What can a shrimp teach us about learning?

Here’s an interesting piece of information I learned last week while listening to the Radio Lab podcast:  A two-inch shrimp helped to keep America’s submarines safe during World War II.  Amazing as it sounds, the pistol shrimp exhibits a 200 dB popping noise that cloaked America’s submarines during German sonar sweeps.  To hide their vessels from the enemy, US submarine captains would direct their crew to park in areas where pistol shrimp lived.  The shrimp’s loud popping would provide enough noise to effectively hide the submarines from the Germans. While the Americans trained their sonar operators to ignore the sounds of the pistol shrimp, the Germans didn’t.  Throughout the war, the beds of the pistol shrimp helped to provide an audio shield for American submarines.

Investigating the pistol shrimp a little more unveils some pretty amazing details. The loud popping noise is created when the shrimp snaps its claws to a close. If you’re wondering how a tiny claw can create such a loud noise, the truth is it doesn’t.  At least not directly.  The snapping claw happens so quickly that it causes a tiny air bubble to form.  Since the pistol shrimp lives at the bottom of the ocean, the air bubble that is generated experiences an enormous amount of pressure from the surrounding water.  Almost instantly after it’s created, the air bubble collapses into itself and creates a tiny explosion.  Some researchers say that the temperature from the compressing air bubble is comparable to the surface of the sun.  While the explosion is tiny, the resulting noise is not.  Besides creating enough noise to confuse submarine sonar technicians, the popping noise also helps to protect the pistol shrimp from its enemies. I doubt many of its predators are able to navigate through the noisy explosions to dine upon a feast of pistol shrimp.

At this point of the post, readers may be wondering how the pistol shrimp has anything to do with teaching and learning. Part of me is just amazed at the evolutionary process that helped this tiny shrimp create such a powerful defensive mechanism. But I also can’t help to think about how this naturally occurring action was effectively used by American submarine captains. Through training, the captains were able to use the sound of the pistol shrimp strategically to gain an advantage. In some ways, it’s similar to how instructors have been trained to use active learning techniques in their classroom.  I know this may sound like a huge leap but hear me out.  From an evolutionary perspective, humans are fundamentally social beings. We interact with one another and construct our understanding of the world by interacting with it and with one another. While some instructors may see these social activities as being distractions in their classrooms, other instructors use these processes strategically to gain an educational advantage. Just like the explosive results from the pistol shrimp’s tiny claws, bringing social activities into the classroom can have significant impacts on student learning.

Years ago, when I was teaching high school physics, an administrator came to my door to observe my teaching.  Seeing that I was facilitating an activity rather than lecturing, the administrator offered to come back “when I was teaching.” I explained that he probably should observe me now since this was what teaching looked like in my classroom most of the time.  Just like the German submarines viewed the pistol shrimp, my principal viewed active learning as a noisy distraction in my classroom and almost missed the powerful learning that was occurring. Ultimately, it all depends on your point of view.


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