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I’m sold on student misconceptions increasing learning

September 18, 2011

Rencently, Brian Frank and Mylene has written two a series of incredible posts on misconcpetions. Each of these is a must read, IMO.

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 3:45 pm

    The conversation in video one is fantastic. Their engagement puts them in contact with many important disciplinary ideas, and important struggles to understand them. Their talking over each other, to me, is actually evidence of their immense engagement and interest in those disciplinary ideas, but also each others’ ideas about those ideas. Your move at the end is really nice, hearing the arguments on both sides and saying, “fair enough, we’ll pick this up tomorrow.” Your listening skills, patience, and facilitations are really nice. I wish my college students disagreed with each other so vehemently–they just agree with everybody.

    P.S. you spelled my name “Brain”

    • September 19, 2011 4:53 pm

      First—I think that must have been a Freudian slip in writing your name as brain, many of your posts read like they’re coming from my subconscious about things I should aspire to do.

      Thanks also for the good feedback and reminder about not getting too worried over everyone talking over one another, etc, I think that’s some great advice, and I plan to share this comment with my students. They’ll be psyched by your feedback.

      • September 19, 2011 5:05 pm

        Just so you know. I’m not saying that you should or shouldn’t have stepped in with them talking over one another–That’s a judgment call based on what you know about your students and what norms of participation you have set forth in your class. Last semester, I had a class that would erupt into debate like this, and I would let it go for a while before finally stepping in strongly to say something like “Ricky! We haven’t had a chance to hear what’s on your mind” and use something like that as a signal that it’s time to have one speaker or a while. To me, it’s better to have them invested, interested, and fighting for the floor than bored, distant, and watching the clock.

  2. September 19, 2011 11:07 pm

    I laughed out loud at the wack-a-mole image. It’s exactly what I was doing too. Love the idea of taking video of whiteboard presentations. Do you ever review the video with students as a way for them to assess their presenting/scientific argumentation?

    • September 19, 2011 11:15 pm

      Yes, actually that is going to be the subject of my next blog post. How we are transcribing on segment and breaking down the discussion moves that really advance the conversation forward.

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