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Paul Grobstein's picture

Fac Learning Community 16 Nov meeting summary

Steven introduced the session with the thought that we might, among other things, serve as a mechanism for dissemination of diverse methods for improving educational practice, and with the challenge of a video illustrating that many college students do well on examinations but don't actually understand the material they have studied and are being examined on. 

This led to an initial discussion about how to think about persistant student "misconceptions."  Students seem to have "models" of the world from very early ages that don't affect their ability to answer exam questions but do "get in the way of what we're teaching."  It was suggested that these models aren't actually "misconceptions" but rather the products of efforts to make sense of the world acquired through experiences and from interpersonal sharing.  And that they are best dealt with not by ignoring them or trying to wipe them out but rather by building on them.  Students should be put in educational contexts that challenge their existing understandings so that they themselves are encouraged to recognize the limitations of existing understandings and construct new ones.  One needs to create "cognitive dissonance"  To do this, educators need to give up two presumptions:

  • That there is a particular right answer/way/understanding that needs to be immediately conveyed.
  • That students begin their education in particular subjects as a blank slate. 

JD summarized some of his own experiences along these lines in terms of "treating students as scientists."  Steven added the importance for himself of  discovering the value of letting students see the teacher actually wrestling with problems in class and of  "letting students make their own mistakes."  Bill mentioned the use of pre and post tests and of using videotape to teach teachers, a method that produces results by giving people the wherewithal to "see themselves from another point of view."

With some prodding from Alice, the conversation added consideration of social dimensions, of interpersonal and classroom dynamics.  The notion here was that students may successfully challenge and hence modify their existing understandings not only by acting in teacher defined ways but also by interacting with each other and by working with the teacher on shared tasks. 

As the conversation continued, there emerged a sense that there is a third presumption that needs to rethought, the idea

  • that the primary responsibility of teachers is to a particular subject (physics, computer science, biology, etc)

Perhaps  instead teachers should focus on the development of sophistication in inquiry, organizing whatever content is being used in ways that facilitate this more general objective, one common to all subjects.   From this perspective, the question is less what are optimal methods for teaching "skills," "mastery," etc within particular disciplines and more what is needed to enhance inquiry sophistication generally.  Among the things called attention to were how to help students become "life long learners," how to help students see "mistakes" as building blocks, how to encourage "trying things out," ie risk-taking,  and how to help students develop "judgement," an ability to pick among alternatives not the "right" one but one that is most likely to open productive new lines of inquiry.  An intriguing feature of this alternative perspective is that it suggests an approach across all levels of the educational system, one that would make of education "one gigantic inquiry."



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