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When What We Think We Know Prevents Learning

Student Learning

When What We Think We Know Prevents Learning

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Vintage engraving showing the Seasons of the Earth, 1891
If you’ve got 20 minutes, I’ve got a video that will change the way you think about teaching. It’s aimed at K–12 educators, was released in 1987, and explores basic concepts in astrophysics. But don’t let any of that deter you. The topic is timeless and applicable to all fields. I’m confident the video will rock your universe.

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If you’ve got 20 minutes, I’ve got a video that will change the way you think about teaching. It’s aimed at K–12 educators, was released in 1987, and explores basic concepts in astrophysics. But don’t let any of that deter you. The topic is timeless and applicable to all fields. I’m confident the video will rock your universe.

Produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, A Private Universe illustrates how learning is the individual construction of explanations for how the world works. Each of us builds mental models based on our intellectual understanding of a topic, correct or incorrect as it may be. Thus, when students arrive in our classroom, they have prior knowledge that shapes their future learning. For the situation in the video, that prior knowledge inhibits students’ ability to take in new information.

Part of the power of the story that unfolds in the video is just how tenacious our constructed explanations are even when we are faced with information that challenges them. We literally watch students who have misconceptions about what causes the seasons and the phases of the moon intellectually struggle with changing their beliefs when presented with correct information. Rather than replace their wrong model, we observe students create a mishmash of what they believe and factual reality. As teachers, we can’t help but be stunned—not only by just how wacky the mishmash is (it barely resembles what was taught in the lesson) but also by the mental foothold it retains in even the most capable students.

The true genius of the production is that many in the viewing audience are simultaneously confronting their own misunderstandings of why it’s warmer in the summer than in the winter and the reason for the different phases of the moon. Not only do we watch students in their moments of intellectual discomfort, but most of us as audience members are freaking out about our own misunderstandings.

Of course, once the misconceptions are laid bare, we then get the opportunity to watch master teachers guide one student, Heather, in the correction of her constructed misunderstandings. Some of my favorite parts of the video are when Heather has an aha moment about the earth’s orbit. In one instance, she looks at her two competing drawings, you see something change in her eyes and posture, and then you hear her words, “This is wrong,” as she gives up her prior model. At another moment, when she is struggling to make sense of new information, she instinctively reaches for the three-dimensional models and talks herself into the correct explanation. The value of active learning, self-elaboration, and multiple modes of presentation is incontrovertible in those moments.

At the same time, there is also the moment, even after multiple attempts by the instructor to correct Heather’s model for the way light behaves, that the mishmash prevails. The teacher in me was deeply humbled by all the times I had walked away from class believing my presentation had been so clear and brilliant that of course my students understood the day’s lesson. I now know the reality was likely quite different.

Astrophysics may be abstract and especially difficult, but all our fields have concepts that students easily misunderstand. In my field, it’s things like the relative size of cellular components, chemical equilibrium, and the role of chance in evolution. A Private Universe makes it clear that a critical part of our job as teachers is to know these likely bumps and anticipate them in our pedagogical choices. We’ve got to engage students’ prior knowledge for deep learning to occur.

Unfortunately, as scholars, our expertise can blind us to the misconceptions and incomplete understandings that students have and develop. We’ve forgotten what was hard or confusing or seemed contradictory. This means that as teachers we must be intentional in identifying where students are likely to stumble. Here are a few ideas for getting started:

  • Google key terms like “prior knowledge” or “misconceptions” along with your discipline. In many fields, this is an area of active scholarship.
  • Reframe how you conceive of the difficulty students have with your content. Perhaps it isn’t just that the concept is complex or abstract. Consider whether and how students’ prior understandings might create barriers to learning.
  • Probe your students’ thinking. “Tell me more about your reasoning.” “Show me where that idea came from in the reading.” “Can you draw (or graph, or give) an example of what you mean?” I especially like the question, “Can you tell me why this is hard?”
  • Talk to your colleagues. Newer teachers don’t yet have the experience that allows them to identify where students struggle, and those with experience are more than likely happy to share their knowledge.

Once we know what can trip students up, the next step is to directly engage prior knowledge and misconceptions. Here are some strategies:

  • Model how you engage with students after what the interviewers in the video did with Heather. They framed, guided, and questioned not from their point of view as content experts but from their knowledge of what commonly gets in the way of understanding.
  • Ask students what they already know about a topic before the learning begins.
  • Give students abundant opportunity to elaborate on ideas either on their own or in small groups.
  • Provide contradictory evidence or an alternative perspective. For example, for a student who believes that the distance of the earth from the sun causes the seasons, ask how it can be summer in the Southern Hemisphere and winter in the Northern Hemisphere at the same time.
  • Use role play. When students engage a topic from a perspective different from their own, it can dislodge unconscious biases and assumptions.
  • Again, talk with your colleagues about what strategies have worked for them when teaching a particularly thorny topic.

Let me end by acknowledging that my perspective and suggested actions are those of a teacher whose content is not centered on power and privilege. My students rarely feel threatened by the concept of energy flow within a cell. That is most certainly not the case when teaching content focused on minoritized populations and oppression. These faculty know all too well the difficulties of engaging students’ constructed knowledge and misconceptions about race, gender, religion, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and nationality. There is a growing number of resources for engaging the bias, prejudice, and supremacist beliefs embedded in the prior knowledge of students. I include a few below. Teaching and learning centers and diversity and equity offices on campuses can provide additional support. I also encourage all faculty, regardless of discipline, to engage with how students’ existing understandings about diversity and justice might limit their understanding of what you teach.

Bolton, P., Smith, C. L., & Bebout, L. (2019). Teaching with tension: Race, resistance, and reality in the classroom. Northwestern University Press.

Cardon, L. S., & Smith, C. L. (2022, June 20). “What could I possibly say?” Addressing racist dialogue in the classroom. The Teaching Professor. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/classroom-climate/what-could-i-possibly-say-addressing-racist-dialogue-in-the-classroom

Harbin, M. B., Thurber, A., & Bandy, J. (2019). Teaching race, racism, and racial justice: Pedagogical principles and classroom strategies for course instructors. Race and Pedagogy Journal, 4(1), Article 1. https://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/rpj/vol4/iss1/1

Kernahan, C. (2019). Teaching about race and racism in the college classroom: Notes from a white professor. West Virginia University Press.

P.S. Even now, having watched the video dozens of times, I still must catch myself when I think about what causes the phases of the moon. That’s how tenacious my own misconceptions have been.

Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.