Knowing Salt / Knowing Student Ideas

Random weekend thoughts leading up to the AAPT conference.

I want to put forth that there are different ways of knowing about salt. This seems non-controversial. I’ll even add to this that if one didn’t know much about salt, then there would be even very many different ways we might go about learning about it.

Certainly, as scientists, one sense of knowing salt is to have learned to identify it as the compound NaCl, and to understand some its chemical properties, and to know its subparts and the properties of them. Another different sense, but in the same realm, would be to come to know about salt as a particular instantiation of something more general, like coming to know NaCl an ionic compound. One might extend this to learn about crystals. Salt for sure, is a thing with structure and properties, but it also an example of other things that have similar structure and properties. Coming to know these other things may (or may not) depend on knowing about salt in certain kinds of ways.

Yet, surely and still, there are many, many other kinds of knowing and learning about salt– the experience of tasting salt, different kinds of salt in terms of color, shape, texture, grain size, or learning what kinds of things happen to salt in water, or its connection to the sea, or the roles that salts play in different types of biological systems, etc.

One might instead learn as one does growing up where to expect to find salt — in certain shaped containers in households and restaurants, or with certain kinds of food but perhaps not others. To learn that there are surprising things that one might put salt on! To broaden from there, one might learn about the roles of salt in cooking and in food preservation, or to learn about the various processes of obtaining salt from the world, or to learn about surprising places one could find salt if in desperate need.

One might even branch out the concept of saltiness, to consider what other things that are not NaCl might play a role like salt — a taste role, a biological role, a preservation role, etc.

There is knowing salt and its role more broadly in its cultural, economic, and historical contexts.

There are some many ways of knowing about salt — and I’d put forth that there is no particular one way of knowing about salt is more fundamental or important than any other, at least absolutely. It depends on kind of life one is living and how knowing or not knowing about salt in particular ways shapes that life, for good or for bad.

And speaking in terms of good and bad, our ways of knowing about salt allow us to take on moral ways of orienting to salt and saltiness. Salt as a valuable resource. Or salt as a corrosive agent. We speak of people with salty personalities.

And finally, we can orient to the ways that salt has been integral to systems of oppression.

So what does this have to do with student ideas?

In communities of physics educators and physics education researchers, much is said about student ideas – what we know about them, how we go about learning about them, and different ways of knowing them.

Some orient to student ideas as objects of the mind that have a kind of structure. And like salt, they might have with kinds of properties or even substructures to examine. In physics education communities (or cognitive psychology more generally), people can and do debate and argue about the right way to describe these structures and substructures.

But just like with salt, there are other ways of knowing student ideas. We can also orient to the human experience of having ideas, or to questions about where ideas might have come from, or to questions what kinds of contexts are likely to draw out certain kinds of student ideas, or how ideas change. We might not just see student ideas as objects, but perhaps as events (ideas occur). Or perhaps one might still see ideas as object-like but come to be more focused on the varied roles they play in different processes. Not what the idea is, but how it functions or can function. This type of thing seems critical to the roles taken on by both educators and education researchers — both being concerned with learning processes.

Of course, just as with salt, there are others who are much less interested in coming to know about student ideas in terms of their structure or their occurrences in individuals. One can come to learn about student ideas in terms of how they connect to and are integral to systems more broadly in their various cultural, economic, and historical contexts.

And finally, we can orient to student ideas in terms of some moral dimensions, informed by all our other ways of knowing about student ideas. Just as with Salt, we at times orient to student ideas as valuable resources and other times we might orient to student ideas more so in terms of being a corrosive agent.

So what’s the point of all of this?

I’m not sure exactly, yet. I’m trying to just lett my thinking evolve by writing at the moment. But I think it has something to do with me noticing more clearly than before the different ways that researchers orient to student ideas — and nudging myself and others to perhaps be more open to the idea that there is not a single one way to know about student ideas that is inherently more fundamental or important than any other. Coming to know salt is a lot of different things. Coming to know even a single student idea is a lot of different things.

But then again, just like salt, the kinds of knowing about student ideas depends critically on the context in which we make use of it– the lives we are currently living and the lives we perhaps want to live. And in that sense, it seems particular important that we ask ourselves, what the hell are we doing? What kinds of lives are we aiming for? What are the ways we perhaps should be orienting to and coming to know student ideas? What are the consequences of spending too much of our time orienting to and coming to know student ideas certain ways and not others?

Final note: Another thing this is leading up to for me is a more specific blog post for later about one of the specific way we orient to student ideas. I have a sense that in some respects we are spending too much of our time doing the wrong kind of thing in terms of our learning about student ideas. I now know that this blog post to come will not only need to be theoretical and practical, but it will have a moral dimension as well, because it can’t not.

Blog at

Up ↑