When we were in school or college or at any stage in our lives that we are seeking out education, the human automatically tends to assume that the instructor is 100% well versed with the topic at hand and knows all the correct answers to all possible questions. To me this is already a pretty heavy burden to shoulder for teachers. But now research shows that teachers should be well aware of all possible wrong answers as well. Let’s see why...
Let’s observe a common fact that the earth has an elliptical orbit. It means we're closer to the sun for one part of the year and farther away for the other part. Does this fact explain why it's hotter in the summer and colder in the winter? Lots of people think so. And they're all wrong.
Philip Sadler dons two hats, one that of a professor of astronomy and the second one of the director of the science education department at Harvard University, and he is literally obsessed with debunking wrong answers like these.
"Students are not empty vessels," he postulates. "Students are full of all kinds of knowledge, and they have explanations for everything."
Teachers who find their students thinking processes fascinating are simply better than teachers who find only the subject matter itself fascinating. According to cognitive science, says Sadler, if you don't understand the flaws in students' reasoning, you're not going to be able to dislodge their misconceptions and replace them with the correct concepts.
It is a very strenuous exercise to dislodge the ideas that you have come up with and replace them with the ones that you read in a book or listen to a lecture. However, once a teacher discovers the flaw a student’s mindset, what recourse does she have to set it right?
Sadler advises to go the Greek way - by asking questions and having students think out loud. This works much better than lecturing. "Teachers who find their kids' ideas fascinating are just better teachers than teachers who find the subject matter fascinating," he says.
Once the students arrive at the crucial juncture where they question their existing ideas, the next step is to expose students to the appropriate information and experience that will enable them to reason their way to the right answer.
For instance, Sadler and his colleagues have designed an astronomy course for high school students. In one of the lessons, students were made to look at pictures of the sun taken through the same telescope monthly through a year. Most predicted that the sun would appear larger in the hot months. However, once they got out the rulers, they would discover that the sun is biggest (i.e., closest) in January. (The closest point in our orbit, the "perihelion," was Jan. 2 this year.)
Well it certainly turns the logic of the elliptical orbit on its head. Oh, by the way the earth’s seasons are caused due to the 23.5 degree tilt off its axis.
Image Courtesy: http://www.whyy.org