Explanations are important

by Stephanie Chasteen on February 12, 2009

Session:  Eugenia Etkina - Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Session: Eugenia Etkina - Pedagogical Content Knowledge

So try this.  Instead of trying to come up with the right answer (and rewarding that), require students to come up with 3 “crazy ideas” for what is happening .  A crazy idea (for the earlier experiment with the horizontal and vertical motion) could be that there’s a magnet in the cart.  Or that it has a tilted trigger.   Or that the ball doesn’t know that it’s moving horizontally when it’s moving vertically.  What a crazy idea!  Reward students for coming up with these “crazy ideas” and practice shooting them down.  Redefine success in your classroom!  “Success” isn’t coming up with the right answer, it’s the ability to come up with alternative explanations and come up with the experiments that would shoot them down.

If you don’t believe that process is important, or if you believe that you can tell your  students the right answer (and they’ll learn it), then you won’t see the value in this.  This is just one example of how our underlying theories of how people learn affect our approach to teaching.

This can be a quick 20 minute exercise in high school or a big introductory undergraduate course.  When do you do this?  At the beginning of a major topic that uses the idea in question, so head off misconceptions before teaching.


joel February 16, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Ok, wow. I work at a science museum in Charlotte, NC. A collegue of mine saw this question posed in one of his aviation magazines and we were convinced that whoever wrote the column (it was based around a balloon in the cockpit of an accelerating plane) didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. Apparently they were right (though the explanation they used included some pretty shady stuff about “apparent gravity” or something). *SPOILER(?)* I’ll assume it has to do something with air compression in the back of the box, but at this point I’m feeling pretty clueless.

sciencegeekgirl February 23, 2009 at 6:26 am

Think about it this way… if the box had several ping-pong balls on the floor of it, what would happen to them as the box moved forward? Well, the same thing happens to the air. Does that help?

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