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Examining Students’ Thoughts: An Important Part of Teaching Science (repost)

(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.

A Private Universe

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.

Minds of Our Own: Lessons from Thin Air and Can We Believe Our Eyes

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.

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