I’m just back from the STEM conference in Vancouver. I was really looking forward to the keynote to be delivered by Wolff-Michael Roth (WMR). The title intrigued me: STEM Curriculum through the eyes of the learner: the unseen and therefore unforeseen. Some time ago I co-authored a book in which I wrote ” We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” and I thought there was some resonance here.
WMR began by showing a clip of a teacher demonstrating the influence of a spinning wheel on the motion of someone sitting in an office chair. The demonstration wasn’t in any sense dramatic nor were the student onlookers prepared for being intrigued. The key question was ”Did you see it?” and WMR made the point that this is what we say when we appreciate a point or an idea “Oh I see!” WMR went on to make the point that on some occasions it is impossible for students to see in the sense required by their teachers and that this was a real challenge to the constructivist position in science teaching. He illustrated his point by describing his personal experience of travelling along a new route by bicycle. It was not until he was on his sixth iteration of the journey that he noticed the presence of two water towers on his left some distance from the road he was on and about half way along the route. His main point then that he hadn’t ‘seen’ the towers until this point though they had been there all along and if he had been tested on the presence of the towers after any of the first five journeys he would have flunked. For WMR this was analogous to many students’ learning experience. They just don’t see what the teacher wants them to see although as far as the teacher is concerned it’s there for the seeing. Now the purpose of the cycling is to get from the start to the destination. When one is travelling a new route for the first few times one is concentrating on following the route and avoiding hidden pitfalls, not at all interested in what is on either side. Once one has become familiar with the route and competent at its navigation then one has time to admire the view and notice features for the first time. So it’s not surprising that WMR didn’t notice the water towers until the sixth journey. And the position of the water towers is irrelevant to the main purpose – making the journey. This is where I think WMR’s analogy with teaching and learning might creak a bit. Let’s suppose the purpose of a sequence of science lessons is to enable pupils to learn about and use concepts (often counter intuitive concepts) to explain particular phenomenon. So does the goal of achieving the understanding required to enable explanation relate to the goal of getting from A to B along a previously unknown cycling route? I don’t think it does but WMR’s analogy does provoke me to ask why some students don’t recognise the significance of particular observations in developing their understanding. I wonder if it is because developing understanding takes time and requires several iterations of exposure to phenomena that are related to the underlying concepts the teacher wants the students to grasp. Also I wonder if teachers take the time to make the purpose of the instruction clear to the students – the goal is understanding, leading them to be able to offer explanations as opposed to simply ‘learning the stuff’. If this purpose of instruction is reinforced at every opportunity and students are regularly challenged with ‘what can you explain now that you couldn’t before?’ then I think it is possible to adopt a constructivist approach and enable students to see the world through their own eyes yet learn to interpret what they see in the light of accepted scientific concepts. Perhaps after all that was WMR’s point.