” Be very, very careful what you put in that head because you will never ever get it out.”
– Attributed to Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (b 1473, d 1530)
Take a moment to think about what you know about the world and universe about you. How does it work? What sorts of things do you wonder about? Do you wonder what it means when you hear about a “super moon” or a “blood moon”? When you see a beautiful image with a huge moon suspended over a mountain lake or city skyline do you wonder where you have to go to see such a sight? Which part of the moon is the “dark side”? And what does that mean anyway? Are the phases of the moon because the Earth’s shadow is blocking sunlight from reaching that part of the moon?
Several times a year I have the opportunity to visit and present at science methods classes for students enrolled in teacher credential program at several universities in the Bay Area. One of the goals of the visit is to demonstrate to these future teachers how they can engage their students in hands-on, inquiry-based astronomy activities. Usually this is an eye-opening experience for the students, as the usual way of teaching astronomy in a K-12 classroom is to read the book, do the worksheets, and watch the videos with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for me, this is not how people actually learn science. Science is something you have to do to learn. Science is a verb.
At the end of each session I ask the students to briefly reflect on what they experienced in the format “I used to think…, but now I know…” These reflections are at times, illuminating. Here are some examples:
I used to think the phases were the Earth’s shadow on the moon, but now I know it’s the second half of the moon not lit up because the first half is lit.
I used to think a solar eclipse would happen once every several years, but now I know that it happens twice a year.
I used to think that the earth’s shadow caused the moon phases, but now I know it is also the moon’s shadow as well.
I used to think the moon only circled once a year, now I know it circles much faster.
I used to think that eclipses were caused by the Earth’s shadow, but now I know that a lunar eclipse is caused from the moon’s shadow and a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s shadow.
I used to think solar system was best learn through reading and visuals and that’s how I was taught in school; now I know its best learned by engagement by student doing hands-on, 1st hand learning.
I used to think science was boring; but now I know its all in how you teach it.
I used to think that science was too challenging for many young kids and that many of them found it uninteresting; but now I know that its really fun and lots of kids love it!
I used to think that astronomy was all facts and images; but now I know its awesomely possible to have it hands on.
I used to think that astronomy was just book facts; now I know that there is a lot of opportunity for INQUIRY!
I used to think prior knowledge was always useful, but now I know that sometimes it can get in the way.
Some of the reflections demonstrate more sophistication than others, and some indicate the engagement in a brief activity did nothing to dissuade them from their misconception. Some movement is indicated, but they are still holding on to their old ideas. If you think about it, I bet most of you could figure out which comments came from prospective elementary teachers, and the ones from those going into secondary science teaching. By and large, secondary science teachers have a greater depth, and usually breadth as well, in their understanding of science compared to their elementary bound colleagues.
Produced almost twenty years ago, the video A Private Universe demonstrated how people construct meaning for phenomena, and hold their misconceptions even in the face of contrary evidence. It also shows how moving people to a more accurate mental model requires active engagement in modeling, analyzing, questioning, and basing their arguments on evidence. These practices of science and much more are codified in the Next Generation Science Standards, now adopted by many states and under consideration by many more. When given the opportunity to actively engage in science taught in the context of the NGSS, learners of all ages are far more likely to hold a more accurate mental model of how the universe operates.
The real take home message here is teachers at all levels, but particularly at the elementary level, need access to the resources, and the professional development that goes along with the resources, so they can better enrich their students’ minds and lives with the wonders of the universe. If we want science literate citizens in our nation, then ALL of the teachers they encounter during their formative years need to have even greater scientific literacy, along with the resources and time to engage their students in science investigations.
Thinking about the questions posed at the beginning of this post, how did you answer? At what point in your life did you settle on your answers? Where did those ideas come from, and have you had to change your mental model at some point? How difficult was it to change? What had to happen to facilitate the change? Now think about placing yourself in the position of helping 30+ young learners, all at the same time, cope with these same questions, guiding them so they will create their own accurate mental models of how the universe operates. It seems kind of daunting, doesn’t it?
The next time you see a teacher, thank them for what they do, and for taking on the responsibility of correcting existing misconceptions, and not creating new ones for someone else to deal with later. And the next time you have a chance, cast your vote for candidates who support teachers and education. With enough support, teachers will have the resources and opportunities to implement them for the benefit of students.