LA Seminar: Plan for Reading on Mental Models

Today, we shift gears from talking about “facilitating discourse” to “building on student thinking”

Before class, students will have read Joe Redish’s, “Implications for Cognitive Studies for Physics Teaching

After a brief warm-up where students interview their neighbor about talk moves they tried this week, we will start the day by watching Derek Muller’s “Khan Academy and Effectiveness of Science Videos“, and discussing how this video relates to four principles outlined in the reading. Roughly, those principles are

Principle 1: People tend to organize their experiences and observations into mental models. Students’ minds are not blank slates.

Principle 2: It is reasonably easy to learn something that matches or simply extends an existing mental model. It is difficult to learn something you do not almost already know.

Principle 3: It is very difficult to substantially change an established mental model.

Principle 4: Individual students can have different mental models. There may be not one best way to teach all of them.

Really watching the video is meant to review main points of reading, but with a shared context for talking about them. In general, I have more success providing a context for students to talk about a paper then I do just talking about the paper.

I think I then want to link this video and the paper to our discussion last week about photosynthesis and respiration/metabolism: how we each had some mental models of about how we lose weight / how trees grow, which were in many ways different than the scientific model that emphasizes carbon exchange. I’m thinking we might spend some time gathering some our ideas that influenced our thinking weight loss / tree growth, and reflect on where different ideas came from, why they make sense, etc.

  • There was the idea that roots digging into the ground get mass from the soil.
  • Others thought the the mass could come from sunlight.
  • Nathan added to that the idea that sun light powering the tree to use its roots like a pump… the sunlight powers the operation, but the mass comes from the soil.
  • Sarah had the idea that as we work out, we lose energy in the form of heat–as the heat radiates away we loss some weight.
  • Claire had the idea that we probably lose weight later (like in the bathroom), but others felt the weight you lose by going to bathroom isn’t from your fat… it’s merely the unusable food you ate. Or in the case of liquid, that weight comes and goes from hydration levels.

I’d like to emphasize how my facilitation of the conversation was guided not just by talk moves, but by an ongoing attempt to make sense of what students’ mental models were, and how they compared to each other. I took time to ask Josh to explain his idea again to the class. I compared and contrasted two ideas I heard (e.g., Sarah and Jason both think it’s about your body taking in something and putting out something. Sarah thinks it’s food energy that gets radiated as heat energy. Jason thinks it’s carbon you take in (with foods) that gets breathed as carbon dioxide.

I don’t know how much I will actually talk about this, because right now I don’t have a good plan for students talking about it. It seems like the kind of thing I want to talk about. The thing I see as “good” about it, is it’s my attempt to try to build continuity between last week and this week, and link the idea of mental models to ones they had, and link mental models to the role of the teacher— as someone who finds out about students’ mental models. I’d like to somehow motivate this next part…

The real activity for students is I want them to practice finding out about students’ mental models. I thought about watching another periscope video, but the website seems to not be working.

So, student group will get a choice to watch one of three Derek Muller Videos:

Misconceptions about Temperature

Which hits the Ground First?

What causes the seasons?

Students will be tasked with watching the video to answer the following questions:

  1. What common mental model(s) did you hear in the video? Explain what those people were thinking and why their ideas made sense to them?
  2. What experiences or observations might they have made that contribute to their mental model?
  3. How are these mental models different than the scientific one?
  4. How might knowing about students’ mental models change the way a teacher approaches helping students learn the topic?

I’d like to end the day, talking about what this has to do with being an LA. How can knowing about students’ thinking and ideas change the choices you make in helping them? Within the constraints of your classroom, how can you find out about students’ mental models?

Still a bit of vagueness in this plan, but that’s where I’m at.

A misconception is just an insight without a productive place to go?

I’ve been teaching using schema system diagrams, which I have just been calling interaction diagrams in my physics class. It’s the first time I’ve ever taught using them. I’m sold on them after one week.

Here is the biggest reason why I’m sold.

The diagrams provide a productive outlet for really good student ideas, which previously would have been considered misconceptions. An example:

Today, we started doing circular motion. We had a constant velocity buggy going around in a circle by means of a string. Just before we took some data for the time to get around and the radius of the circle, students were drawing interactions diagrams and free-body diagrams for the situation.

Three of eight groups included me in the interaction diagram, interacting with the string and the string interacting with the buggy. It’s a wonderful idea to think about that the motion we are observing hinges on the fact that I have pinned down the other end of the string. It’s insightful and correct—with out that interaction, there would be not constraint to move in a circle.  Now here’s the important thing: Previously, with out interaction diagrams to provide a place for that idea to go, that idea would have made its way to the free-body diagram. You could think that the reason I like the diagrams is because they prevented a mistake, but I really like the diagram because they provide a productive placeholder for valuable insights and ideas.

Three other groups included the motor in their interaction diagram. Each of those groups placed the bubble of the motor inside the bubble of the buggy. The really wonderful idea here is that none of the motion we are observing would not be happening without the motor. The buggy would screech to a halt.  Previously,when teaching without the interaction diagrams, that wonderful idea would not have had a productive outlet, so many students would have included a motor force on the free-body diagram.

So sure, one cool thing is that no group got the free-body diagram wrong. One reason to like the diagrams is that it leads to correct force diagrams. But the really cool thing is that students were thinking about the roles that both the motor and Brian were playing, which I hadn’t even thought about. It’s not merely preventing mistakes, it is generating insight and ideas about the different roles that interactions play inside, outside, or many degrees removed from a system.

Even if you showed me evidence that teaching system schemas doesn’t improve student learning, I’d still teach using them, because of how generative they are. It helps to create classroom environment in which student insights can be celebrated for what they are, rather than constrained to being misconceptions. By the way, the diagrams do seem to help student learning.

Conceptual Change, revisited

This article from Time Magazine has me thinking about this post again.

Here are some quotes (emphases added):

Our minds are filled with folk science–and it gets in the way of real learning.

Traditional teaching methods don’t do much to uproot folk beliefs.

Another promising approach is to directly confront individuals with the differences between their understanding and the correct one: to “offend the student’s intuition,”

Why I’m going to brag about my students’ misconceptions

In the past, I’ve talked a lot about why I love certain kinds of misconceptions. In this particular post, I talked about why I love the misconception that the earth gets closer to the sun in the summer. Two recurring claim of mine have been that (1) student ideas should be evaluated with respect to the evidence and reasoning they currently have available, and that (2) sensible, explanatory, and well-articulated misconceptions are to be cherished over impoverished but accurate scientific statements.

In this vein, If you have never read Philip Sadler’s 1998 article, “Psychometric Models of Student Conceptions in Science: Reconciling Qualitative Studies and Distractor-Driven Assessment Instruments” in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, you might want to.

To steal a quote from its abstract:

…instruction appears to strengthen support for alternative conceptions before this preference eventually declines. This lends support to the view that such ideas may actually be markers of progress toward scientific understanding and are not impediments to learning.

Misconceptions are markers of progress. Yes, he said it.

To give you yet another reason to read the paper. Here’s Figure 2 from page 276, showing the popularity of different ideas to explain the seasons at different “ability levels” collapsed along single dimension. What patterns do you see?

It is true that often times when we see misconceptions in class, we gasp. But here we have yet another reason to think about misconceptions as important for learning and possibly necessary to make progress. This year, I’m going to brag a lot more about all the misconceptions that come up in and because of my class. I’m going to brag because it might mean that my students are making more progress by developing misconceptions than by either idly sitting around not thinking about the world or by trying to memorize correct scientific statements. Be a good teacher this year: go out and cause some misconceptions.

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