Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science
Flat, circular and smooth, the rock spat at the clean surface of the water, twisted slightly on its axis, and flew again. Dark and light, concentric lines speed outwards from its landing place. The rock’s path becomes a low curving arc until it touches the water again then flies toward its next destination. Flight paths shrinking, it finally stutters, rocks ever so briefly on the surface, then, laying on its side, sinks from sight.
We’ve all skipped rocks on the water. It’s fun and challenging. How far can we make one skip? How many times will it touch the water? We practice, search for flat rocks, try different methods, watch others then copy them, and practice some more. This is like teaching “the book.” Getting to Chapter 37 by the end of the year can be a real challenge in skipping rocks. We become creative in our own planning and preparation, go to workshops, attend seminars and institutes, pore through publishers’ offerings, observe what others are doing, and, by the time we retire, can skip through all 37 blindfolded. Students need to do science, then marshal relevant content to understand the results of their science. Just as scientists do.
But have we taught science? Science is a way of knowing, and beginning to understand the universe we live in. Do brief encounters with science content teach students to apply critical thinking to scientific or science related issues? I think not. For one thing, each encounter is so brief that it leaves no time for reflection or comprehension of scientific method or the concepts and processes enlightened by this method. No time for the reflection and contemplation so necessary to conceptual understanding. In too many classrooms, students are not provided the time to experience science as a process that lets us know. After completing a chapter, students may utter words which we ourselves have used, and make these words follow upon one another in apparently meaningful ways, but they may not comprehend the concepts that the words describe at all. These next words are important; think about them. “Science studies the world directly; it does not learn about the world from a text or canned activity. Our students must use the observational and critical thinking skills which science and our brain provides to understand and express their world.” When we do less, we do them, and ourselves, a great disservice.
When we touch on 37 chapters (representing 37 content areas with more or less complex concepts) we are like a rock, touching the water 37 times before it loses energy and sinks. Encounters with content or water are necessarily brief, leave a series of thin ripples, but do not make meaningful connections among the 37 visits except in the linear direction they travel. Even the ripples, once they touch, have lost most of their energy, and make no lasting impression upon their world. Nevertheless, we barge along, convincing ourselves, and our students, that they understand, that they have been taught science. However, if we take the time to check to see if we’ve done it right, we may find that even our best students entertain misconceptions.
One day during a cell biology lecture, I caught my mind stopping, then asking me a question, “Do they all see the same picture in their minds?” I couldn’t answer, and that floored me. What if none of them saw the same picture I did? So, I asked them to take a couple of minutes, draw a cell and a mitochondrion, and no more than two sentences about what we (I) had been talking about. As they worked, I scoped and zoomed, walking casually, but eyes and ears working to the max. (That’s an important part of teaching, if you want to know if and when students are learning.)
Their drawings fell into two basic categories: the mitochondrion was either inside or outside the cell. If it was inside, there was a small chance it was inside the nucleus. Otherwise, it could be anywhere inside the cell. If outside, it either touched the cell, or was some distance from it. I gathered from this that 1) I needed to start the lecture by drawing a mitochondrion inside a cell, and 2) I ought to find a way to probe for the pictures in their heads when I taught about what they couldn’t see. So, they immediately started drawing what they were learning. That helped me to know where I needed to take care to avoid misconceptions. A simple scope and zoom would clarify most misconceptions.
You can learn to tell when your students are learning. It just takes practice and careful attention to how each student telegraphs learning. Can you ensure that they are learning for understanding? If they are, then most misconceptions take care of themselves as students negotiate meaning. Small, ongoing probes help you do this. They become a habit. Another way you can enhance understandings and reduce misconceptions is to use the science your students are doing now to extend these learnings into a new topic. If the new topic is closely related, the transition should be obvious. If it seems distantly related, you have to search for your own understandings to find an appropriate vehicle to manage the transition. Usually, you can find it embedded in what the class has recently been learning.
Let’s say you are completing a unit on DNA and the function of operons in producing protein. Next you plan an abrupt change to study plant taxa. Two apparently disparate topics, and generally viewed as such. This happens so often that our students think of the topics as having no connection to one another. Why not initiate the transition by referring to interactions between operon and environment? If you’re starting the unit on plant taxa with the idea of using this new knowledge to work with an environmental educator to do a stream bank restoration project, you might have students use the idea of DNA and operons to think of reasons that the plant taxa you will be working with are different from one another in appearance and habitat preference. And might account for why they will be planted at different places in the riparian. Or not planted there at all. So, instead of leaving one topic and leaping to another, they will use what they know to navigate toward a new topic along a course they’ve sailed before. The rocks no longer leap from place to place then skitter to a stop.
There are innumerable transitions you can envision. Each one contains the capacity to produce comprehensive understandings, larger and larger conceptual schemata. Learning for understanding. When you begin to search for these transitions, your own understandings become stronger, as does your confidence to teach for understanding. This reverses my methaphor: The rock represents the trajectory of transitions, and the ripples your growing connected web of understandings. (I’m much more comfortable with this version.) What if your students were finishing a unit on weather, and next, were going to prepare to study the macroinvertebrate organisms which inhabit streams? How many transitions can you imagine up? How can you use one of them to enlarge the compass of your students’ current conceptual schemata?
When we simply jump from one topic to another, the rock touching and flying, what does this say about how well we comprehend the subdisciplines we teach and their connections? Should we do something about this? A good place to start is where you are. You’ve got your class engaged in a topic, and soon you’ll move to another. Visualize the connection you’ll use to transition to this new topic. Where, in the new content, do you want the transition to lead? How will you initiate the transition? Now, when it is time, start the transition. We need to learn how to take the time to develop quality transitions from one topic to another. Once in that new topic, take the time to nail down the understandings contained in this connection; both for the old topic, and for this new one. Then, the course the rock navigates will carry it home to deep conceptual understanding.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”