Making Connections, Part 2: The Butterfly

I am not shy about expressing skepticism of the “21st Century Skills” movement. In February I attended a fascinating panel discussion in D.C. on 21st century skills, hosted by Common Core, with presentations by Diane Ravitch, E. D. Hirsch, Dan Willingham, and Ken Kay. In March I attended another panel discussion in D.C., this one hosted by the NEA. I asked questions at both events. At the second event, I was startled when Paige Kuni (worldwide manager of K-12 education for Intel and a board member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills) referred to the life cycle of a butterfly as a “factoid.” I brought this up in a comment on Flypaper and later read a response from Kuni (excerpted here):

The careful listener at this event would have heard that I believe that students absolutely need to be taught content in combination with instruction that leads to 21st century skills like critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. I believe that by creating schools that adopt the approaches P21 supports, students will be able to make connections of how a changing form makes butterflies more successful in the ecosystem. That they can think critically about how life cycles connect to evolution. And that they could extrapolate to other topics such as how product lifecycles in business are the same or different from butterfly lifecycles in making companies successful. When they are 25 if they cannot recall the name of one-step in the lifecycle- it isn’t important as long as they possess the learning skills that allow them to access that information when they need it (search- cut- paste).

The life cycle of a butterfly is much more than a “factoid” or a story of “success”: it is beautiful, complex, and intriguing on its own terms. One could study it for a lifetime. Comparing and contrasting butterfly and business life cycles only distracts from the subject, as the analogies are superficial. This leads to the question: When are interdisciplinary connections enlightening, and when are they distracting? How do we help students see “connections” between subjects in a way that will sharpen, not dull, their understanding?

In this case, one could envision a high school science course for juniors or seniors that delved into the details of the butterfly’s transformation: the chemistry, the interaction with the environment, and so forth. Now, let’s say that in literature class (do those exist any more?) the students are reading Nabokov’s biography of Gogol, or another Nabokov work. They could then draw an interesting connection between Nabokov’s study of butterflies and his close observation of detail, taking care not to strain the analogy. In science class they could study—among others–the butterfly that Nabokov himself identified, the Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), but otherwise they would be studying butterflies, not Nabokov. A connection would exist between the subjects, but it would not be forced, nor would it limit the study of either subject.

Granted, that is an unlikely scenario, as not many schools would teach both butterflies and Nabokov. But the basic principle is this: connections work well when they are not forced and do not interfere with the subject at hand. Students study each subject independently, on its own terms. The connections simply add perspective and insight.

The Core Knowledge curriculum (to which I am partial) has many such correspondences between subjects. Students might read stories from One Thousand and One Nights in English class, then listen to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in music class. Or they might read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then listen to Mendelssohn’s Overture. They might view works of Renaissance art as they learn Renaissance history.

This contrast radically with a scenario where students discuss business “success” in the context of the study of butterflies or evolution. There the connections are superficial and in many cases false. A Venn diagram does not do the trick. A product is no more like a butterfly than we ourselves are. It does not usually have mutualistic relationships with ants. A product’s “egg” does not have micropyles; its versions are not quite like instars. Rarely does it fly.


  1. Analogies can be very useful…sometimes they can be pointless…and sometimes they can actually be dangerous. See the power of metaphor and analogy.

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    David, thanks for all the interesting links and for your post on “the age of blather“! I will catch up with the reading soon.

    Bill Evers has some interesting commentary on a topic related to the abuse of metaphor: Brian Cambourne, his not-so-subliminal email campaign, and “framing theory.”

  3. I’m gritting my teeth at the disparagement of “factoids”. The FACT is, without a ready command of the general principle, backed up by understanding of the stages, y’all can’t make these leaps into analogies about other fields. Otherwise, you’re just spouting slogans, 2nd and 3rd hand information, and off-the-top-of-your-head &^%$#@ (can’t think of a good euphemism for BS). Such content-poor blather may be fine in a social studies class, but it doesn’t help the kid understand SCIENCE.

    My irritation started some time ago, when the social studies departments stopped teaching what they know about, and started getting in “pseudo-science” – global warming, environmentalism, nuclear energy, etc. They take concepts they really don’t understand, and shovel their propaganda down the kids’ throats. They should either stick to what they actually know and understand, or go back to school and become a science teacher.

  4. In my opinion people who claim something is a usless factoid are simply saying they do not understand why something is important. It may be a personal failure or it might be a failure of education. I recall long ago an article by Coleman McCarthy on why we should not teach Algebra. He claimed it was pretty but useless.

    I think comparing biological life cycles and business life cycles or the business cycle is silly. “changing form makes butterflies more successful in the ecosystem” Is even sillier. Has anyone heard of aphids? I hope this person is kept far from our schools.

    The life cycle of a butterfly is an example of alternation of generations, a very important concept that medicine had to learn to conquer diseases like malaria.

    I think the reason to teach butterflies and not malaria plasmodium ( or other parasites) is malaria requires a lot more gear, risk and expense. Butterflies are prettier too.

  5. Linda – BS = horse apples (var. hoss apples). It’s a New England thing.

  6. Sharon R. says:

    My first thought when I read “When they are 25 if they cannot recall the name of one-step in the lifecycle- it isn’t important as long as they possess the learning skills that allow them to access that information when they need it (search- cut- paste)” was that all those 21st century skills-enabled students are going to be in big trouble when the electromagnetic pulse wipes out our internet infrastructure. (Am I the only one who remembers this terror of the 1980’s?)

    When they are 25, will they have to remain constantly tethered to the Internet to know anything at all? Will they need to consult their iPhone 9000 to carry on a basic conversation?

    I predict very quiet, very boring camping trips for all. (Hey, anyone remember the rules for dominoes?)

    You get the feeling that the business types on the committee are all from product marketing, not R&D.

  7. Ponderosa says:

    The conventional wisdom seems to be that teaching facts is almost useless because so much gets forgotten. But what do we mean, exactly, by forgetting? One may forget the title of the first stage of a butterfly’s life-cycle, while still retaining the fact that there IS a first step, and if you remember the second and fourth steps, you may be able to reconstruct the first and third steps, etc. And even if these details become irretrievable, there’s use in simply knowing that some bugs HAVE metamorphoses –in understanding malaria, as stated above, and probably in other matters as well –who can predict? It seems to me that facts make multifaceted impressions on the brain, so that superficial forgetting belies much that actually remains. I suspect that cognitive psychology research in this vein may ultimately justify knowledge-based curricula and finally slay the 21st century skills dragon!

  8. Diana Senechal says:

    Great point, Ponderosa. It reminds me of a passage in Mortimer Smith’s And Madly Teach (1949):

    You may have forgotten the rules of syntax and how to parse a sentence, but your study of grammar has left you with an instinctive sense of how to construct a sentence. You may have forgotten the dates of the reign of Henry VIII and the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine, but you have a sense of the chronological order of man’s history on this globe. You may not be able to name off-hand the ten principal rivers of the United States or the capitals of all the states, but you have an ordered geographical picture of your country and other countries. Call these dull facts if you wish, but thye are the indispensable background of a well-ordered, that is, a well-educated, mind.

  9. Ponderosa says:

    The quote says it better than I did. (I wonder, by the way, where you find all these obscure texts on education. The catacombs of the New York Public Library?!)

  10. Diana Senechal says:

    Ponderosa, I find out about the books from footnotes in other books. I learned about Mortimer Smith from Diane Ravitch’s The Troubled Crusade. I saw Irwin Edman’s book in one of the “Suggested Reading” lists in Demiashkevich’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.

    I find the copies themselves in libraries and on Amazon.

  11. kathteach says:

    I think I have only posted comments to a blog four times in five years and two of these moments are inspired with your guest blog posts on Joanne Jacobs’s blog! Thanks for getting me to the step of ‘coming in’ to a discussion about something I am passionate about.

    As for the Robert Frost poem, I would combine BOTH approaches, to be sure. Neither is well integrated and neither holds the promise of bringing in as many students as possible. This makes me realize why I call my teaching approach a layered one (probably a term ‘owned’ by someone I read in grad school – sorry I can’t cite the owner ?). Good readers and writers – engaged students who have had success responding to texts – would do perfectly well with the Socratic approach in lesson 2. Yet we practitioners know our classrooms do not house great numbers of such scholars. We try to stand on our heads with ways to get everyone involved and I think we should. At best, with the workshop approach – the balanced literacy approach – we are giving the non-savvy readers and writers in the class the language and tools to write about the poem in a default or template manner. Sure, this is forced. It’s only a default. It’s a passport to learning how to organize written responses about texts so that – once one has acquired the structure or form of an academic response – they can break away from that default, boring and artificial with their own forms and templates.

    The Big Idea with a workshop ‘template’ is to get students to learn how to organize written responses to texts that make meaning and do more than tell personal narratives, retell a lot, fill in a bubble that proves they read the plot or fill in short responses on a worksheet.

    No, a Venn Diagram is not enough to get students to compare and contrast ideas. But for so many of the marginalized, non-reading students who are doomed to drop out or fail in future school, it is a tool to begin with. It’s the templates that often help “lift up” literacy skills. I see this on a regular basis in my own writing workshop approach in both college and high school classes in the past six years that I have been teaching. The good readers and writers do not need it and I encourage them to do their own things – my rule being “First, do no harm” as a teacher. But there are so many who need to see a way into working with printed texts. This is something I think the Core Curriculum (which I too am partial to) doesn’t take into account enough. We have a huge waiting line of literacy wannabees and I think balanced literacy is a way to open a big door to those who want to join the club.

    Here is the long comment I posted on Chicago Boyz about the 4th grader using the vocabulary of balanced literacy in your literature club. By the way – kudos to you for facilitating such an effort.

    You are a good reader and writer and I’ll bet you were good at these literacy skills as a fourth grader. I am a college composition teacher who can’t wait for that savvy 4th grade student to come to my class because – yes, we do have to teach college students to engage with literature as active readers because most of them do not know how to ‘get into’ a text. Many college freshmen I teach admit to not having read a challenging novel in high school and most of them are seriously underprepared to write basic academic essays in any subject. The student you worked with is receiving the current ‘best practices’ of teaching students to engage with books in the age where the print culture is dying. Any 4th grader lucky enough to possess the vocabulary of good readers – the words of the field of literacy – is being taught well.

    As all 4th grade teachers today know – because they are the experts in the classroom working with kids – reading skills are on a dramatic decline. We reading and writing teachers have tried to come up with a way to get young readers actively engaged in reading books to develop critical thinking and writing skills, not necessarily to merely ‘read for pleasure’. Reading for pleasure is definitely important – but today’s students generally do this when reading on the internet, gaming instructions, or favorite websites that follow their interests (sports). While this is great –they simply do NOT read books. Their parents do not read books or newspapers or magazines. Books are not valued anymore. The culture our children grow up in is an electronic one with a lot of reading, a lot of visual representations and a lot of instant information readily available. The near future will give them broad access to electronic books –that’s for sure a good thing because at least literature has a chance for an electronic renaissance. The paper print culture is over. Take a look at the publishing industry data to confirm the fact that a very small, elite audience exists for printed books, especially literature. It will seem bizarre to our grandchildren that the news was actually printed on paper and delivered to our homes everyday.

    Yet schools are still bound to printed textbooks across the curriculum – even the fourth grade curriculum will have many printed texts to be covered. How do we teach students to read for a purpose – a coming test, a report to write, or an analysis of any text assigned? We teach them the ways that the good readers know how to read for a purpose. Literature remains a great vehicle for teaching students to learn the language of good, critical reading. This is what the wonderful 4th grade student was doing so well – she was showing the way she can connect to the text. Good for her.

    What was missed in your commentary here is the knowledge that very few students read actively. Very few students know what to say (ergo think – write) about a text other than “It made me sad”, “It was funny”, “She was sad”, “He was angry”. This should be the ‘ghastly terminology’ we need to worry about. It is a disservice to allow students to go through the curriculum responding emotionally to texts because this is the opposite of disciplined, critical thinking. I would say that this “feel good” approach to teaching students how to engage in printed texts is akin to the “feel good” politics that got us in the political mess we are now in. The days of the ‘touch feely” and ‘whole language acquisition of literature’ are over because they failed, the students failed and the world found out students were graduating elementary, middle and high school without the reading and writing skills needed for even modest success in college or the workplace.

    This is why NCLB came to be and still exists. Phonics and direct instruction are back and in a big way, especially in urban schools. Balanced literacy is the approach you ran into with your 4th grader – a belief that we can teach students to learn the language of what good readers and writers just know how to do instinctively. Yes, it sounds awkward to you, a good reader. Yes, it’s different. But it is a genuine effort to give students a chance to get into printed texts in a culture that does not provide them with any other models. Text to self, text to others, text to world. This is the formula for teaching students what to WRITE about in the body paragraphs that follow a thesis statement. What you call ‘ghastly terminology’ is really a way to give non-reading students topic sentences for the paragraphs they will write in essays or book reports. Why should we continue to let only good readers and writers know how to do this well without the script? Why can’t we let all children have a chance to learn these skills?

    You must take my word for this – other than making emotional connections to texts in endless ways, students are entering college in droves (even the BEST colleges, I assure you – look up MIT and Harvard: remedial writing) without the knowledge that they have to make more analytical, critical connections to texts beyond retelling the plot and talking about how it made them feel. Unless they plan on becoming speech writers for the powers that be right now – or unless they plan on being herded around like sheeple into supporting politicians they vote for to just ‘feel good’ – they will do poorly as workers or citizens in a world that cries out for good critical thinkers, now more than ever. It is certain that they will not be able to persuade others with good critical arguments because they never learned how to do anything in school but react emotionally to the texts they encountered there.