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Author: Neil Haave, PhD

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Reading to Learn

I think I killed my yeast.

It has been years, nay, decades, since I last baked bread without using a bread machine. It has even been years since I used a bread machine. I once regularly made a delicious honey graham bread. It always turned out well. So when I saw a recipe for the famous Tuck Shop cinnamon buns in our university’s alumni magazine a few weekends ago, I thought, Oh, I can do this. I have made bread before.

But when it came time to check on my rising dough, something was wrong. It was supposed to have doubled, but mine was still on the bottom of the bowl. It had barely moved.

I consulted with my spouse, and I think I know what happened. Like most bread recipes, mine called for waking up the yeast by mixing it with warm water and sugar. I had forgotten to treat my yeast like friends, like the living creatures they are. I used hot water from the kettle to wake up the yeast. I told my spouse that the recipe had asked for warm water, that the kettle was not boiling, that it was warm. My spouse countered, “Would you have been comfortable taking a bath in that water?” No; it would have been scalding hot.

I killed my yeast, and my cinnamon buns did not rise.

What does this lapse have to do with teaching and learning? It reminded me that for learning to truly matter, we as learners need to embody it, to channel it. It cannot remain trapped inside our heads. It needs to be integrated and synthesized with our understanding of the world. For learning to be useful we need to reconstruct our mental models of the world. This is why active learning is such a powerful teaching strategy. Whether it involves applying rote learning to solving problems or, as in my case, applying the biology of yeast to baking bread, active learning gets the knowledge out of our heads and into the real world.

My cinnamon bun baking debacle also reminded me of one of my first teaching experiences, during the early 1990s. It was my first time teaching a course on biological function. One of the topics was how the heart works, how the biology of cardiac cells enables our hearts to beat autonomously without nervous stimulation. A week after my lecture, we followed up with a laboratory exercise during which students examined excised frog hearts. One of my brightest and best students shouted excitedly that the frog heart was still beating after being cut out and placed in a Petri dish. I came over and said, “Of course it is. This is what I taught you during class last week. Hearts consist of striated involuntary muscle which is able to contract autonomously.” My still excited student replied, “Yes, I know. I remember, but it really happens. It really is true—it’s happening right now in this dish!”

Isn’t it interesting how we can know something but not really embody its truth? My student “knew” that heart cells beat all by themselves but was still astonished to see it happen. Similarly, I “knew” yeast are living organisms, but I had forgotten to treat them as such and experienced the consequences.

We need to give learners the opportunity to apply and experience their learning. The best way I know to do that is to provide my students with active learning opportunities in class. Learning experiences in the lab or field or during study abroad do the same thing. Otherwise, students will not experience the truth of what they know.

I still plan to make those cinnamon buns and I am reasonably confident they will turn out well. I know that my yeast are living organisms, and I will treat them as such.

P.S. For those of you interested, the Tuck Shop cinnamon bun recipe is featured at this URL.

Neil Haave, PhD, is a professor of biology at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus and an associate director of his university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. Reach him at nhaave@ualberta.ca.