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More Reflections on Inquiry Class

February 2, 2012

Yesterday was a big emotional day in inquiry.

Students were really digging in to their investigations. Many were so excited about what they were discovering and excited about the ideas they were having. Several groups just continued working through our 20-minute break. Even I took a break. One group kept investigating around a new discovery they had just made, while two other groups felt the need to get their ideas down on the whiteboards now, while they were fresh in mind. There are some really awesome insights students are having and discoveries students are making; so many in fact that I think it will take some time to sort through them all. Students are also beginning to call me over just to tell me about their idea, and to ask whether I understand them. Several students have commented about how they have never felt good about or excited about science until this class. We are in a really good place, especially in terms of affect, engagement, and intellectual seriousness.

Yesterday was also emotional because it was the first somewhat heated debate we’ve had. Near the end of class, students were disagreeing about whether some new evidence meant that one of the students’ theory had been proven wrong. Things didn’t get out of control (not at all in my mind), but tensions were a bit high. I loved that another student stepped in and said, “Do you guys even know what you are disagreeing about?” It was said in just the right that we all sort of laughed. It was true… they weren’t really listening to each other, they were talking at and past each other. The laugh didn’t completely diffuse the tension, but it helped point to what was happening. I think many left class feeling a little deflated.

We’ll have a conversation next week about the need to be critical of ideas, and how to keep that criticism focused on ideas and not on people, and also what can do we if we feel uncomfortable about the direction of a conversation. Overall, I’m happy the disagreement was about something deeply connected to scientific epistemology and the nature of science. I mean seriously, the disagreement was about the meaning of evidence in relation to theory. Could it be any better than that?

Without going into detail, I see yesterday as largely about trying to figure out whether the “hole” does something, or whether its the “material” around the hole that does something & while hole that does nothing. Students haven’t quite framed the conversation that way, but this is sort of where its headed: Does the “hole” angle the light? Does the hole “bend” the light? Does the whole “flip” the light? Does the hole “focus” the light? Or does the hole just not stop light?

In the debate, it turns out that the meaning of our new piece of evidence really hinges on what we think that hole is doing, and importantly what students think other student think about that. The disagreement, I think, was about what one student interpreted another student to be saying about what the hole does or doesn’t do. Fortunately, the argument and misinterpretation, will allow me to bring this up explicitly next week: What do we think the hole is doing, if anything at all? And what evidence do we have to support that?

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