I enjoy teaching, particularly teaching elementary science methods. We began the spring semester by moving right into a mode of “doing” science with an exploration of density – observed through sinking and floating. We returned to explorations of density in week two. Before we left the concept, I presented several counter-intuitive phenomenon – the last one had me holding an ice cube over what appeared to be water. Sink or float? It sunk.
“Can you use your understanding of relative density to explain what is going on?”
Baffled looks as they wrestled with going against what their eyes were telling them. there was great difficulty in coming up with an explanation that made sense.
“You’re tampering with our minds!”
What followed was a great discussion of the difficulty of looking beyond what appears one way and positioning yourself to be able to consider alternative explanations.
This week, we specifically explored the world of naive conceptions and conceptual change literature. I began with asking them to work within groups of three to prepare an explanation for seasonal variations. All the classic misconceptions came out: the earth is in an elliptical orbit – it’s summer when the earth is closer to the sun and winter when it is further away; the earth is titled on an axis – the hemisphere that is tilted toward the sun is closer and therefore experiencing summer.
Two things we noticed during the discussions, 1) students quickly picked something up and to manipulate in attempt to make understanding of something that had only loose connections in their schema, and 2) when we explain something we are unsure of our words tend to leave our mouths with a pronounced lilt, sounding more like a question than a statement. We then watched the “Private Universe” video showing Harvard graduates and professors presenting the same misconceptions and showcasing the persistence of these misconceptions getting in the way of making room to accommodate our new conceptual understanding.
During a discussion on constructivist learning theory, I told them I was going to “tamper” with their minds one more time. Placing a 12 inch mirror on the wall, I asked them if there was anything they could do to enable them to see both head and feet. Unanimously they said if they backed up far enough they would be able to. I asked them what they would do if I simply told them they were wrong – that the top and bottom points on your body you see do not change as you back up. As I predicted they didn’t believe me. They had to test it themselves. One student jumped up to look in the mirror from 3 feet away. He could see the top of his head and 6 inches below his chin. He backed up to 10 feet away. He saw exactly the same thing and sat. down – only to jump up once more and try it again. I suggested that the rest wouldn’t quite believe it either until they tested it themselves. I am suspecting there was a good percentage of my students standing in front of the mirror that night as they got ready for bed – and backing up. To overcome these persistent misconceptions, we all need to experience it first hand. Only then can we begin to construct new conceptions.
Seems there is greatly utility in tampering with minds and thus arousing a state of cognitive dissonance and igniting a thirst for understanding.