Category: communicating science

Constructing your own knowledge is not “edu-babble”

First, a disclosure: I’d love to pepper this posting with links to journal articles here, there and everywhere. But the truth is, if I try to do that, I’ll never get it written. If only I had a massive library of refs in my head like some of my colleagues. So here goes the “I’ll add refs later” version.

On February 8, the Vancouver Sun published a column by Michael Zwaagstra entitled “Purdue University study confronts edu-babble” (Hat-tip to @chrkennedy.)


The lead paragraph concludes

Instead of telling students what they need to learn, teachers should encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world around them. The progressive approach to education is far more useful to students than the mindless regurgitation of mere facts.”

A reasonable philosophy. One I agree with, in fact. And no, I didn’t forget to copy the opening quotation mark. It was omitted. Maybe that’s Vancouver Sun style. Or maybe it’s to hide the fact that this paragraph is a strawman about to knocked down by the author, who begins his actual column with

“Anyone involved in education knows these types of edu-babble statements are often heard in teacher-training institutions. Education professors continually push teachers to move away from traditional methods of instruction.”

The author goes on to cite a new study in Sciencexpress (20 Jan 2011) Science (11 Feb 2011) by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” Let me describe that research first and then come back to how Zwaagstra presented it.

Karpicke and Blunt did quite a nice study comparing, among other things, the final test scores of four groups of students

  1. study-once: students studied the text in 1 study session
  2. repeated study: students studied the text in 4 consecutive study session
  3. elaborative studying with concept mapping: after instruction on how to create a concept map, students created concepts maps of the concepts in the text. This activity plays the role of “constructing their own knowledge” in the journal article and Zwaagstra’s newspaper column.
  4. retrieval practice: students studied the text in one study session, then practiced retrieval by trying to recall as much as they could. Then they restudied and recalled a second time. The authors made sure the students in this group and the concept mapping group had the same time-on-task.

When these learning activities were complete, all students wrote the same short-answer test which contained both “verbatim” questions testing knowledge stated in the text and “inference” questions that required students to assemble various facts. For both types of questions, the retrieval practice group scored the highest, followed by the repeated study, concept mapping and study once groups. In both types of questions, the retrieval practice scores were statistically significantly higher than other scores. The article goes on to describe how they replicated the study, with similar results.

Hmm, interesting result. I wonder… no, sorry, back to the Vancouver Sun article.

Fine. Studying helps students succeed on tests.No one would argue against that. And concept mapping certainly has its strengths but it is just one approach to “constructing your own understanding.”

Zwaagstra uses the Purdue result to support the practice of testing students regularly on content knowledge. No problem with that. And that Provinces which are abandoning standardized testing are falling prey to “anti-testing mantra”. Hmm, not sure about that. And that learner-centered instruction is “edu-babble”. Okay, that pissed me off:

I’m relieved to say I wasn’t the only one, based on the handful of RTs and replies I received from @cpm5280, @mcshanahan, @ScientificChick, @chrkennedy, @sparkandco and @derekbruff, all tweeps whose opinions I value.

Right – everyone is entitled to their opinion. Zwaagstra is sharing his, just like I’m sharing mine. But wait, this isn’t an opinion piece – it’s a newspaper report:

Well, in fact, a friend tells me the online Vancouver Sun just tacks “Vancouver Sun” credentials onto the author. At the bottom of the article, we discover Mr. Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a “think-tank” [their quotes] supporting Canada’s prairie provinces. So this is not an objective piece of journalism about new result in education research. It’s an opinion piece written on behalf of the Frontier Centre to support their philosophy. The Vancouver Sun should have made that a lot clearer. And did they really have to use the most sensational word in the entire story, “edu-babble”, in the headline? How about a little less tabloid next time, huh? In hindsight, maybe that pissed me off just as much as Zwaagstra’s lampooning of decades of education research and practice.

So, I’ll stay vigilante to stories which misrepresent science. But in the end, I’ll also follow Derek Bruff’s advice:

Leveraging Public Outreach

Every winter for the last 7 years, my Department has put on a science show for the general public, following the tradition celebrated by physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867).

Orion (Credit & Copyright: Matthew Spinelli)

This year’s theme was “The Physics of Light and Colour”. We did demos about lasers, solar power, optical illusions, twinkling stars, this cool Cubee device developed at UBC. For my 10 minutes, I talked about colour and temperature – how we usually portray cold as blue but to astronomers, blue = hot. I encouraged everyone to go home and look for the bright, coloured stars in the constellation Orion.  (I projected Star Walk from my iPad thru the theatre projector to show everyone where to look. Oh my! Fantastic!)

We had an amazing turn-out: nearly 350 people, at least half of them kids!

Before and after the show, I set up a four Galileoscopes on tripods outside the building. Sure, it was to attract people and tell them they were in the right place. But really, it was so I could get a bunch of kids looking through my telescopes. It was the middle of the day so we looked at signs, cars, people, a statue and a Caterpillar excavator. And they were all upside-down! What’s up with that, kids?

When it was over and I had a few quiet moments to take down the telescopes, I thought about the best parts of the afternoon, and came to a new realization about why I do “sidewalk astronomy”. From least to most important:

3. I love looking at stuff through my telescope. I can still remember the first time I saw Saturn’s rings. This is one of those defining moments for many budding astronomers, like watching Neil Armstrong take his one small step is the defining moment for almost every astronaut who’s ever talked about why they became an astronaut.

2. I love helping kids see stuff through my telescope. Typically, kids run up, grab the scope, jam their eyes near the eyepiece. Talk talk talk blab blab squeal. And then the image snaps into focus. “blab blab squ-. . . . . . oooooooh!” I love that moment! (Tip: if you’re aiming at something really bright like the Moon, often you see the image forming on the kid’s cheek and you can gently maneuver their head to get the bright image on their pupil.)

1. This is the new one for me. It was so rewarding talking to the kids’ parents. They’re already interested enough that they’ve brought their kids to your event. If you can get them enthusiastic and excited, they’ll carry on the conversation and discoveries at home. And they’ll be the ones who experience that magical moment when their kids see Saturn for the first time.

Unfortunately, it means I give up the golden moments with the kids — and that’s hard to do because it’s like a drug. But it leverages my enthusiasm and excitement. And knowledge: knowledge of astronomy and knowledge of how to teach astronomy.

Still, here I am, writing about how much I enjoyed talking with the parents. Maybe I’ve found a new drug…

What do you mean by that, again?

Oh sure, trust me to turn a fun Twitter #hashtag into a posting about education. Well, sorry, I filter everything I read and experience through my education filter (or my will-my-kids-have-a-meltdown? filter).

I’ve been reading my tweeps #tweetmy16yearoldself messages on Twitter, thinking to myself, Geez, that kid was way more with it than I was. Like my #spacetweep friend @Zarquil, who tweeted

#TweetYour16YearOldSelf Honestly, you’ve got it all figured out already. Listen to your own heart and don’t put so much reliance on others.

Or my math teacher friend @ptruchon who wrote to himself,

Thanks for spending so much awesome time learning the guitar. I wouldn’t have time now, and I’m still enjoying it. #tweetyour16yearoldself

And then my education friend @janniaragon tweeted something that I’m paraphrasing from memory because the tweet was a couple of days ago and it’s slipped off the timeline.

“slim-leg jeans, black hair with bangs, t-shirt from [somebody’s] concert”

You see, @ptruchon and @Zarquil are tweeting TO their 16 year-old selves, sending a wise message back in time. But @janniaragon is tweeting ABOUT her 16 year-old self, a 140-character snapshot of herself back then. That’s the way I interpreted #tweetyour16yearoldself and I’m wasn’t keen to recall and share those awkward years.

Different people have completely different interpretations of the word “tweetyour16yearoldself”, producing completely different responses. Just like I see in undergraduate physics and astronomy classes every day! The instructor says an important word which sits, in his or her mind, at the pinnacle (or is that “apex”, @ptruchon?) of a pyramid of background knowledge and concepts. But the students interpret the word in a different way and attach none of the background the instructor assumes is there. Or worse yet, attach a different background and then struggle to hang the instructor’s version of the concept on scaffolding that isn’t there.

The biggest offender in my field is “theory”. To astronomers, physicists, scientists in general, “theory” is the pinnacle of science. Why, if you produce even one outstanding theory in your career, you’ve made a valuable contribution to the field. But to students, “theory” is often a vague guess, a stab-in-the-dark. Actually, let me quote from a new astronomy textbook, “Investigating Astronomy – A Conceptual View of the Universe” (W.H. Freeman and Co, coming soon) by @caperteam and @rogerfreedman. They say it much better than I can:

In everyday language the word “theory” is often used to mean an idea that looks good on paper, but has little to do with reality. In science, however, a good theory is one that explains reality and that can be applied to explain new observations.

It’s all about interpretation. Instructors, be sure to share the pyramid of background knowledge behind key words when you use them. And students, interrupt your instructor and ask, “What do you mean by that, again?”