Taking up Students’ ideas as Resources for Furthering Learning (Part I)

I am continuing to reflect and write about my ideas leading into PERC 2018: So far I’ve written two posts about teaching and learning in ways that involve positioning students’ as authors of scientific ideas that can serve as resources for learning.

I’ll start with here with this notion: Having routines (and a culture) in your class where students regularly make their thinking visible is great, in part, because it provides opportunities for you as the teacher to encounter students’ spontaneous thinking about the content you aim to teach. This is probably the main way that teachers learn to hear and see their students’ ideas as wonderful and to see them as resources for learning.

When I was first teaching, it was easiest to see students’ thinking as being useful for learning when it neatly fit some correct aspect of my own understanding. For example, in my first year teaching here at MTSU,  “Ashley’s conjecture” was an idea from one of classes about how, in free-fall, the speed on the way up and down might be same at as the object passes through the same location. With Ashley’s conjecture, we set about working problems to see if it was always true (gaining trust) and even later revisited the idea in when learning about energy. Toward the end of the semester, Stan, a student from Ashley’s group even made it the focus of an independent project later in the semester. In the introductory motivation for the project, Stan writes in a way about his project that touches upon his own epistemic agency and its embedded-ness within our class.

From my first year, I also remember “Cherish’s Rule”, which was the idea that the equation for velocity and the slope of a position vs time graph should give you the same answer. “Cherish’s rule” became a standard in my class, so much that the chair of department was thoroughly perplexed when passing by my class trying to figure out what I was teaching the students because he had never heard of anything called “Cherish’s Rule”, and I even had included it in the powerpoint slides:

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In both cases, instead of telling students they were right, I made time in class to investigate these claims (I knew to be correct) and in doing so this lent students’ some agency and authorship over ideas from class by “naming” their ideas and making space for us to either investigate or make continual use of these ideas.

Where we can go from here?

The above ways of listening and responding to students’ thinking was (and is) a good start, but there is also a sense in which it is quite limited. Ashley and Cherish in my classes were proposing ideas that sounded very much like ideas that I had knew to be consistent with the body of knowledge we aimed to learn. For these reasons, it was easy for me to understand their ideas, and to recognize their utility and respond positively, and also to imagine ways of taking up their ideas that would advance the entire’s class understanding. I’m not saying this is totally easy – for sure, you have to already have routines and culture in place where students’ share their thinking, plus successful talk moves that help elevate students’ thinking as ideas for consideration. This is no easy task, in part, because many of us had little training, mentoring, and apprenticeship into how to do this. I’ve written about why it’s so hard to do this before in a post on talk moves.

In a follow up post, what I aim to do is further explore the complexity of taking up of students’ ideas from class, especially in regards to situations where students offer ideas (that can be useful resources for furthering understanding), but their ideas are not just simply made as statements that you as the physics teacher would recognize as correct.

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