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Beginning a Short Unit on the Seasons

November 26, 2012

So, we are ending the year in inquiry by studying the seasons. We started by talking about the following situations:

(1) You are at a concert. What could you do to increase or reduce the impact of the sound on your ears?

(2) You are by a fire. What could you do to get hotter or colder?

After they muddled with those situations, I introduced a third test case.

(3) A person in the room has a smelly perfume? What could you that would make your experience of the smell more or less intense?

 The goal was to generalize a set of general patterns on what affects the intensity of “emanating stuff”. Our initial list was the following:

Volume (how strong the actual source of smell, sound, or heat is)

Proximity (how near are far you are from the source of smell, sound, or heat)

Duration (how much time you spend around the smell, sound, or heat)

Protection (how many barriers, blockers, or filters are between you and the source of heat, sound, smell)

We went into the detail explaining how these might work in each case, but that’s the gist.

An Experiment to Foster Thinking about A New Mechanism

Two identical heat lamps were set 10 inches away from a sheet of paper. Under the sheet of paper was a thermometer. The identical lamps fixed the volume. The 10 inches set the proximity. We set the duration time to 1 minute. The identical paper fixed the level of protection.  One lamp was set to shined directly down on the paper, and the other was set to shine at a very shallow angle (being careful to keep the 10 inch separation from the thermometer).

Students were asked to discuss what would happen to the temperature when I turned on the lamps.

Most groups believed correctly that the lamp shining straight down would make it hotter. Here is how we eventually built pieces of an explanation for why angle matters:

  • You are more likely to be burned by the sun from in the middle of the day, than the morning or evening, the sun’s rays must in some way be stronger when overhead than we angled low in the sky.
  • Direction also matters for our previous example. With fire, you can turn your cheeks toward fire to give it more direct access to fire’s heat. With a sound you can turn your ears away. With sound, you can turn your nose away.
  • With angled light, the rays of light hit the paper at a shallow angled creating a “glancing blow“, like skipping a stone on water, or a car hitting a wall at angle (vs. throwing a pebble straight into the water or driving you car head-on into a wall). The shallow angle creates only a glancing blow, which has less impact than a “head-on” collision.
  • With angled lamp, the light rays end up hitting a large area on the paper; where as the angled down rays hit the paper in a small area. This changes the concentration of the heat. It’s like heating up a large room or a small room with the same space heater. The large room will take longer to warm up, and may not even get up to same heat, because the heat gets spread out more.

We did the experiment, and in one minute the overhead lamp heated the thermometer to 130 degrees, while the angled lamp only heated up the thermometer to 78 degrees. Huge difference. I even rigged the deck in opposite way so that the angled lamp was actually closer than 10 inches and it got the thermometer that read a little higher. It was no contest. We added a new factor to our list, so that we now have:  Volume, proximity, duration, protection, and now direction.

Our goal over the next 3 days will be to figure out which of our 5 factors are most significant for explaining the seasonal changes to temperature–that is to collect evidence and arguments for the relative importance of each and to refine our sense of mechanism about how they work in the case of earth.

Why I’m liking this approach?

#1 We are drawing on knowledge from everyday experience : sitting by a fire to keep warm, smelling something rotten, being around loud music, etc. Had I asked what causes the seasons, it would have been about orbits and tilts. That would lead us down a frustrated track of sterile and unproductive school knowledge.

#2 We were generalizing quickly from a set of particulars, and naming them to help support generalization. We were not not just swimming in a vast sea of specific situations, and hoping that abstraction and connections were made. I specifically asked them to connect case specific mechanisms and to come up with general names.

#3 We are making sense of contrived situations in terms of everyday mechanism, such as getting burned, car crashes, skipping stones, and heating rooms. While I suggested the situations early on, students quickly extended to and built on other everyday sources of knowledge. This suggests that I helped “frame” the conversation as building on everyday knowledge. Going to the contrived could have tipped us out of, but it didn’t.

#4 Keeping the initial conversation away from the learning target (i.e., the seasons) and toward other phenomena (i.e., fire, sound, smell), keeps my “misconceptions” ears from perking up. Instead, I’m listening for useful ideas, analogies, observations, mechanism, insights, etc.  My listening patterns in turn influence my interactions with students, which in turn influences the nature of the discourse that emerges. My commitment and ability to focus on the good students say rather than the wrong stuff depends on the context I set up. I’m setting up a context, not only in which students will hopefully draw on everyday ideas productively, but I’m setting up a context in which I will be more likely to hear and draw on their ideas productively.

#5 I hope this will get us to “tilt” last, which is the empty vacuous understanding that many students have. Instead, I hope we will initially focus our explanations on locally observable changes, such as changing amounts of daylight and changing altitude of the sun in the sky. Tilt will be, hopefully, for the purpose of explaining the changing daylight and changing altitude. Thus, changing daylight and changing altitude will be the explanation for the seasonal variation in temperature.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2012 7:58 pm

    I like your approach, doing everything you can to get the students thinking without giving them a chance to invoke the ol’ “seasons = distance” misconception and then shutting off their brains. At some point, when you’re looking for transfer, don’t forget to ask them about why the seasons in Australia are opposite to the seasons in North America.

  2. November 26, 2012 8:09 pm

    I also like how you’re avoiding the “seasons = tilt” misconception… can’t we reasonably call this a misconception when it is divorced from students’ internal sense-making? Maybe we need a new word for “vacuous understanding” (possibly a contradiction in terms). Disconception?

    • November 27, 2012 12:59 pm

      Right, before I read disconception, I was totally thinking unconception. Of course, now I’m asking, what is the root of the word “under” “standing”… totally weird.

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