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Epistemology–Everything is Epistemology

February 11, 2013

Today, I tried to move our class  toward building “consensus statements” about how light gets from one place to another. I had referred our activity as trying to come up with “rules for light” That move didn’t go quite as well as it has in the past, and I was really struggling to understand why. From the daily sheets, I found this gem where a student describes what didn’t make sense to them:

Rules of light. Can there be any rules? What if light is an “outlaw” defying all rules placed on it? Does light really adhere to a strict set of rules? This is what is not making sense to me.

I love this. It’s like she was saying, “What right do we have to expect that nature could possibly be held accountable to a set of rules? Let alone rules that we come up with? Who would enforce these rules?”

* OK, so the truth is, this epistemological isn’t why the activity didn’t go well. It didn’t go well, because students were still really struggling in trying to understand a set of observations that had been made and some confusing, complex, difficult ideas that had been presented to explain those observations. I moved us on to rules too quickly, before it made sense to do so. Either way, this student quote speaks to an issue I think is interesting, complex, and worthy of my attention.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. ljatkins permalink
    February 11, 2013 9:17 pm

    I had a student who was really articulate about this – when we DID find rules for light, he said something about how it wasn’t like air; air & light fill rooms, but in really different ways.

  2. February 12, 2013 2:10 am

    I don’t fully understand the student’s idea. Is she suggesting that light is able to break some of the ‘rules’ of nature (something like ‘all particles have mass but photons don’t have mass’)? Or is she suggesting that some things in nature defy characterization and that maybe there is simply no way to characterize the behavior of light in a compact set of ‘rules’?

    I guess I’m wondering how much of her idea has to do with her interpretation of the word ‘rules’ and how much of it has to do with her ideas about the nature of light. Either way I’m intrigued.

    • February 12, 2013 12:27 pm

      I’m with you on this one. Her idea might not necessarily be about light, although it could be. She might be thinking–light seems to be able to get anywhere and do so many things. How could all of the *freedom* and *variable behavior* be captured or indicated by rules. And I definitely think it’s bound to the word “rules”… especially with the notions of “defying” and “adhering”-sort of like social laws. I also think she might be objecting to the activity of trying to generate rules at all (like who do we think we are?) or to the idea that nature follows rules (like, nature isn’t the kind of thing that follows rules). Either way, it’s interesting to me, because we often operate on the level of “Do students understand the rules?” rather than, asking do students even think it’s a sensible thing to be doing–coming up with rules.

      • February 12, 2013 11:30 pm

        Interesting. I usually point out to students what a huge revolution it was when Newton et al showed that the ‘heavens’ obeyed the same laws of gravity that we have on Earth. Somehow I’ve never thought about the fact that students must at some point have a similar revolution in deciding that nature (here or up there) can be described by a set of laws.

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