Think like an expert: teaching kids to see the big picture, Part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently enrolled in a(n awesome) physics class.  On the first day, our professor showed us this photograph:

Take a look… what do you see?

At first, it looks like a sea of random dots.  However, when you look at it more closely, in the center of the frame is the outline of a dalmatian, surrounded by leaves along a road.

This, our professor said, is seeing like an expert – taking in a whole system of dots, like equations, theorems, specific experiments, and seeing the larger pattern that unites them all.  This image can never be unseen – it becomes an internalized part of your way of seeing the world.

Students, on the other hand, come to our specific disciplines and typically try to memorize as many dots as possible.  They create mnemonics to make certain clusters of dots more recognizable, practice finding dots quickly over and over before an exam, and crate long study guides covered in every possible iteration of dots to prepare for any kind of question we might throw at them.

Ultimately, our goal as teachers is to help our students see science like an expert.  Instead of partitioning body systems into concrete boxes, we hope students will understand them intuitively as interacting in a larger system aimed at homeostasis.  Instead of thinking of Newtonian physics with a series of equations, we encourage students to develop intuition about particular phenomena, based in science rather than their naive conceptions.  When approaching a calculation, we hope students will think first of what magnitude they expect their answer to be before applying an equation into the mix.

I have been blown away by how clearly this has been taught in my physics course, which uses the Physics by Inquiry curriculum developed by Lillian McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington.  Our two-week intensive has covered the topics of basic electrical circuits and the phases of the Moon – both topics that I have taught in the past – and breaks down those topics into student-led, direct inquiry lessons that build models from the ground up.

Instead of starting with equations, the curriculum encourages students to create an intuition about phenomena that rises out of observed patterns in their data.  Starting with something as simple as creating a complete circuit with a battery, a single wire, and a light bulb (Guess what? There’s 4 different ways to do it!), the curriculum builds an intuitive, qualitative model of electrical current and voltage.  Only after the groundwork is laid and set – a good 30+ hours of instructional time into the unit – does anything like Ohm’s law enter into play.  By then, it’s almost a given!

I cannot recommend this curriculum enough.  Even going through one of the units yourself is an eye-opening experience for any science teacher.

After completing this course, with its many “aha” moments in both teaching and physics, I have been energized to dig into the literature and see what other curriculum planning tools and constructed curricula exist for teaching science effectively.  Specifically, as someone teaching human biology for the first time, I wonder how these same research tools could be applied to teaching that much less mathematical and systematic discipline.  More on what I’ve dug up from the MSU library in future posts!