May 15, 2013
Teaching More Than Answers
Teaching is a difficult profession. For one, a teacher must be a master of their subject area. Without such understanding, they have little hope of actually imparting knowledge to their students.
But new research shines a light on another dimension of student advancement; specifically, that a student’s prior misunderstanding plays an important role in their learning. As a result, the most effective teachers are those that not only have deep knowledge, but also recognize student predispositions and weaknesses.
Even though they have years of experiences upon which to draw, students may sometimes have difficulty connecting the dots between experience and theoretical knowledge. Being able to identify areas where such disconnection arises can have a dramatic effect on a student’s ability to learn.
Philip Sadler, the Frances W. Wright Senior Lecturer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and his team surveyed 181 middle school physical science teachers and nearly 10,000 of their students. They found that while most teachers were competent in their subject area, those who also possessed the ability to correctly guess how their students would respond were more effective.
“What our research group found was that for the science that people considered factual, teacher knowledge was very important. If the teachers didn’t know the facts, they couldn’t convey them to the students,” Sadler said. “But for the kinds of questions that measure conceptual understanding, even if the teacher knew the scientific explanation, that wasn’t enough to guarantee that their students would actually learn the science.”
To illustrate his point, Sadler shares the example of what happens when the power cord to a lamp is squeezed. “Middle school students say if you squeeze hard you will see the light gets dimmer, even though they’ve stepped on that cord before, or they’ve put the corner of their chair on that cord before, and nothing has happened. Their theoretical understanding of the way the world works includes the idea that electricity is like water flowing through a garden hose. If you put some pressure on the cord, you will get less electricity out the other end. It turns out that for most major scientific concepts, kids come into the classroom — even in middle school — with a whole set of beliefs that are commonly at odds with what scientists, and their science teachers, know to be true.”
As a consequence, the way in which we view teacher ability may need to extend beyond more than simple understanding of one’s field. After all, the annuls of teachers are filled with those that had deep theoretical knowledge, but lacked an ability to communicate that knowledge to students.
“State certification for teaching science might well include making sure that new teachers are aware of the common student misconceptions that they will encounter, as well as being proficient in the underlying science,” said Sadler. “Prior to this, there has never been an easy way to measure teachers’ knowledge of student thinking, while we have probably been placing too much emphasis on testing for advanced scientific knowledge.
As a professor myself, I can attest to the need to understand student misconception. Simply teaching theoretical knowledge is not sufficient. Teachers must also be able to make the material real and tangible for the student, otherwise the underlying principles simply get lost in translation.
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