Tearing Apart an Idea

This week we spent time considering ideas, and how to think about them.

I had circulated through the class asking, “What have you always wondered about?”   and recorded their thoughts.  These thoughts became the resource for our work in thinking.   It is a hard thing to have one’s thought put on display before the class, so the first thing we did for this activity was detach ourselves emotionally from our ideas.  The questions and wonderings now belong to the class to consider using system 2 thinking.

Part 1

tearing apart an idea

  1.  The question we tore apart was, “What if the asteroid didn’t hit the dinosaurs?”
  2. We asked ourselves: “Based on how the question is worded, what does our imaginary thinker know about the world?  What is his or her current mental model?
  3. Next we considered if the thinker had a literal interpretation of the question.  Did he or she actually believe that small asteroids pinged off the dinosaurs one by one?  We made explicit that there are implied ideas in the question and we need to infer.
  4. Then we asked what assumptions the thinker was making about the world.  Most students spotted that the thinker assumes that it was asteroids that wiped out the dinosaurs.  That allowed me to introduce confirm and disconfirm. It is human nature to look for information that confirms our conclusions about the world.  We don’t like to be wrong so we avoid looking for information that disconfirms our ideas about the world, yet confirming and disconfirming are equally useful results because they allow our ideas to improve.  We agreed that the thinker should research alternate theories of dinosaur extinction.  We had a great deal of fun proposing wild theories:

Frozen bananas came from space.  They spontaneously combusted.  They became so bored with life they lay down and died.

5.  We turned to “scientific theories of dinosaur extinction” and considered what scientific theories offer: evidence, research and access to appropriate tools to examine artifacts.

6.  I introduced them to peer review.  When scientists publish research, other scientist with expertise in the same field question and challenge the conclusions.  Collectively they come to agreement about interpretations of evidence so the conclusions becomes credible.

7. Finally, we considered the choice the thinker might make.  The thinker could accept the evidence and change his or her idea or  could choose to ignore the new information and double down on their conclusions about the world.  A good thinker would change his or her idea.

Part 2

I discussed our thinking efforts with Ms. Swartz , Dundas Central’s middle school science teacher.  She suggested that we also consider the thinker’s mental model of asteroid.  What is he or she picturing?  What is an asteroid?  Is it rock? Is it ice? Is it made of dust particles?   How big would it have to be to wipe out life?   The class had very differing ideas on what an asteroid  is so we turned to the digital Britannica in our virtual library.  I am so grateful to be able to turn away from google as a primary research tool and have access to exceptional data bases which are vetted by experts.  I modeled how to conduct a search.

  1. First I constructed a query.  What was I trying to find out?  asteroid composition
  2. Next I skimmed through the results looking for key words in the search result descriptions.
  3. I opened one.  It was incredibly long so I showed students the wonders of the function key F3. A search box opened.  I keyed in asteroid and each time the word ‘asteroid’ appeared in the text, it was highlighted.  I didn’t need to read the entire text to find information; I could read only the relevant sections.
  4. Finally students made notes which will be brought to our knowledge building circle next week.



  1. Martin Fischer

    Fantastic activity! As usual, very inspiring work.

    I wanted to mention something that my students love: scientific theories give us a super power – the power to make precise predictions about what to find in the world. For example: “If the theory about an asteroid causing the dinosaur extinction is true, we should be able to find a large impact crater that is 65 million years old somewhere on Earth. Let’s go and look for it!”

    Obviously we apply this on a much smaller scale in the classroom. The students are amazed that predictions turn out correct.

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