13. Pulling Threads

        This book was organized around 3 learning principles, which in itself a part of principle #2 - having a conceptual framework for organizing knowledge.  The examples in math, science, and history served to provide contexts to give these principles greater meaning.  

        To engage students' preconceptions, there are three major strategies.  The first of these is to draw on the knowledge and experiences students commonly bring to the classroom but are infrequently engaged.  The example provided was of students thinking that nothing much happens in history, until suddenly a large event happens, then the change occurs.  There are many such examples of change that a teacher can draw upon to show how this is a misconception.  A theme that runs through this strategy is that students need multiple opportunities to work with these concepts.  
        The second strategy to engage students' preconceptions is to provide them with opportunities to provide discrepent events that allow them to see the shortcomings in their own models.  This is most often used in science, when students don't often come with everday experiences in specialized subjects of study.  In an example with teaching about pressure, when the teacher, after asking students to develop their own theories, were challenged with an experiment that divided the class into various predicting groups.  
        The third strategy to engage students' preconceptions is to provide them with narrative accounts of the discovery of knowledge or the development of tools.  If students can see how conceptual changes happened, they can also undergo the change themselves.  An example of this is with regards to teaching evolution.  Three different prevailing theories were provided, and students had to learn each and slowly come to understand the theory of natural selection through this method.  


        Determining the "core" concepts isn't always obvious.  There are two distinct types that must be brough to the forfront - concepts about the nature of the discipline (what it means to engage in doing history, math, etc), and concepts that are central to the understanding of the subject (e.g. functions, gravity, etc.).  These are called 1st and 2nd ordered concepts, respectively.  Both are necessary for deep knowledge of the subject to occur.  


        Improving such skills helps the acheivement of all students, and especially lower-performing students.  Classroom discussion plays this role most frequently - whether teacher-led, in groups, or students having to ask questions - it can help students become better at monitoring and questioning.  Yet, this requires skilled guidance by the teacher and is often not enough.  Getting students to become productive and genuine questioners is a process that must be taught.  Techniques to do this must be done skillfully, as in collaborative group work there are some students that can easily dominate.  Having the students assess group dynamics as well as the product is one strategy to facilitate better sharing.  Or, allowing students to think before sharing can have such benefits too.  This can be done individually as well, such as with self-explanation, which has shown to create better results.  


        These principles have been uncovered by researchers studying "learning."  They do not necessarily tell us how to learn or teach best as much as they do provide a framework for deciding if instruction is effective.  They are certainly inter-related and the balance between them can help determine the effectiveness of the instruction.  They produce a community-centered environment that can facilitate learning in several ways.  Student thinking can become transparent, it builds dispositions towards productive interchange, it can lead to conceptual changes in understanding, etc.  
        This does not mean that lecture, for example, can't be productive.  Feynman, in his introductory lectures on physics, lectures quite well.  Yet, he anticipates students' misconceptions and spends time developing these points.  However, to acheive effective learning, lecture alone is likely to not acheive the best results.  Certainly the place for lectures may be best in certain parts of the unit, for example after students' preconceptions have been explored.  In short, there is no one way to best teach and this volume does not recommend one.  Even inquiry guided instruction has many pitfalls if all the burden of learning is on the activities.  
        Striking the right balance varies from teacher to teacher and classroom to classroom.  Using the learning principles elicited in this volume can play a great role in supporting teachers' efforts.  This volume elaborates on those efforts to empower teachers.  Indeed, just as with other disciplines, new rules and principles will hopefully evolve over time.  Engaging in this process of finding these principles is an exciting proposition.  


I Used to Think... Now I Think
  • Remind students of the topic you want them to consider.  It could be the ideal itself - fairness, truth, understanding, or creativity - or it could be the unit you are studying.  Have students write a response using each of the sentence stems:

  • I Used to Think...
Before reading both of these books, I used to think that good teaching involved using an array of concepts and strategies together to improve student learning.   
  • Now I Think...
Now I have many new ideas.  First, I can grasp a conceptual framework that helps connect all the array of concepts.  I understand that good teaching involves identifying the misconceptions that students have and trying to  develop them into more accurate ones.  I understand more of the role that each subject brings into the pedagogy, and how therefore all subjects are unique and can't rely on general pedagogical skills.  I learned much more about the assessment process and how a large portion of its purpose is to help students develop metacognitive skills.  Finally, I learned that a community-centered environment is supported and supports these other principles by bringing out norms and addressing a whole range of issues, including social-emotional ones.