When an idea is firmly held by a student, you can’t simply teach a lesson and assume the idea will change.
One of the best examples of that statement is found in a film called Lessons from Thin Air. The film explores how misconceptions of fundamental principles of science remain even after what appears to be high quality learning experiences. It begins with graduates at MIT and Harvard holding a log and a seed and being asked how that transformation happened. None can correctly explain the process of photosynthesis. The narrator asks, “If the best and brightest products of our education system can’t explain photosynthesis, what does this say about how we teach?” The film then follows one very bright grade 7 student through a science unit taught by a competent teacher to discover what interferes with learning. It doesn’t take long to see that a deeply held misconception prevents the student from developing conceptual understanding even though he appears to be highly engaged in a very hands on science class. The student even receives an A on the test – yet when questioned, it is evident that he continues to believe that water and nutrients from the soil are the primary causes of the seed turning into a tree. The student’s schema – or prior knowledge prevents him from truly understanding what he experienced in class.
That is why Knowledge Building and Integrative Thinking are so powerful. They provide tools and processes teachers need to help students make thinking very explicit so that misconceptions and assumptions become obvious.
We’ve been learning how text features (yes, it’s EQAO time) help the reader make sense of information. We began by examining the first page of Beowulf, a page from the Gutenberg bible, a newspaper from 1815 and modern texts with graphics, text boxes, captions, diagrams etc. Building on the idea that text features developed over time to help readers make sense of information, today we considered cause and effect, sequencing of events, order of importance, and problem and solution as ways to organize information. Students began by searching images for each topic. The goal was to help them see that there are many ways to present concepts such as cause and effect.
Students then had to create texts that showed each organizational method. This is where students ran into problems. They had seen many highly visual examples, but the word “text” interfered with task completion. I only discovered this by circulating constantly while students worked and engaging in focused conversations. I was trying to uncover their thinking.
Why were they stuck? Even though they had seen many examples, their deeply held idea that “text” means “words” was preventing them from moving forward. I pointed out that their understanding of “text” was nascent (Knowledge Building has given us a common language for learning conversations.) and that they needed to expand their idea. It didn’t take long to help them see that film, ads, photos, comics, charts etc are all texts because they communicate information. The misconception was cleared up and students could proceed with their work.
Even though you might teach a fabulous lesson, what matters is the student’s starting point.