Posted by: Jeremy Fox | December 28, 2011

Why (un)teaching ecology is hard

It’s exam-marking time, the time of year when I’m reminded of just how difficult ecology is, both to teach and to learn. This is for all kinds of reasons, but one of the most challenging to overcome is that teaching or learning ecology properly often requires you to first unteach or unlearn something. Students aren’t blank slates, which makes it difficult for their instructors to teach, and for them to learn, things that contradict what they (think they) know, whether or not the students actually recognize the contradiction. Or even things that don’t “fit” in an obvious way with what they already know (one symptom of “misfits” is that they lead to non sequiter answers on exams).

But before you get too frustrated with your students for not “getting” something you tried to teach them, take a moment to recall all the times when you’ve failed to “get” a paper you read or a seminar you heard, and all the times when a referee or audience member failed to “get” one of your papers or seminars. It was probably for the same reason your students failed to get what you tried to teach: ecology is hard, and we try to learn new bits of it by comparing them to and fitting them in with what we already (think we) know–which leads to misunderstandings, for instance when a superficial similarity between a new idea and a familiar one leads us to mistakenly identify the two ideas with one another.

I’ve had years of practice explaining the Price equation, and people have told me I’m good at it–but I still get the same questions from referees and seminar audiences despite my best efforts to anticipate and address them before they arise. And the response to my posts on the zombie ideas behind the IDH can be read as an endorsement of my explanatory skills–very few people who read my posts came away with their belief in zombies unshaken–or as an illustration of how hard it is to overcome the preconceptions of even very smart, open-minded people (only a minority of readers who didn’t already recognize these ideas as zombies were totally convinced by my arguments).

As a reader or listener, I’d like to think that I’m better than most people at “getting” what the author or speaker is trying to convey, and recognizing when I don’t. Especially as a reader. I’m pretty slow and careful about reviews–they usually take me much more than the few hours that seems to be the academic average–and as an editor I get a lot of practice reading papers outside my area of greatest expertise, and seeing how others (reviewers) react to those same papers. But I’m sure at least some of the authors whose papers I’ve rejected would disagree with my own assessment of my reading abilities.

This post was inspired by a wonderful post on the same broad topic  by Nick Rowe at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative. Go over there and read it, especially if you’re an instructor whose students haven’t done as well on the final exam as you hoped they would. Nick feels your pain–but he’ll also remind you how hard this stuff is, and inspire you to redouble your efforts to get it across.



  1. Nice one Jeremy.
    The ideas expressed here are an example of why I often think that psychology, not physics, is the most fundamental of all sciences, because that is what determines whether any given human “gets” something or not. And I for one thank you for your efforts in reviewing papers, because not everybody does. The system provides no rewards for such effort (in fact, all it does is tend to increase your work load because more papers get sent your way if you’re good), so the motivation has to be strictly internal.

    I’m also of the belief that the internet is a terrible medium for explaining complex things to people. It’s cumbersome and time consuming relative to direct interaction. It’s real easy to remain confused after reading something on the intertubes.

    • I agree that explaining things to people in person is more effective than explaining things to them by writing something that they then read. When I give talks on the Price equation, I get much better questions, indicating much better understanding of the material, then I get from referees. So my long-term plan is to walk the earth, explaining the Price equation to every ecologist in the world face-to-face. 😉 Then when I’m done I’ll walk the same route again, explaining why the IDH is a zombie idea. 😉

  2. […] just inherently difficult to unlearn the first thing we ever learn about a topic, as I suggested in this old post? So that, if the first idea you ever learn about a topic is false (say, you’re taught the IDH […]

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