"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, October 18, 2013

What You Think You Know....

Science is not a matter of opinion. Its main procedure, the scientific method, starts from a testable hypothesis. This is followed by a careful design of the experiment that will either prove or disprove the hypothesis. A group of these verified hypotheses can form a coherent and self-supporting understanding of nature which in science is called a theory. The method, without doubt, is objective. "Let reality speak for itself."

Science education is dogmatic. Nature is a dictator. Some may find these statements offensive but realistically, in science there are correct answers and there are wrong answers. There is knowledge and there is misconception. In basic education, learning science depends so much on the quality of information students are given. The quality depends for the most part on the teacher. Recent research in the field of science education points to the importance of not just having teachers who are masters of the subjects they are teaching, but also having teachers who are aware of what their students do not know. This sounds so obvious, but without the experiment, it is still a hypothesis. "The Influence of Teachers' Knowledge on Student Learning in Middle School Physical Science Classrooms", published in the American Educational Research Journal, by Philip M. Sadler and coworkers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, provides the evidence supporting the notion that science teachers not only should know their subject but must be aware of their students misconceptions. The following is the abstract:
Abstract

This study examines the relationship between teacher knowledge and student learning for 9,556 students of 181 middle school physical science teachers. Assessment instruments based on the National Science Education Standards with 20 items in common were administered several times during the school year to both students and their teachers. For items that had a very popular wrong answer, the teachers who could identify this misconception had larger classroom gains, much larger than if the teachers knew only the correct answer. On items on which students did not exhibit misconceptions, teacher subject matter knowledge alone accounted for higher student gains. This finding suggests that a teacher’s ability to identify students’ most common wrong answer on multiple-choice items, a form of pedagogical content knowledge, is an additional measure of science teacher competence.
In an earlier study, "Assessing the Life Science Knowledge of Students and Teachers Represented by the K–8 National Science Standards", by this research group, the following lack of strong correlation between student performance and teacher's performance was found: (A significant fraction of the teachers scored 100, but this does not translate to excellent performance of the students)

Above figure copied from
"Assessing the Life Science Knowledge of Students and Teachers Represented by the K–8 National Science Standards"

In analyzing further why this is the case, the researchers found that by adding one common misconception as a wrong answer in a multiple-choice question, it becomes apparent that students' misconceptions play an important role. One example of a question that this research used is the following (The correct response is (B) and the numbers enclosed in parenthesis at the end of each option is the percentage of students picking that option):
Present-day giraffes have long necks because: 
(A) they stretch them to reach the trees for food (33%). 
(B) their ancestors adapted to have long necks over time (47%). 
(C) giraffes with the longest necks are the strongest and most perfect (7%). 
(D) their neck length increases their body temperature (9%). 
(E) their neck length increases their speed (5%).
In the above specific question, a lot of students liked option (A). This can also be flagged as a "misconception" because plotted against the overall performance of the student, the response rate is not monotonic, that is, the number of students choosing the wrong option (A) does not decrease (or increase) continuously with student's overall performance. It has a hump.

Above figure copied from
"Assessing the Life Science Knowledge of Students and Teachers Represented by the K–8 National Science Standards"
Teachers being able to answer the above question can be a measure of the teacher's subject matter knowledge (SMK). Now, teachers being able to spot (A) as a wrong response likely chosen by their students can be a measure of a teacher's Knowledge of Student Misconceptions (KOSM). KOSM is therefore a new parameter that influence learning in the sciences. And the most recent study shows that KOSM does play a significant role in science education:

Above figure copied from
"The Influence of Teachers' Knowledge on Student Learning in Middle School Physical Science Classrooms"
In this sample of 9556 students, there are pupils who are having trouble in both reading and math. This fraction although small seems hopeless to teach. This highlights the importance of these basic skills especially when there are misconceptions.

Science education in the Philippines at the basic education level is currently extremely challenging. The combination of folk catholicism, superstitious culture, and a generally anti-intellectual society breeds an immense number of misconceptions. It maybe useful to collect data, similar to the one compiled by the Royal Society of Chemistry or the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, to see what the common misconceptions are, which can help prepare science teachers in Philippine schools. I am quite certain that topping that list is the belief that colds are caused by getting wet in the rain. What people think they know is one thing science has to work hard against....






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