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.

Physics Examples of What Desmos Activity Builder Can Do

I’ve been getting more and more requests for examples of things I have done or things you can do with Desmos Activity Builder in a physics context. I’m going to add to this blog page gradually, rather than try to get it all out at once. Note: These are not polished curricular pieces, but rather things I put together in the scramble of remote learning in the spring, or things that I was tinkering with in order to learn how to use it. I still have a lot to learn, but hopefully this helps you get a sense of what can be done and to start your own learning process.

Card Sorts

Magnetic Forces Card Sort

Teacher Link to Activity:

Sketch Pads

Teacher Link:

Note: Doing sketch pads is simple. In this particular version, I have also used the omputational layer” in Desmos to “layer” sketches.

Randomization for Problems

Teacher Link:

Note: This kind of work requires working with the “computational layer” in Desmos. I also have some very minimal feedback in this one, just telling students whether there answer is too large, too small, or just right. Silly, in terms of feedback, but just showing it can be done.

Aggregate Student Data for Lab

Student Link:

Teacher Link:

Short Example: Constant Vel

Teacher Link:

Note: This kind of work requires working with the “computational layer” in Desmos. This shows using buttons, error messages, and feedback.

Medium Example: Orbits

Teacher Link:

Note: This one requires no computational layer and includes using card sorts, polling, sketch pad, etc.

Notes from Pandemic Teaching: Week Two

Just based on what I know, I have one student who works in the ER and another student who has been reactivated to active military duty for pandemic response. Many students have lost their jobs and a few have since taken up new jobs that conflict with opportunities for synchronous class activities. Others have told me they have unspecified barriers to continuing with class. I still haven’t heard from a handful of students, despite multiple efforts to reach out.

Teaching the concepts of electric charge, electric force, and electric field proved somewhat difficult, especially without the ability to be with students as the explore and grapple with phenomena. I used various simulations and clicker questions. Limiting our synchronous class time to 1.5 hours meant much of what we needed to go over was not addressed during synchronous. I’ll make some screencasts to fill in the gaps.

I chose not to do high stakes assessment for problem-solving with Coulomb’s Law and calculations of electric field and electric potential for point charge. We are doing exercises and they have some HW, but the emphasis is on getting oriented to enough of the concepts so we can pivot to circuits, which is an area we will assess.

We have our first online test this Monday. Students are worried, because they have become used to paper exams with lots of opportunity to show one’s work and reasoning. I will see how it goes and adjust later exams if needed, but the exam is open book and notes. Students are asked to work the exam individually without any help or consultation from any person (in or out of class). All students are taking the exam at the same time, during our regularly scheduled time. Their is pseudo randomization of numbers and scrambling of questions and answers for multiple choice.

Online learning: Notes from Days 3 and 4

We did more problem-solving in the latter half of this week, still using zoom’s breakout rooms and whiteboards. In intro physics, I had 4 groups of 4 students, which seemed close to the limit of me being able to get around and be helpful. I really wish I could see the all the students’ whiteboards simultaneously without having to join their group. In general relativity, I had two groups of three students and that was easy to just hop back and forth. For both, Id like to have an easy way / work flow for students to bring their whiteboards back to whole class. It might also be that Online whiteboarding would benefit from explicit roles.

In intro physics, we also did more clicker questions with polling. There were some minor difficulties with polling, wherein some students couldn’t find the polling after a repoll. I don’t know what the issue was, but it would fix itself if the student left the meeting and came back. It would also get fixed when I stopped sharing and reshared. This makes me think it’s an issue when both polling and sharing are being used at the same time. Why for some students? Not sure. One student who uses Linux also has trouble with zoom, but that’s with whiteboards.

Things I like about online learning. 1. Back channel. I definitely have students who interact with me more because they can privately message me a question without interrupting or having to ask it publicly. 2. During clicker questions, students can also privately type to me their reasoning.

Things I don’t like: I don’t yet have a work flow for the “pair” part of think-pair-share. I may need to create pairs for chat, because breakout rooms seems to take too much time for a quick pair chat. This is similar in annoyance with how I can’t glance across the room and see all the whiteboards.

We decided that 1.5 hours is the max time we should do whole class. So I am doing 1 hour of open room / office hours , where students can work home work problems either alone or together, ask questions, etc; then 1.5 hours of mixed lecture, discussion, whiteboarding. Students are not required to be there for any of this, of course.

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