A Private Universe?

Most people who actually know me personally know that I spent the better part of fifteen years teaching high school physics.  In my training for becoming a high school physics teacher, I was taught about the concept of “alternative frameworks” and how difficult they are to overcome.  This is true with all of the sciences but especially true with the physical sciences.  Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:  A person drops a heavy object and a light object simultaneously from same height.  Which strikes the ground first?  If you’ve taken a physics class, you may remember that gravity acts on heavy objects and light objects the same way.  Since they’re dropped from the same height at the same time, they’ll hit the ground simultaneously.  Sure, air resistance may play a role in distorting the experimental results but conceptually, the objects hit the ground at the same time.

The challenge with this example is that the answer is easy to remember.  Most physics students I taught could shout out the answer in class, making me feel like I was a pretty outstanding teacher.  Changing the situation a little, however, created some interesting answers that undermined my teaching confidence.  For example, what if I shot a gun horizontally and dropped a bullet from the same height as the gun’s muzzle?  Which would hit first, the shot bullet or the dropped one? This example always fostered many creative responses.  The students could parrot the right answer when I asked a gravitational question in a straightforward way.   More complex examples, however, exposed their alternative frameworks of how gravity acts on objects.  Despite lessons and lessons of explaining how gravity works, many students never fully grasped the content.

Now, some readers may be questioning my ability to teach physics.  Before one critiques too harshly, check out the Private Universe video produced decades ago.  In the video, an interviewer asks Harvard graduates to explain how seasons change.  Despite emerged moments prior from their Harvard commencement ceremonies, many were unable to accurately explain how seasons occurred on the Earth.  The students possessed alternative frameworks that were hard to break, despite years and years of instruction.

So, what’s the point?  I’m still thinking a lot about the article I shared last week regarding the conceptions that collegiate faculty had on teaching and technology.  In a lot of ways, we’re all working against the alternative frameworks that our students and colleagues have regarding teaching and learning.  From tons of empirical research, here’s what we know:  active learning works.  In a blog post I shared two years ago, researchers did a meta-analysis of 225 different studies examining the effectiveness of active learning as compared to more lecture-based strategies.  As the researchers explained, “if the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  That’s pretty compelling stuff.  Active learning works.

But looking around classrooms, I still don’t see the widespread implementation of active learning strategies.  If you ask instructors about the power of active learning, however, they’ll say the right answer and explain about how effective student-centered, learning-based strategies can be.  In practice, however, these beliefs do not translate to drastically different teaching strategies.

Like my former physics students, I think the answer lies in the alternate frameworks about learning that many instructors possess.  We celebrate gifted lecturers, identify great explanations and swap PowerPoint slides.  We see these as the elements and processes of effective teaching because we predominately believe that teaching and learning is an instructor-centered activity.  We do this despite the overwhelming evidence to contrary.

So, what’s the solution? Obviously, large-scale change won’t happen from telling people to teach different.  In science education, teachers are taught the power of the “discrepant event.”  In these discovery-based scenarios, students confront their alternative frameworks directly.  Maybe we need a similar strategy to foster changes in teachers’ alternative views of learning and help them better navigate their “private universes” of teacher-directed instruction.

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One thought on “A Private Universe?

  1. I’ve heard this story many times and have given it a lot of thought. The problem I see is that not every discipline is physics (or math). Some courses are highly problem-based and teaching through active learning makes lots of sense. Other topics carry a much heavier factual information load.

    I am also stymied by student resistance to preparation for class. Today’s lab exercise was a perfect example. The whole lab was a big active learning exercise done in groups. It works. But it has to work despite the fact that typically less than 10% of the students are prepared for class. Since students are consistently unprepared, they get only a small fraction as much out of the exercise as they would, had they been prepared. On top of that, of course it is the strong students who are prepared and the students who have the furthest to go who are the least prepared.

    Given this kind of experience, how can I expect even more preparation for an active learning replacement for lectures? I can add clicker questions and short discussions and little problem scenarios, but I don’t see how I can do any major changes to the lecture format. And even these changes, while students say they like them, result in criticisms on teaching evaluations for expecting too much outside reading and for putting things on the exam that weren’t covered in lecture – despite my warnings to them ahead of time.

    In short, it is great to hear about different teaching methods, but I’d like to hear discipline-specific suggestions.

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