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How to get started? by J. Minstrell

October 29, 2011
Advice from Jim Minstrell on how to start teaching for the understanding of ideas
1. Start by listening to your students. By listening carefully and trying to understand their explanations, their predictions, or even the motivation for their questions, you can gain insight into their present understanding.
2. Ask questions that are qualitative. Avoid questions that require the manipulation of formulae and/or technical words unless you specifically want to find out whether they can correctly pick and grind a formula or to find out what a particular word means to them. I believe questions that ask for a qualitative explanations or comparison can be used effectively to probe understanding of ideas.
3. Ask questions that are relevant to common situations. There is a tendency to try to think up some bizarre situation to “trap” students into displaying their “alternative” conceptions. This isn’t necessary. In fact, it appears that many students have more trouble describing or explaining a common situations, probably because it is so similar to situations for which the initial conceptions were developed.
4. Ask questions that require inferential thinking. Once I know my students clearly know the observations, I want to know how they structure the phenomena to give them meaning. I typically ask for a prediction, a generalization, or an explanation. “If you do this, what will happen? Explain why you think that will happen.”  “You’ve now made several observations of … what can you say in general about the situation? What do all the observations together tell you about the nature of…”   “Explain how… happens.”   “We see that … happens. How would you interpret that?”
5. Clarify the observation first. Prior to probing their organization of thought, you may want to ask for their observations. Frequently, I find their perceptions were different from mine. In other words, before you ask them to explain or interpret, you may want to find out whether they saw the phenomenon as you did.
6. Listen (or read) carefully in a non-evaluative way to the answers given by your students. This is probably the most difficulty aspect. As teachers, we are prone to jump in and steer the students straight by telling them what to think. Students are prone to look to teachers for feedback as to whether they have the “right” answer. Fight this, if you want to know what they think. Be neutral in your comments about what students say. Help the students clarify their ideas, but do not evaluate those ideas yourself. Get them to evaluate their own or each other’s ideas. Students will be more willing to say what they believe if they are not graded on their specific answer early in the development of their ideas. There will be a time for grading later after ideas have been developed and used. When you are reading quiz or test results, rather than simply classifying answers as right or wrong, try classifying them as to the type of argument. What I find is that students often get the wrong answer for very good reasons, and they sometimes get the right answer for very weak answers.
Conducting these investigations in the classroom has changed the nature of my instruction. The focus is now on developing the understanding of ideas and applying ideas, ideas that are related to students’ own thinking. We are not matching through a textbook interpreting the ideas of some distant authority; we are building our own ideas.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Christopher permalink
    November 1, 2011 5:46 pm

    Who is this dude, and what version of Word was he using?

    OK, I’m only serious about that first question. I haven’t heard of him.

    As a math guy, I really appreciate his use of the term ideas. I have often spoken of my courses as being about ideas rather than skills. Maybe I like ideas better than concepts because we think of concepts in a Platonian fashion-they exist in some pure form and students’ job is to understand them. Whereas ideas are things we can argue about and evaluate. There are good ideas and bad ideas; some are more useful than others, etc. And best of all, students can have ideas. Of their own.

  2. November 2, 2011 12:43 pm

    I’m totally with you here. I also tend to use the word ‘ideas’, especially over concepts and conceptions. I’ve been thinking recently about how we use the words idea and concept. There’s something interesting that I can’t quite put my finger on.

    For example, we’d say something like: I want to suggest an idea. But we’d less likely use the word suggest with concept. “I want to suggest a concept” sounds funny. I think we’d more likely say I want to introduce a concept. It’s like the concept is foreign and you must be introduced. Where an idea is a suggestion, a possibility. Or in a moment of insight, we might say excitedly, “I have an idea!” but we wouldn’t say, “I have a concept!”. Ideas can come from within.

    Ideas and concepts lie on different sides of a distance-from-self scale.

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