Is there something more important than our teaching style?

Knowing what they know (or think they know) before teaching them

There is a huge debate, and rightly so, about pedagogical approaches – traditional vs progressive etc.  We all want what is best for our young people, but why are the views so entrenched? Why is there so little consensus that there may be value in both sides of the argument?

In the ‘The Righteous Mind’ Jonathan Haidt argues that we are not reasonable rational people, instead we follow our emotions then look to justify our actions or thoughts. 

An extract from the NY Times review full article here 

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

I’m not going to jump into the pedagogical debate, other than to say that in science teaching I believe there is a place for direct instruction and a place for experimental learning leading to discovery. But fundamentally if we don’t take the student’s starting point into account, neither will lead to effective learning

Science, particularly physics, is a challenging subject to teach, not because the concepts are that difficult, but because students come into our lessons with a set of beliefs about how the world works, most of which, unfortunately, are wrong.

If Haidt’s arguments are correct, and there is as in all of these things considerable dispute, its not enough to change someones belief system simply with a rational argument. How often do we see peoples views changed in debates? 

“Thats a very good point I hadn’t thought of that, I was wrong” is not something we hear, if anything views become more entrenched when challenged.

This becomes a particular issue when when trying to teach concepts that seem to defy what we believe.

An example 

Monkey and the hunter

A hunter spies a monkey in a tree, takes aim, and fires. At the moment the bullet leaves the gun the monkey lets go of the tree branch and drops straight down. How should the hunter aim to hit the monkey?

1.Aim directly at the monkey

2.Aim high (over the monkey’s head)

3.Aim low (below the monkey)


With my students I get them to put their left hand up if they think 1, both

hands for 2 and right hand for 3. Then if there is a disagreement they find

someone with their hands in a different position to themselves and argue.

At this point I only listen

Most people choose the third choice – Aim below the monkey as this

seems to make sense “I’m shooting something that is falling so I need to

aim under it.

However the answer is 1 – Aim directly at the monkey 

The reason for this is that both are falling at the same rate due to gravity. It

doesn’t seem to make sense. A bullet fired horizontally and one

simultaneously dropped from the same height hit the ground at the same

time. This is counterintuitive so the only way to convince people is to

demonstrate it.

full explanation here

Another example

Touch the metal of a chair leg and the plastic of the chair. Are they different temperatures?

Again the vast majority of students will say yes. They feel different so they must be different.

A massive misconception that needs to be addressed before we teach heat transfer (Ideas on teaching heat transfer here ) so stick some thermometers on them and prove it

Then give this example

I’m putting some ice cubes on a metal and a plastic lid. Which will melt faster? The ‘metal is colder’ people will not be able to explain the result using their belief system.

We are looking at bringing our students into conscious competence, from wherever they may have been before. If we don’t know what they knew, we are in danger of simply adding to misconceptions.


All too often though we can simply bring them from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – Is this progress? Is it an inevitable part of learning? 

I have had some lessons like this where the students came in thinking they knew something and left knowing they didn’t get it. This isn’t a problem unless you dont follow it up thoroughly 

So how do we know what they know?

Without using technology give them a post it note and ask them to write what they think. Some students I taught in a  very high achieving school struggled with this asking me if they could look it up or ask someone else – ‘I don’t want the right answer I want to know what you think!’ 

In the example below I was teaching a one off lesson to a year 10 class and I wanted to know what they thought happened when you switched a light bulb on. 

The students wrote their ideas on the post it note then stuck it on one of the confidence windows labelled high med and low.

Most of the students were low to medium with a couple putting high. One of the high confidence ones had a vey poor understanding and this is the most dangerous combination.

For student A she had in her head that there were positive electrons (as opposed to positive electrodes) so she thought she heard me say positive electrons. The marks you see are from a buddy who did a pre flight checklist from Dylan Wiliam outlined  here. You can see that the buddy hasn’t tried to get her to change her mind and hands it in not corrected.

Student A

Id be interested if anyone has any other comments – please add to the blog post

For physics teachers 

The format of this lesson was find out what they know on a post it note. Use it to inform your lesson planning.

Show them the big circuit which has a two bulbs connected in parallel one has a very long loop and the other a very short loop . Will the bulbs light at the same time? 

Yes they do! How can that be?  the electrons move very slowly through the wires.

This leads into the rope model that explains how this can happen.

Discuss other concepts

Students get their post it notes and stick them into their books 

What do you know now? A great way of showing progress!

Teaching electricity an interesting Prezi from the great Jon Clarke here

with reference to the Institute of Physics  SPT materials here 

2 thoughts on “Is there something more important than our teaching style?

  1. I’m trying to connect the first section with the second. Where do you get the idea that our interpretations of direct experience are somehow less subject to bias than our response to rational arguments?

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