Conceptual Changes Needed

Before we began our shadow measuring experiment, I had the students predict when their shadows would be the biggest throughout the day. The predictions were fairly evenly split between morning, afternoon, and evening. As we carefully measured the next day, several students were surprised by the results. We all came back into the classroom, discussed our findings, watched a video to explain the sun moving across the sky, and came to a conclusive decision. The next day, we reviewed what we had learned and one girl informed me that the sun was the biggest at noon. I was shocked by her answer and didn’t understand how after a thorough hands-on experiment, discussions, and videos that she still did not understand the concept. I felt defeat swarm over me, as I questioned my own teaching abilities.

At the time, I could not understand how my teachings did not cement the concept of shadow length with this particular student. I did not understand why she did not learn the concept and felt frustrated with the entire situation. This was just one example, but I can definitely think of more, as I am sure any teacher can. Not only does it make you question your teaching, but it also made me question the learner.

Through reading and exploring the research in the learning sciences for the last two weeks, it is apparent that examples like this are common. DiSessa noticed that “educators saw vivid examples of students responding to apparently simple, core conceptual questions in nonnormative ways” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 270). Another research noted that after explicitly teaching a lesson on photosynthesis, when students were asked where a plant got its food from, there were numerous incorrect responses (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Through these examples it is clear that “formal instruction had done little [for students] to overcome their erroneous prior beliefs” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 70). Where do these misconceptions come from? As a teacher how do we break down the barriers to student learning?

Students come into our classrooms with an already previously developed knowledge based. They can be influenced by their families, values, beliefs, cultures, and social surroundings (Illeris, 2008). They come with preconceived notions and understandings of topics, and as teachers we need to work through these barriers and incorrect knowledge to help reform their learning. Hoadley & Van Haneghan (2011), state that in order “to foster conceptual change, learners need to deeply engage topics in ways that may radically shift their concepts, even while building on their existing conceptions” (p. 16).

Although this sounds like a task worth beginning, I question how one starts. With my ELL students, I find there are even more struggles and concepts that they’ve already developed these deep preconceived notions. How do I break through these? How do I find the time in my day to understand why they think the way they do? How do I work with the parents and help them with their own conceptual changes? The task seems daunting, but perhaps it is not my role to ensure these conceptual changes happen. If I continue to expose students to ideas, have them challenge their own ways of thinking, and question why they think the way they do, maybe they will experience transformational learning all on their own.

References
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind,                experience, and school (Expanded edition). Washington, DC: National Research                Council.

Hoadley, C. & Van Haneghan, J. (2011). The Learning Sciences: Where they came from        and what it means for instructional designers. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.)        Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 53-63). New            York: Pearson. Retrieved from                                                                                                  http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/006/742/Hoadley-VanHaneghan-draft.pdf

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their          Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from                                                   http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2006). Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. NY, USA:            Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from                                                                          http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10130369

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