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Model-based Thinking…

October 14, 2011

Today I watched group of people with none to little to some to a good bit of background in education research try to write a education proposal. Many of those people were scientists, and here are some thoughts from the day.

When a scientists thinks of a physical system, they think of its parts and how those parts are organized in that system. They think of the relevant properties of those parts and the system, and how those properties might be measured and what roles they play. They think of how those parts interact with each other and the rules for how those interactions play out (which are often dictated by properties). They think about the surroundings of that system, and how interactions with that system either introduce new parts, change  properties of certain parts, or change how those parts are organized. They think about how those changes act together to bring about functional changes to the system as a whole. All of this might be understood as physicists “modeling” that system in order to understand how it works. They think about systems in terms of models. They develop models, deploy models, think about the implications of models, reflect on the parts of model that aren’t flesh out. They use model to ask questions. They use models to make predictions. They use models to inform them about designing experiments and what might be measured. All of this modeling is informed by theory.

Despite the fact that scientists do all of this with physical systems, they struggle to play this same game when thinking about educational systems. They don’t know what the relevant entities are. They don’t know how to draw boundaries between systems and surroundings. They don’t know about the properties of the entities or know what properties are relevant. They don’t know how those entities arrange themselves and how those properties and arrangements lead to different functional states of the system. They don’t know how those entities interact with each or respond to external interactions. But even worse is that they also don’t even know that they don’t know these things. Mostly, they don’t even think that should be thinking in terms of models (or theories), so they don’t even try to think in terms of models. Rather, they just go on instinct. They go on things they feel, things they’ve heard, things they’ve experienced. What they do is no informed at all by theory. In many ways, they are novices in all the ways that new physics students are.

Aside: If you’ve ever entertained the thought that general “critical thinking” skills is something that exists, this is evidence that there is no such thing. People who can think critically in one context do not typically spontaneously think critically in other contexts. Critical thinking requires rich knowledge base from which to think.

The good thing about this group of people is this: They have some really good ideas. They are learning. They are growing. They are well-intentioned. They have some good experiences to draw from. Part of the problem is that they are missing lots of knowledge. Part of the problem is that they don’t know the game they should be trying to play.

I feel the same way about my physics students. They have some really good ideas. They are learning. They are growing. They are well-intentioned. They have experiences in the world to draw from. Part of the problem is that they are missing lots of knowledge. Part of the problem is that they don’t know the game they should be trying to play.

The best I can do with my students and these proposal writers is to enter into a dialogue that nudges their thinking along–provide them with some impetus to learn some new knowledge or rethink the game they are trying to play.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011 5:12 pm

    Hi Brian, I would argue that general critical thinking is a practiced/developed skill that takes as much deliberate practice as developing any other sort of expertise. And like you point out, expertise in an academic field does not mean you have developed your critical thinking skills.

    But I would argue that the skeptical community is full of examples of people who have developed these skills. It requires a deep understanding of logical fallacies, and understanding of the way that our brains can work against us when trying to apply evidence-based reasoning. And being constantly vigilant against fooling oneself into seeing what one wants to see instead of what the evidence actually suggests. In your example, the physicists working in their own domain have very well-developed understanding of the relevant models and their limitations, but like you point out, they take none of these general modeling skills with them when they step outside of their domain of expertise.

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