Friday, July 10, 2009


A good day of home ed. yesterday. Elder Son's class at school have been looking at the concept of 'classification', and it kinda fits in with what we've been doing here at home... a bit of work on evolution, origin of species, and the wide, wide range of living organisms. Anyway, I found a rather good biological/taxonomic key on the web, and promptly snarfed it.

For those of you not of scientific bent, a Taxonomic Key is nothing more than a carefully constructed series of questions designed to help you identify some kind of living organism. You start at the beginning, and obey the instructions that follow your answer to each question, and eventually, you wind up with a name for your creature, or plant, or whatever.

Low-level taxonomy is a right bastard. Distinguishing between two closely related species of insect, for example, isn't just a job for experts... for some insects, it's a job for experts and a scanning electron microscope. I can manage a lot of stuff here at home, but sadly, I haven't managed to convince Natalie yet of our need for an electron microscope.

Anyway, this particular Taxonomic Key is nice. It's very broad: you can apply it to any living thing. Logically, therefore, it doesn't go very deep -- you get down as far as Order mostly. And with some organisms, not even that far. (The lowest taxon for anything fungal is "Kingdom Fungi". )

The lack of depth is no issue. For a beginner, it's perfect. All the biological differences that this particular Taxonomic Key relies on are very visual indeed, and pretty intuitive. Certainly, Elder Son had no trouble with it at all. A garden snail, for example: he made it all the way down to 'gastropoda' in no time flat, with no prompting from me whatsoever.

In fact, my only complaint is that whoever designed this key is clearly NOT an Australian. Why do I say this? It's simple: when you get to 'Class Mammalia', the next question is about hooves, or no-hooves. No questions about egg-laying. No questions about pouches. According to this particular taxo-key, echidnas are actually 'order insectivora', not 'order monotremata', as they should be.

What we call a glaring, stupid mistake that one. Anyway, I'll get around to rewriting the thing (it's only two pages of PDF) and I'll correct that little piece of stupidity. It's easy enough to alert the boy to it anyhow.

Point is, though, he absolutely loved the concept, and loved using it. I was going to get him to key out twenty different living things, but instead of just writing down his results, he was lovingly annotating every step of the classification process, so I stopped him at ten. He got all of them absolutely right, and enjoyed himself tremendously taking photos of his various creatures, etc.

I guess I'd forgotten how potent the act of naming can be. For a youngster, names are knowledge and power. Being able to provide scientific names for the cat, the dog, the rats - being able to investigate their relationship to other living creatures - really caught his interest, and as far as I'm concerned, that makes for an exceptionally powerful learning experience.

Of course, the other thing about this broad Taxonomic Key is that it necessarily focuses on some of the most important elements of structural biology. The questions are designed to divide up living organisms along taxonomic lines, and in general, those taxonomic features are also vital evolutionary and biological features. So in the process of messing with these two sheets of paper, Elder Son has learned to understand the distinction between autotrophs and heterotrophs, consumers and decomposers, backbone/no backbone, radial symmetry vs bilateral symmetry, etc. Fantastic day's work, really.

The Spanish has started to come along nicely too. We've been hampered in the past by the fact that Younger Son wasn't much on reading -- but he's in year 1 now, and his reading has (like his brothers at much the same age) leapt exponentially forward. So now, we're not limited to trying our halting conversational stuff -- we can actually read, and write, and since both boys are, like me, primarily visual learners, it's really coming along nicely.

We've found ourselves a nice little progressive text, in which we're learning all about Enrique Pereda and his friend Maria Jackson, and their monumentally dull lives at high school. But dull or not, we're moving along nicely. It's very cool watching the boys read and translate grade-school Spanish at a rate that equals or betters what you'd expect most kids their age to show on their English -- and I'm enjoying learning along with them. I think the time has come to start ordering a few kids' books in Spanish... wonder if there's an 'El Amazon' out there somewhere?


  1. Combine the power of naming and Spanish - find out if 'Wizard of Earthsea' has been translated into Spanish.

  2. Man, let me just say that you SO rock.
    Way to step up the home ed thing to a whole new level. I was impressed with the Museum visit but this is awsome.
    10 out of ten + a koala stamp

    Taxonomy is a powerful thing, Lineaus may have been a bit of a sex-mad fruitloop, but one standard name for all organisms, made on a reason not fancy - Idea of a century.

    The latin bit is also cool.
    Eg; melalueca - Tea Tree / paperbark
    Mela = black as in melanin
    Leuca =white as in Leukacytes (White blood cells)
    When you look at the bark through bushfire scarring & new growth it is [drumroll] black & white.

    I use a dichotomous key @ work to ID Sea Snakes & Turtles - bycatch on trawlers. You'd be amazed how many 30+ year olds who can't get their head around it & your boy is charging with it. F'kn well done.
    As an aside - What Bird is that & Grants guide to fishes used to include taxonomic details (X fin rays, Y gill slits, presence of specific ID features.) The new versions omit these details. As a result I buy every Pre 1980 copy of Grants I see.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Sorry, try again.
    If your boys like Tin Tin - I know he's available in Spanish. Il Amazon will have it for sure.

  5. In year 10 biology I submitted apx 20 illustrations of various dragons along with a hand calligraphied dichotomous key by which to identify them as a semester project.

    Luckily, the teacher was a decent bloke and marked it on its merits as a tool to identify said dragons rather than dismissing it out of hand.