Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Effective Teachers (post by Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory)

CfA effective teachers blog post

A new study shows that teachers who are familiar with misconceptions about science as well as the science itself have students who are much more successful in learning.
Credit: SAO SED

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:

Science Daily, “Understanding Student Weaknesses”

Education Week, “Knowing Student Misconceptions Key to Science Teaching, Study Finds”

American Education Research Journal, “The Influence of Teachers’ Knowledge on Student Learning in Middle School Physical Science Classrooms”

Learner Express, “A Student Tries to Explain Why There Are Seashells on Top of Mount Everest and the Formation of the Himalayan Mountains”

A Private Universe

Learner Log, “Are you smarter than a Harvard graduate?”

 

*reposted with permission from Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory site with additional links added

Are you smarter than a Harvard graduate?

privateuniverseHarvardgrad

What causes seasons? Do you think you know? A common answer among school children and college graduates is that seasons are caused by how close the Earth is to the sun, but this answer is not correct. The tilt of the Earth’s axis causes the cycle of the seasons. See an explanation in Science in Focus: Shedding Light, workshop 7.

A Private Universe

More than 23 years ago, video producers asked new Harvard graduates and 9th grade students at a nearby high school some basic science questions, including “What causes seasons?”, and got surprising answers. That footage became A Private Universe, a documentary that looks at how students’ misconceptions block learning. The program looks at celestial movements, the seasons, and how these are taught in school.

In the program, a bright 9th grader named Heather is asked to describe the orbit of the Earth and explain what causes the phases of the moon. Her strange drawing of the orbit leaves her teacher perplexed. Also, Heather is only able to correctly explain the phases of the moon by picking up physical objects and using them to show her thinking. (You can see what became of Heather in the film A Private Universe, 20 Years Later.) Heather’s teacher learned two lessons by observing her explanations: 1. She can’t make assumptions about what students know already. 2. Using manipulatives (like balls to show orbiting planets) is important for understanding scientific concepts.

Where do students’ private theories come from?

Sometimes misconceptions are caused by misleading diagrams and drawings in textbooks that are interpreted or remembered incorrectly. Sometimes the concepts were taught incorrectly. Sometimes students hear words used in one context and apply their understanding to other contexts. Many times, children rely on their experiences, which can limit understanding. Even the brightest students can have trouble with basic concepts, because new ideas are competing with previous knowledge. In addition, teachers are required to cover a lot of material quickly and often don’t have time to tease out these misconceptions.

How can teachers help students?

First figure out what students know about a topic. Anticipate and address any misconceptions that might hinder learning new and related concepts. The three Essential Science for Teachers series include a section called “Children’s Ideas.” Using research on what children believe about basic science concepts, teachers are asked to consider what misconceptions children might have about these concepts and where these ideas might have come from. For example, Earth and Space Science, session 1, considers children’s ideas about soil.

Here is a list of resources from the Essential Science for Teachers series to help you examine children’s ideas in science:

Earth and Space Science

Life Science

Physical Science

Addressing misconceptions is important in all subject areas, not just science. While teaching Spanish at the high school level, I first took for granted that my students understood the parts of speech and learned that many did not. I often hear Africa referred to as a country and that Spanish is the official language of Brazil. Even as adults, we can hold misconceptions somehow learned along the way.

Before you start your next lesson or unit, try to anticipate and address any misconceptions and access prior knowledge. Then build from those ideas while giving students many hands-on opportunities (especially in science and math) to explain their ideas.

What surprising misconceptions have you witnessed in your classes?