Heard at NCTM 2014 in New Orleans. Check out the newly updated Against All Odds: Inside Statistics here.
(Original post on Smithsonian Science Education Center’s STEMVisions blog. STEMVisions highlights ideas, best practices, research and successes in science education.)
By Jannette Alston Monday, August 26, 2013
In my freshman-year biology class in college, my professor asked the 120 students in the room to think about how a tree acquires mass as it grows. I was puzzled, having never been asked this question in previous biology classes, and other students felt the same way and didn’t know the answer. After allowing us to deliberate for a little while, the professor proceeded to show us a video of Harvard and MIT graduates coming up with the wrong answer to this fundamental question about photosynthesis. When the movie provided the correct answer to the question, I recorded it in my notes, kept on moving, and never gave it much thought. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the snippet shown in my class was part of two science programs, produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, that examine how and why students have and maintain scientific misconceptions. For example, the students interviewed thought that the cause of the seasons is the change in distance of the Earth from the Sun throughout the Earth’s orbit, when in fact seasons are primarily the result of the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis.
As an intern at SSEC, I watched both Minds of Our Own and A Private Universe, which investigate a major problem in education: despite being taught basic scientific principles in elementary and middle school, students, upon reaching higher levels of education, still have misconceptions that haven’t been corrected. The programs include in-depth interviews with middle school students that explore the ways in which we think about scientific phenomena and examine the most effective methods of teaching science to children.
In A Private Universe, students grapple with concepts such as the cause of the seasons and lunar phases. The questions asked of middle school students are posed to Harvard and MIT graduates, many of whom answer incorrectly. A major concern is raised: What can we say about the quality of science education if students in the best colleges do not understand elementary science principles?
The researchers in the program suggest that the way learning happens contributes to this apparent lack of understanding. The interviews demonstrate students are not analogous to “blank slates” for teachers to write on, but the contrary; students’ brains are teeming with theories and notions, and teachers must help students reconstruct ideas rather than writing on these “blank slates” without acknowledging what was there initially. The interviews conducted suggest that many students cling to their personal theories even after being corrected in class, showing that teachers who are unaware of their students’ prior understanding have little ability to fix these misconceptions.
These sentiments are echoed in the Minds of Our Own series, which examines why students miss important concepts even after teachers present these ideas to them in the classroom. Students are asked questions about subjects ranging from photosynthesis to electric currents, and they are perplexed even if the subject has already been covered in their classes. The researcher who narrates the video footage proposes that “even when a teacher explains something slowly, carefully, and clearly, if the student’s thinking isn’t taken into account, students often fail to learn.” This is seen during interviews in which the brightest students from honors courses still have trouble with many scientific concepts.
The programs highlight another dilemma: teachers are inclined to rush through material, meaning that many students get left behind. The pressure to cover a certain amount of curriculum exists, but evidence shows that the more information teachers cram, the less information students actually learn and retain. It’s an unfortunate trade-off that makes me wonder if getting A’s or doing well on standardized tests truly reflect knowledge gained. In Jay Chandler’s honors chemistry class, featured in the video, one can see how right-answer oriented his pupils are: when he asks them what answers they got, the students press him to simply read the answers aloud. He also voices his frustration in preparing students for the Chemistry Achievement Test and not being able to spend time explaining things in great detail. During grade school, cramming information into my head for a test and then forgetting it very soon after is a technique that I often practiced, and I had no problems as a result of doing so until recently. Like Mr. Chandler’s students perhaps, I grew up believing that a teacher would always provide me with the right answers. But my first year at college shocked me: my professors wouldn’t give me the answer; I had to design my own experiments in lab, and adults wanted to hear my opinion. Although this way of learning was frustrating and even daunting, I have enjoyed my courses more because my mind is more engaged and is being challenged.
I recommend that anyone interested in science education watch this thought-provoking series. As a student planning to major in Biology and Education, the fact that I was unable to answer the questions that my professor and these video programs posed startled me. As all effective educators know, understanding how children learn science is an important component of teaching. By allowing students to ask questions, make predictions, design and conduct experiments, interpret their results, discuss and present findings to others—the way scientists do in their careers everyday—students will be engaged and stimulated in a way that has proven to help students retain scientific concepts.
For me, one of the most important lessons that this video series stresses is that children’s ideas are important and shouldn’t be ignored. The classroom should be a safe space for a child to ruminate and think aloud. However, the reality is that science education traditionally emphasizes memorization and regurgitation more and inquiry and exploration less. As the videos show, shifting from the former to the latter is difficult and scary, especially if teachers have been teaching and students have been learning in a certain way for years. But I think it’s a worthwhile change to make if we want to permanently correct students’ misconceptions and allow future generations of students to be literate in science.
Originally posted Friday, May 03, 2013 by Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory*
Everybody wants teachers to be knowledgeable, but there is little agreement on what kinds of knowledge are the most important. Should a teacher have a deep knowledge of the subject matter, or is it better if the teacher has an understanding of what students think? Is there some optimal combination of different types of knowledge? Discussions of such issues rarely make use of data but instead are based on indirect methods of gauging teacher knowledge. The answer is important: Beliefs about teacher knowledge shape both the policies regulating how teachers are prepared, certified, hired, and evaluated as well as programs that provide ongoing professional development for practicing teachers.
CfA scientists and science educators Phil Sadler, Gerhard Sonnert, Harold Coyle, Nancy Cook-Smith, and Jaime Miller have published a study that quantifies several aspects of teacher knowledge and their relevance to teacher effectiveness. The team finds that one key factor in improving student performance in science understanding is teacher familiarity with the popular science misconceptions. The students of those teachers who both knew the material and understood the reasons for misconceptions improved in their test scores significantly, more than twice as much as students of teachers who only knew the material. The study, which included a sample of 9556 students and 181 teachers, is an important step in evaluating how to train better teachers.
For additional information on this topic, check out the following links:
*reposted with permission from Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory site with additional links added
In The Arts in Every Classroom, “Bringing Artists to Your Community,” theatre artist Birgitta De Pree involves a kindergarten class in a storytelling activity that engages the imagination while reinforcing story structure skills. She warms the students up with activities that relax them and build trust. Watch the video until 14:00. While Ms. De Pree served as an artist-in-residence in the school, these engaging activities can be adapted by any language arts teacher willing to take on the role.
National Family Month runs from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, May 12 to June 16 this year. Here are some fun and educational activities from Learner.org that you can do together to build those family bonds:
1. For middle and high school children, choose any of the content courses with Web sites and create a scavenger hunt. Write questions and have the family search for the answers. Time each person and reward the first person to finish with all the correct answers. Good resources for this activity include:
2. Gaze at the Moon and keep a journal. Use the Moon Journal activity from Looking at Learning… Again to track changes in the moon’s appearance. The pages include questions, materials, and instructions for the activities.
3. Follow the migration of monarch butterflies and report your local sightings on the Journey North site. Kids have their own page where they can watch videos of monarchs hatching and other natural phenomena.
5. Document your family’s history and then create a family history quilt as an art project. The library Arts in Every Classroom, program 12, “Borrowing from the Arts to Enhance Learning,” shows a classroom where students create these quilts. Go to about 22 minutes into the video.
6. Play a board game to help kids learn fractions. You can recreate the Fraction Tracks game shown in program 5 of Teaching Math: A Video Library 5-8.
Share your own inspired ideas by posting them in the comments below.
(contributed by Larisa Kirgan)
This is not fair! All of my 3rd grade classmates are spending free time talking, playing games, and in general, having fun. I am stuck at the bulletin board writing the alphabet over and over and over. Why is my handwriting such a big deal? Why doesn’t my teacher like me?
Weeks later, the same teacher informs me that I will be co-hosting the 3rd grade talent show. I am not happy about this. It means more work and speaking in front of a gymnasium full of students and families. She pulls me aside and says, “You can do this. You will have to work hard and put your mind to it. But I know you can do it.” Easy for her to say, she isn’t the one who has to stand on stage. I don’t understand why she keeps picking on me!
It took me several grade levels to mature enough and realize that this teacher was not picking on me at all. On the contrary, she saw something in me that I had not yet. She saw my potential to not just get by, but rather to excel. She taught me that I had to push myself to be better. Things may not come easy in life, but if I worked hard, practiced and put my mind to it, I could surpass my expectations.
My 3rd grade teacher did not care to be my favorite teacher, instead she wanted me to be the best student I could be. That made her a GREAT teacher.
Thank you for all of your hard work. This week, to show our gratitude, we will be posting about teachers who have affected our lives and the lives of our children.
Each day this week, we will ask a question as part of a scavenger hunt (look for the Thank You image on the post). All answers can be found on our Web site: Learner.org. The first teacher to send the correct response via email to firstname.lastname@example.org will win a small gift for that day. On Friday, everyone who responded during the week will be put into a drawing for a free DVD copy of Neuroscience & the Classroom. Good luck!
Enjoy the scavenger hunt, and share your own stories of great teachers who have touched your lives in the comments section of posts this week.
Scavenger Hunt Question #1: What professor of animal studies and animal advocate attributes his/her success as a scientist to his/her autism?
Submit this person’s name and the Learner.org url where he/she is mentioned to email@example.com.
Are you and your students writing poems for National Poetry Month? Watch Maxine Kumin read her poetry and hear how setting echoes the themes in her work in Literary Visions, program 12, “A Sense of Place: Setting and Character in Poetry.” Start at 21:54 in the video. Kumin says, “I’m a poet of the seasons. I’m a poet of the natural world.”