I’m sold on student misconceptions increasing learning
Rencently, Brian Frank and Mylene has written two a series of incredible posts on misconcpetions. Each of these is a must read, IMO.
- Collateral Damage. A great post about how the desire to rid students of the misconception that heavier obejct fall faster than lighter objects, we end up screwing up their understanding of just about everything else.
- Why I’m going to brag about my students’ misconceptions. Seriously, misconceptions can lead to deeper understanding.
- How I learned to stop worrying and love misconceptions.
Let me remind you that I once was the teacher who banned the word “deacceleration” in class, and in recent years have grown into something of a misconception zelot, seeing misconceptions in my students and trying to squash them like some game of physics education wack-a-mole. I think I did this because it wasn’t until I’d been teaching for some time that I realized how many misconceptions I had about basic physics concepts, and so somehow, I thought I was doing my students a favor. But recently, thanks to some introspection and a lot of prodding from Brian’s blog, I’ve started to loosen up and listen to my students, past the point where they say a misconception, and I’ve been amazed by what I’ve learned.
Check out the last five minutes of our whiteboarding session a few days ago:
This is a battle royale over whether or not inertia is a force. Students are doing an incredible job of questioning one another over whether inertia should be a force, and really digging in to whether or not it should be a force.
In the very end, I resisted the opportunity to jump all over the whole “inertia is a force” idea, and instead just try to get both sides to summarize their main points, which I used to launch our work in the next discussion.
The funny thing is I’d almost completely forgotten about the whole inertia thing until one of my students insisted I tell the class, once and for all, whether or not inertia is a force. And it was at this point that I said “I think you as a class know the answer to this–how have we decided to describe forces? Can inertia fit this template?” Almost resoundingly, the answer was “no”. Misconception removed, without any preaching or grandstanding on my part.
Now, just a couple of days later, my students had this discussion, completely on their own (I had to be away, and so they were told simply to start the camcorder and record their discussion). A sub was there to make sure nothing caught on fire.
Wow—the amazing stuff going on in this video is too much to fit into the next few lines. My students are showing some understanding of Newton’s 3rd law, momentum conservation, and so much more, all unprompted. The old me would have totally missed most of these insights because I would be too focused on making sure they understood it’s the gravitational force of the earth, not the force of gravity. This still really bugs me, and I do think it is very valuable to make the shift to explicitly recognizing that the force of gravity is exerted by the earth on the person, but I’m trying to also listen to the rest of what the student says rather than just harping on this detail.
Now, when I listen to Brian’s advice, I think my job switches from playing misconception wack-a-mole to trying to find ways for my students to reinforce kernels of really great understanding that appear in this discussion, and sort out for themselves many of the misconceptions they also harbor. Luckily, both of these can be accomplished by asking “how do you know?” and pushing students to test their ideas with an experiment.
And when students do arrive at a deep, connected understanding that they created for themselves, they will almost certainly understand it far better than if I’d simply told them the right answer from the start.