It’s Hard To Keep An Open Mind To Learning

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

We read a fascinating story written by National Public Radio’s Anya Kamenetz last week about the importance of teachers knowing the most likely wrong answer a student is likely to give in response to a question.

In her story, titled “Why teachers need to know the wrong answers,” she follows the research of professor of astronomy and director of the Science Education department at Harvard University, Philip Sadler. He says “that cognitive science tells us that 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.”

Sadler builds his research through posing questions for which a middle school student might easily choose a wrong answer. For example, the Earth follows an elliptical path around the sun. Does that mean that when the Earth is closer to the sun we have summer and when it is farther away we have winter? Kamenetz writes that Sadler found that many kids jumped to this conclusion. The true cause of the seasons is our planet’s 23.5-degree tilt off its axis. In the North Hemisphere’s summer, we are tilted toward the sun; in the winter we are tilted away from it.

“Students are not empty vessels,” he told Kamenetz. “Students are full of all kinds of knowledge, and they have explanations for everything.” They apply simple answers that seem to make sense as they try to reason out what is going on in the world around them. Without much understanding or education to provide insight into their observations, kids find answers that seem logical to them – but are wrong and that creates a challenge for the teacher.

“It’s very expensive in terms of mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself,” Sadler says in Kamenetz’s story. “It’s a big investment to say, ‘I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me and believe what the book or the teacher says instead.’”

In another test, Sadler involved both students and teachers. He was looking for what common misconceptions young people might have in responding to the questions and how well teachers could pick the answers the students were most likely to come up with. Less than half the time were teachers able to pick the wrong answer students would come up with even when the same wrong answer was chosen by nearly 60 percent of the students.

Sadler’s research shows that when teachers are good at picking the correct wrong answers students are most likely to give, they were able to do a significantly better job of teaching those students the right answers.

To teach in a way that gets kids to make the mental effort that gets them to let go of their preconceived answers teachers have to go away from lecturing students and instead get them to “think out loud.”  Sadler also says that teachers that show a fascination with the answers their students are coming up with are better at getting kids to learn than those who simply like the subject they are teaching.

“The next step is to give students exposure to the information and experience that will enable them to reason their way to the right answer,” Sadler told Kamenetz. “For example, Sadler and colleagues created a high school astronomy course. In one of the lessons, students looked at pictures of the sun taken through the same telescope at each month of the year. Most predicted that the sun would appear larger in the hot months.” Those students found out just the opposite. The Earth is the closest to the sun Jan. 2, in the depths of the winter.

We think there may be a lesson here for adults as well in Kamenetz’s story. We don’t seem to completely grow out of our ability to formulate wrong answers. But we do get much better at resisting the right answers. For many, there are no more teachers in their lives to grade them on wrong answers and whom they will listen to when presented with facts that challenge them to find the right answers. As we get older, prejudices get imbedded and act as barriers to reason. Political, social and religious affiliations strengthen our willingness to accept answers that go against the evidence we are presented. We get better at finding information that reinforces false answers.

Take climate change. Despite overwhelming evidence that the Earth is warming and that we play a substantial role in that warming due to our burning of fossil fuels, there are many who adamantly deny both the warming and our role in it. Despite the research, despite the ever-mounting physical evidence, and despite the support of 97 percent of the world’s scientists, including those Nobel Prize winners and others who are considered the top experts in the field, some people hold tight to their belief that it is all a big hoax.

While understanding the flaws in a student’s reasoning may help teachers do a better job of teaching them the right answers, kids have the advantage of being education-absorbing sponges. Adults, on the other hand, often have their beliefs cemented into place. In fact, changing your mind as an adult can get you criticized.

Politicians who change their points of view over time due to new information becoming available are called flip-floppers. We are called hypocrites for acting one way in the past and a new way after new evidence has us reconsider an earlier position.

Society makes it hard for adults to be open-minded. We are complicit in this rigidity not only because we accept the boxes we are put into, but also because we lose our sense of curiosity. This is a problem for our nation because it leads us to being more rigid in our thinking and less tolerant of the opinions of those with whom we disagree. It also prevents us from demanding with a unified voice that our leaders compromise to overcome the challenges we face.

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