23 March 2017

The fish that weren't there

When my daughter Phoebe was in Grade 3 or 4, her class collaborated with a Grade 7 class in a project called Salmonids in the Classroom (1). The project was (and still is) supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the idea behind it is that raising salmon in the classroom will teach students a little bit about science, among other things.

Every school day a few Grade 3ers would walk over to the Grade 7ers and take a few scientific observations. And since I was working in Fisheries Oceanography at the time, one day I asked whether I could accompany Phoebe and her three classmates. 

So we walked over, each of them carrying a sheet with instructions. First, they had to measure the water temperature and write it down, which they all did. Then, they had to determine the pH of the water. Of course, none of the Grade 3ers, or the Grade 7ers for that matter, knew what a pH was, but they had learned how to use pH test strips for litmus testing and how to compare them to the colour chart, and they did it well.

Then they sat down in front of the fish tank and continued their assignment, which was this: In the space below, draw what you see. So, the three girls and one boy began to draw the little fish, which were supposed to be in the fry stage.

The problem was that there was not a single fish in the tank (2). 

"What are you doing?" I asked.
"We are drawing fish," Phoebe answered without even looking up.
"But you are supposed to draw what you see." 
"We know."
"But there are no fish in the tank."
"Believe me," Phoebe said. "We are supposed to draw little fish, and that's what we are doing."
"Aren't we supposed to draw fish?" the boy asked me.
"No," I said. "You are supposed to draw what you see."

After ten minutes the three girls (3) had finished drawing little fishes, and we returned to the Grade 3 classroom. All four of them handed their assignments to the teacher, and that was it.

Except that a few minutes later the boy was called to the teacher and was publicly reprimanded for having failed to complete the assignment. He didn't argue. He just stood there nodding in agreement to the admonition.

I walked over to the teacher and explained that there were no fish in the tank, and consequently all that they should have drawn was an empty fish tank.

A few questions came to my mind: Why did the girls draw fish that weren't there? Why didn't they listen to me? Why did the boy believe me? Why did the teacher jump to conclusions? Why didn't the boy defend himself? Why didn't the girls defend the boy? Why didn't the teacher reprimand the girls who had failed to complete the task correctly?

But there looms a larger questions: How often do you and I draw fish that aren't there?

(1) http://www.salmonidsintheclassroom.ca/index.html (Accessed: 23 Mar 2017)
(2) Later I learned that the fish had been released two days earlier and nobody had bothered to inform Phoebe's class.
(3) When I wrote this, I realized how much I resent the fact that it was the boy who was disobedient and not one of the girls. 

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