMATTED POEM SETS: PDF FILE (2 pages)

 These two pages are in Adobe Acrobat pdf format in order to maintain their intended layout for handouts. Only the first page is showing. To access both pages (for enlarging and copying, etc.), you will need to download the free Acrobat Reader from Adobe (unless it's already installed in your system). Then just click on the blue file name at the bottom of the first page. You will see the "Acrobat Exchange" application loading, then the pages will display. You might need to shift-click and drag the lower left corner of the page to enlarge it.

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