Teaching taxonomy in the age of Wikipedia

A thought struck me a couple of days ago, and I tweeted (twate?) it thus:

I was struggling to articulate what the problem was and, more important, find some way of teaching it in an appropriate way. “It” in this case is taxonomy, the bane of every biology student and, as I have learned, their teachers.

Here’s how I was taught it:

  • All living things are classified into 5 Kingdoms:
    • Monera
    • Protista
    • Fungi
    • Plantae
    • Animalia
  • Each kingdom is divided into several phyla. For Kingdom Animalia, as an example, it is divided into the following phyla:
    • Porifera
    • Cnidaria
    • Platyhelminthes
    • etc.
    • etc.
    • ad nauseum

We were taught the taxomonic hierarchy starting at the broadest level of organization. First we learned about all 5 kingdoms and their major phyla. For the animals, we were also taught some of the classes and orders. This was taught in very pedagogically sound ways using a variety of methods and addressing a wide range of learning modalities. My high school Bio teachers were great – brilliant as teachers and wonderful as human beings. When I began teaching (BW – before web), I taught as I was taught although I would not presume to be as brilliant as my teachers.

Then Something Big and Important™ happened. It was called the World Wide Web. And the Web begat the wiki, and the wiki begat Wikipedia. And it was good. But it makes the way I teach, and the way I was taught, archaic. Why should someone be forced to memorize endless hierarchies as outlined above. If I really wanted to find out the differences in the digestive systems of animals in Phylum Nematoda compared to Phyum Annelida, I could just look it up in Wikipedia or some other reputable online source.

So I’m going to take a different approach and see what happens. One resource that was pointed out to me via Twitter by Alan Levine and someone else whose name I’ve forgotten (leave a comment if it was you so you get full props) was the Tree of Life web project.

The Tree of Life Web Project (ToL) is a collaborative effort of biologists from around the world. On more than 10,000 World Wide Web pages, the project provides information about the diversity of organisms on Earth, their evolutionary history (phylogeny), and characteristics.

What an amazing resource for a biology class to have. The diversity of life all organized into a wiki-like set of pages that describe organisms and their phylogeny. For any organism, you can find out where it fits in the hierarchy. So we can learn that we (modern humans a.k.a. Homo sapiens) are part of the genus Homo, which is one of the Hominidae, a group which also includes gorillas and chimpanzees, and so on. It is the Wikipedia of biological diversity!

So here’s what I’m going to do. Instead of starting at the Kingdom Level, I’m going to reverse things and approach the topic more paleontologically. We’ll start with us Homo sapiens. We are the only living members of the genus Homo which is part of the Hominidae family. What are some of the other members of our Hominid family? What are some of the characteristics we have in common? (We are, it turns out, startling similar is many ways.) Then I’ll get the students to start researching progressively farther back in the phylogenetic tree. How are we like other primates? Like other mammals? Vertebrates? Chordates? Animals? Also at each step back, I want them to take a look at the other branches in our phylogenetic family tree. What traits evolved in the gorillas, for example that didn’t evolve in us? What about the traits unique to the spider monkeys or dogs or …

I introduced the project to them today very briefly:

The Family Tree

Trace back along the human phylogenetic tree looking at traits we have in common with other living things, as well as the traits that are unique to other kinds of organisms.

I have no idea where this is going to go, but that’s often an indicator of a good project.