Featured speaker Sam Dyson invited attendees to join his personal hive in Chicago last month at NSTA’s National Conference on Science Education. Sponsored by the Shell Corporation, Dyson focused on connected learning and emerging contexts for deeper engagement. Set against the backdrop of a three-act play, Dyson modeled the importance of “connectedness” with a community of learners. Dyson’s first teaching experiences transpired in Johannesburg, Africa, where he admitted he did not know much about teaching, but picked up a few things while teaching in Chicago. Working now for the Mozilla Foundation in youth programming, Dyson brought a well-rounded perspective to his session; I was immediately engaged.
From “Oh No” to “Aha”
In Act I, Dyson revealed his first “Aha” moment in teaching, which interestingly came through his first “important failure.” He was facilitating a classroom demonstration about momentum, mass, and inelastic collisions. In the demonstration, the carts “stick together” when they collide as the approaching car overtakes the slower lead cart. Dyson thought his students had an adequate background to predict the outcome (that the carts moving along the same path would collide and stick together as they continued down the track). To Sam’s surprise, as the demonstration unfolded, one of his students refused to believe what he physically observed. Why? Because the student had no background knowledge, reference point, or tangible observations of this phenomenon occurring in his everyday life. Sam eloquently described this as a failed demonstration, but also as the one that created his “aha” moment. For the first time, he saw and understood deeply that the internal thinking and experiences that students bring to the learning environment undergirds future understanding. This discrepant event did not match the student’s sense making of his world. Dyson realized that teaching was not about what we know, but what we believe.
I wonder how many of us also think about our first “aha” moments early in our careers. Sam’s insight early into his career resonated with me, and I suspect many of you, too! We know that a student is not a tabula rasa, or blank slate, onto which we dump knowledge. As demonstrated by research in cognitive learning sciences about how people learn, we live in a dynamic world with rich interactions of science phenomena and engineering design solutions. We seek to make sense of these observations and form personal working theories and reasons for how these things occur in nature or are made by humankind. We form many of these known preconceptions internally, as part of our own “sense-making,” and as research shows, these preconceptions are deeply seated, resistant to change, and hard to overturn. But fear not, there are also research-based strategies to help learners challenge their own internal logic, face it head on, test it, wrestle with it, and see if it holds up! NSTA has several publications that may assist you across the K–12 spectrum. For example, author Page Keeley’s Uncovering Student’s Ideas in Science series draws upon this research and provides formative assessment questions (or probes) to make this internal student thinking visible. Working with teachers and classrooms, she has developed probes for elementary science, as well as physical, life, and Earth/space science. Page also partnered with Richard Konicek-Moran in an upcoming book titled Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in Science (coming off the NSTA Press any day now) that brings field-tested strategies teachers can use immediately in the classroom to empower students’ learning. Continue reading …