Out of one, many: Five researchers analyze the same student video (#aaptsm10)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 21, 2010

I’m going to attempt to liveblog (again, from AAPT) on this very interesting presentations, where five theoretical perspectives are brought to bear on a single video of classroom interactions.  You can see the video itself online at Dewey Dykstra’s website, by looking under the “Different Perspectives” folder.  There you’ll find the video, its transcript, and an outline of the researchers’ perspectives.  The video itself is of two teachers working through the Physics and Everyday Thinking (PET) curriculum.  The two teachers in the video are discussing the energy that is transferred to a nail when it’s rubbed on a magnet and becomes magnetized.  The researchers look for students conceptual understanding, how they build knowledge, what they do with their bodies, what productive resources they bring to the table that they build on, and how they talk to each other.

Myself, I’ve done some student video analysis (for an upcoming paper for AJP on Ampere’s Law), and I can attest that one can watch the same clip over and over from different perspectives and see so many things.  But it’s always hard, because you’re not sure if your hypotheses are supported by the evidence from this one snippet of student interaction. This uncertainty is reflected in these researchers’ analysis of this video, but they’re also able to identify many interesting and rich aspects of the video.  If we could do this exercise on the fly in the classroom, imagine how much we could see!

Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington U.) discussed the video in terms of the importance of listening to students’ thinking. Theory, he says, can give us different windows on how students are thinking, rather than building a complete coherent framework for understanding what’s going on.  For example, the way that the teachers in the video discuss energy suggest that they have a model of “energy as activation” (see my earlier post on student understanding about energy).  We know the magnetized nail has energy because it can attract and repel,” says one, or “This one nail does not have energy, because it doesn’t do anything.”  Andrew comments that, because of his perspective on student thinking, he tends to go hunting for identifiable patterns in reasoning (many of which he discussed), contrasting those modular pieces of thinking with those shown by experts, and he tends to focus mostly on the written and spoken words (as opposed to the other modes of communication).  So, different theoretical perspectives can give us ideas about what to attend to when watching students work.

Dewey Dykstra (Boise State) focused instead on how students develop their theories about the physical world.  Dewey is a die-hard constructivist.  So, he says, trying to figure out what’s going on in students’ minds is a useless endeavor.  We can’t ever know what’s going on in another’s mind — we have no way to compare what we think is going on with an independent reality.  Likewise, what goes on in our mind can never be independently connected to an outside, “true” reality.  So, what he’s interested in is identifying how people’s ideas about the physical world change as they gain evidence that does or does not support what’s going on in their mind.  Seemingly in spite of his claim that we can’t know what’s going on in another’s mind, he then went on to describe evidence that suggests that students in the video have certain ideas, and are working to resolve inconsistencies between their ideas and physical reality (Piaget’s “disequilibration“).    In the video that he analyzed, students suggested that speed will increase with a constant force, because as you push the cart, force accumulates in the cart.  They’re still in the process of creating a conception of “net force”.  The instructional materials only seem to indirectly engage students in dealing with their deeper conceptual issues, he says.  Our materials need to more directly confront conceptual issues.

Rachel Scherr (Seattle Pacific) looked at the clips from the ideas of gesture and body movements. (Her earlier research was in gesture analysis). Students said something weird that she was trying to decipher:  “The unrubbed nail has energy potential, but it doesn’t have any energy.”  This didn’t make sense to her.  Perhaps, she thought, was that they saw the nail as having potential to have energy, like a container has the potential to contain something even if it’s currently empty.  She felt that she was able to step into their shoes and really empathize — to see the physics like they saw it.  In this metaphor, energy is a substance-like quantity.  This is a pure metaphor — energy doesn’t have mass or substance, but it’s a useful metaphor.  So, students are seeing objects that are containers that can be filled by energy.  Usually, they can’t be “filled up” by energy, but in the case of magnetic energy… they can!  There is a perfect magnetization that corresponds to being “full” of magnetic energy.  Students obviously weren’t thinking of potential energy like we do — our idea of “potential energy” is of a kind of energy (not an absence of energy) — that’s why their statements sound wrong.  Another metaphor (again, see previous post) is that energy is an activation agent — it makes things happen.   But that’s not the metaphor they’re using — they’re seeing it as a substance.  That’s why the student in the viddeo gets so excited when trying to describe energy — is it flowing?  They don’t like that word.  Is it present?  Maybe.  Is it stored?  Yes!  That have a eureka! moment because that description fits their metaphor.

It’s really important, says Rachel, to honor people’s ideas naive ideas. For example, one of our common examples of student misconceptions is that people will say that the force on a small car is larger than the force on a truck when they collide (but they’re equal by Newton’s law).  But that idea makes sense, she says.  After all, the force on a person in the car is greater than the force on a person in the truck — and that’s something that’s much more important to us.  That makes sense in a deep meaning.  When she scanned the video — as opposed to Andrew’s viewing — she didn’t go through it as a linear narrative.  Instead, she fast-forwarded, looking for unique and marked gestures in the clip, and found the example of the student yelling “stored!” and jumping up.  This was a really radiative act — one that she’s calling “metaphor identification euphoria”.   (Yes, you’re supposed to laugh at that term).  However, the students weren’t entirely comfortable with their use of their own bodies — they laughed, showing that this big movement didn’t match what we expect people to do in physics class.

Rosemary Russ (Northwestern U.) talked about the resources students bring to their understanding of physics.  Imagine two people, and one person asks the other – lets call her Sally — how to get to the airport in Chicago.  Sally describes how to get there by train, by the red line, etc.  However, that explanation is wrong — that is not the proper path to the airport.  However, she has still demonstrating that she has a lot of cognitive resources — she knows about the train system, knows that the traveler wants to take the train, knows which airport he wants to go to. So, she’s misused those resources in some way, but she still came to the table with a lot of resources.  Sally has some sort of fine-grained idea of what’s going on in the world, but if you looked inside Sally’s head you wouldn’t see a map of the route to the airport, but rather a set of loosely-connected ideas that she pulls together in order to give a verbal explanation of how to get to the airport.  The only way we know what that internal representation is, is through the things that she says.  That is our window on her fine-grained resources about the public transport system.

The same thing is true in physics courses.  Students come to the table with ideas about what words like energy, forces and potential mean.  They also have ideas about the world from their experiences — such as the north and south poles of magnets.  They also have abstract ideas, such as the ability of things to oppose (opposing ends of the magnet), or neutrality as being nothing, or of neutrality as a balancing out of two opposites.  She notices in the video how students use these productive resources to build new knowledge together.  She also notices that they bring epistemological resources to the table — or, productive ideas about how they learn.  They don’t appeal to authority (like a text book or a teacher), but they discuss the ideas amongst themselves and start to build understanding.

Valerie Otero (U. of Colorado) wrapped up the session, as was appropriate since this is actually her video data.  Her take on the video was that the teachers weren’t figuring out what they really thought — they were figuring out what they were supposed to be doing.  Her analysis focuses on the discourse, or dialogue, between the teachers.  It’s important, she says, for us to figure out how to “talk right” when learning science, so we can understand each other.  For example, some students will say “The ball stopped because the force ran out,” whereas what they really mean is “the oomph ran out.”  But in physics, “oomph” is appropriately translated as “energy”, not “force.”  So, “the ball stopped because the energy ran out” would be the appropriate scientific phrase.  Once we have that shared meaning, then it’s possible for us to communicate to each other what we know, and know that the other person knows that we know.

So, the two teachers in the video, she says, aren’t actually describing and creating shared meaning… yet.  They’re not exploring, they’re still explicitly looking for the “right” words to describe the situation — that’s why the one teacher has a eureka! moment in coming to the word “stored” — they are trying to come to agreement on the correct terminology.  Over the course of other videos later in the series, this kind of “terminology” talk drops off dramatically — its clearly something they’re doing in the beginning of their discussions, to establish the landscape, rather than something they do later on as they’re constructing meaning.

So, Valerie doesn’t disagree with the other researchers and the things that they see, but she claims that the teachers are still defining the problem space that they’re working in.

At the end of the session we had a bit of Q&A, and Valerie and Rosemary argued (productively) about their different perspectives on the video.  I had the same slightly unnerving thought that what I was observing was just what we had been discussing — a discussion with an attempt to arrive at shared meaning and words to describe physical reality.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this thought, as someone else stood up and proposed this meta-analysis of the researchers’ discussion. It’s useful and productive for us to discuss teaching and education research, claimed Valerie. We’re making sense of what we see in the classroom.  We may even be coming to agreement on what terminology means, as Valerie claimed that teachers were doing — we may not all have the same idea of what “sensemaking” means (a common education research term), for example.

So, if you’ve read this far… let us know in the comments — how do you define “sensemaking”?


lookang July 22, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I learnt more from you in this blog. I enjoy reading your analysis, and I share the same thoughts about class room activity video analysis like using tools like diver by roy pea.

The subjectivity is high and there will be mutliple perspectives even on the same video clip because human being make sense through their experiences.

Well, sense making to me to simplify matters is to ” appreciate what is going on” thereby allowing boot straping the knowledge building process in active learning activity.

My Ejs java applets also aims to provide opportunities for sense making in the inquiry active learning strategy that I in principle will promote learning by doing. And I don’t mean solving pen and paper questions 🙂

Sandy July 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm

I’d just like to add one little element to Stephanie’s report of this panel. Rachel Scherr’s talk was the first academic talk I’ve ever seen that brought a tear to my eye.

At the conclusion of her talk, after describing how in her analysis she develops intense empathy for her subjects, and talking briefly about how her process of analysis depends on conversations with her colleagues, she made a reference to the Borges short story The Aleph. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Aleph_(short_story) ) The Aleph is an object that contains everything in the universe, and anyone gazing into it can see everything else in the universe. I think Rachel was saying that in this one video of students trying to learn and work something out, she can see herself reflected, and indeed sees it as a microcosmic mirror of human endeavor and learning.

I thought this was a powerful and humbling idea, and a good reminder to remember that the subjects and the analyst are engaged in the same thing: learning.

bRant July 27, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Thanks Stephanie! I passed this blog entry onto the five folks who did it. We’ll see if any reply.

Dewey Dykstra July 28, 2010 at 2:12 am

Just a comment. The characterization of my Piagetian/radical constructivist view that trying to figure out what is going on in students’ minds is a useless endeavor is not really what the view is all about. Unfortunately, the claim of uselessness seems to come from another view, not the view I am using.

The P/RC view reminds the realists/objectivists that the best we can do is construct explanations that fit the evidence. The implication here is that ALL explanation (of phenomena or of others) cannot have the status of true or untrue. Explanations can only be judged by fit to evidence.

In your description of my part of the session, it seems you realize a contradiction between what you understood to be my philosophical/epistemological position and the rest of my part of the session. This is because my perspective was not characterized correctly which then sets up the contradiction. OTOH, a better understanding of the perspective I use would reveal that there is no contradiction.

The person who interprets things from a realist/objectivist position usually exhibits this misinterpretation and quickly finds a contradiction. But, just as the realist/objectivist position is not formulated to be consistent with P/RC, it is also the case that the P/RC position is not formulated to be consistent with the realist/objectivist position.

One can find a description of the P/RC view I find the best explanation at: http://www.kjf.ca/17-TAGLA.htm.

sciencegeekgirl July 29, 2010 at 7:11 pm


Ah, the perils of publicly writing one’s understanding of someone else’s presentation — there’s a chance that one might be wrong!

I do feel that I have a good understanding of your views of constructivism (from the AAPT workshop a few years ago, and our email conversations this year). Perhaps you were referring to those “other” views of constructivism when you said that it’s a useless endeavor to look at student ideas since we don’t know what’s in people’s heads. If that’s the case, I’m not certain just what you were trying to get across in your description of the video. I thought that your point was that since we can’t absolutely know what students are thinking, that we should instead investigate how their thinking *changes* over time. How would you summarize your presentation, instead?

Thanks for the comment!


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