Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Private Universe Project in Science

Workshop Two: "Why Are Some Ideas So Difficult?

Section 1 - About Workshop Two:
"Why Are Some Ideas So Difficult?"


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What is the theme of this workshop?
The theme of Workshop Two is "discovering the scope of student ideas".

Whom do we see in the video?
Jon, a seventh-grade student, is interviewed before and after a traditional lesson on photosynthesis. Bob Holden, Jon's teacher, watches the video of Jon's interviews, discovering that Jon's problems in biology concern his confusion about the physics and chemistry of matter and energy. Jon also has no concept of energy and the relationship of energy to chemical changes. He seems to be missing the concept that chemical changes may either require an input of energy or may release energy.

What happens in the video?
Interviews with Jon suggest that teaching can be more effective when the full scope of a student's ideas are considered.

What problem does this workshop address?
Photosynthesis is among the most widely taught of all concepts in biology. Why, then, do many people have difficulty grasping the central idea of photosynthesis-that most of the substance of plants comes from the air?

What teaching strategy does this workshop offer?
Among many possibilities to help students reflect on their own thinking, we offer such techniques as concept mapping and journal keeping.



Section 2 - "Why Are Some Ideas So Difficult?"


A. The Goals for Workshop Two

"Why Are Some Ideas So Difficult?" is for any teacher interested in and committed to helping students overcome persistent barriers to learning.

Even though this video focuses on a middle school biology student, teachers of all subjects and all grade levels will gain new insights into science learning in the classroom.

One of the purposes of this video is to provoke discussion on the topic of building curricula around difficult concepts in science. After viewing this videotape, you may want to discuss the following issues:


Workshop Discussion

How can curriculum developers create classroom units and lessons that account for the full scope of student ideas? What ideas need to be taught? At what age? What's missing from the standard curricula that you know about? Often the ideas established prior to and outside the teaching of a subject block learning. How can this problem be addressed in the classroom?

For instance, the student in the video has trouble understanding photosynthesis because of his belief that air has no weight. An understanding that air is made of invisible particles with weight is usually a topic for a chemistry or a physics lesson, and a lack of this understanding prevents the student from learning an idea in biology.


B. Challenges

There is a tendency for parents and others to blame teachers when students don't learn. It is important to realize that teachers do not cause learning. This video is about understanding how a student learns as the shift in focus goes from teaching to learning.

In this video, we show Bob Holden, a fourth grade teacher at a suburban middle school. If we had unlimited time to show Bob's thoughts, preparation, and teaching, it would be clear to everyone that he is an exemplary professional. Unfortunately, we have only a limited amount of time for the entire workshop. Here are several questions that relate directly to the video.

Workshop Discussion After Viewing Video

What problems do teachers face in the classroom? Even though Bob started this process with a high degree of skills, talent, and experience, what positive changes did Bob experience? What aspects of Jon's class were typical of how you might treat this subject? What aspects of Jon's class differed from how you might treat this subject?



Section 3 - Exercises

A. Exercises: Responding to Workshop Two


Workshop Activity

  1. Devise a simple explanation, demonstration, or activity for understanding how plants convert carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground into food through photosynthesis.
  3. Invent a way that allows even the skeptical students to convince themselves that the air does, indeed, have mass/weight. Whenever possible, allow students to test the idea.


B. Exercise: Preparing for Workshop Three

As workshop participants, you will get the greatest benefit from the next workshop if you complete the following exercise:


Pre-Workshop Activity for Workshop Three

Ask students, family, colleagues, and/or friends how they would light a light bulb with nothing more than a battery, wire, and the bulb. Have them draw diagrams to illustrate their explanations.


Section 4 - Educational Strategy

A. Concept Maps

What is a concept map?

A concept map is a diagram showing the relationships between things or ideas. In technical terms, each thing or idea in the map is called a "concept" and each relationship is called a "proposition." In a concept map, the concepts (ideas) are placed in boxes and the propositions (relationships) are indicated by lines connecting the boxes. A very simple concept map could have two boxes connected by a single line.

For instance, in order to make a concept map of the sentence "The sky is blue." we first put the words "sky" and "blue" in boxes. (See diagrams at right.)

Then we connect the boxes with a line labeled "is."

This concept map represents the meaning of the sentence "The sky is blue." Most concept maps are more complex than the above example. Some of them are much more complex.

The power of a concept map lies in its ability to externalize--or make visible--the thinker's thoughts. By making a concept map, you are providing a window into your thought processes for others as well as for yourself. Often, the process of making a concept map stimulates the map maker to recognize new relationships between concepts and find new meanings in ideas. In this way it can be a kind of visual "thinking out loud."


What are the uses of concept maps?

Concept maps and concept mapping activities can be powerful tools for teaching, learning, and assessment. Here are some examples of each use.

  1. Concept maps for teaching

A teacher can include concept mapping in planning instruction. By making a concept map of a particular topic, such as "photosynthesis," the teacher can decide which concepts are the most important to include, what the relationships are between the key concepts, which concepts depend on an understanding of other ideas, and the best order in which to present the key concepts.

By first having students create concept maps of how they understand a topic, the teacher can infer the state of their initial knowledge. The teacher then has a better idea of which aspects of a lesson to emphasize and is free from depending solely on assumptions of the students' needs. In addition, the process of concept mapping can stimulate students to a more sophisticated understanding of a topic even before it is presented in class.

  1. Concept maps for learning

In the course of creating a concept map, a student may develop new relationships between concepts. The student may be able to recognize and address logical problems in a previous way of thinking. As a result, the student may find new meanings in old ideas. In this way, making a concept map can be a creative activity.

  1. Concept maps for assessment

Students' concept maps can provide clear pictures into their thinking and understanding. A teacher can use concept maps made by students at different points to track learning and development. A concept map made at the end of a lesson can give a teacher a wealth of information at a glance. How many of the target concepts did the student include? How accurate are the relationships between the concepts? How complex or simplistic is the student's understanding of the topic? How many levels of relationship and cross-connections did the student recognize? Few assessment tools can provide so much information in such a compact package.


How are concept maps made?

A good concept map can be made in a relatively few steps.

  1. Identify and list the key concepts in the topic to be mapped.
  2. Organize the key concepts with the most general ones at the top of the list and the most specific ones at the bottom. (Put each into a separate "box.") Maps should take on a hierarchical, triangular form.
  3. Add words and lines linking the concept boxes to make statements about the ideas.
  4. Look for cross-links between concepts on different parts of the map.
  5. Revise the map until it accurately represents your thinking.
  6. If available, use computer software to construct a concept map. (Macflow is a program that does this.)

Adapted from Novak, Joseph D. and D. Bob Gowin. 1984. Learning How To Learn. Cambridge University Press.



Section 5 - Resources


Companies, publications, and organizations named in this guide represent a cross-section of such entities. We do not endorse any companies, publications, or organizations, nor should any endorsement be inferred from a listing in this guide. Descriptions of such entities are for reference purposes only. We have provided this information to help locate materials and information.


A. Materials for the Classroom

Other than the CLIS materials from the University of Leeds, which we have used, we can not attest to the quality of the resources in this list.

Insta-Ice Machine: Produces solid dry ice blocks in 60 seconds.

Order from:
Polyfoam Packers Corporation
2320 Foster Avenue
Wheeling, IL 60090-6572

CLIS (Children Learning In Science). Research Group Publications

Aspects of Secondary Students' Understanding of Plant Nutrition and Chemistry.
Business Secretary
CSSME (Center for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education)
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT

Concepts in Science consists of 17 miniseries specifically developed for use in biology, chemistry, and physics courses at the high school level. Each mini-series of six 10-minute programs uses computer generated animation and concludes with a brief summary of the material covered.

Photosynthesis: 6 programs/10 minutes (high school advanced biology) 3-D computer animation shows the dynamic process of photosynthesis at the molecular level.

Films for the Humanities and Sciences
11 Perrine Road
Monmouth Junction, NJ 08852
For additional information
1-800-331-9566 or
Fax: 919-380-0961

Ardley, Neil. (1991). The Science Book of Things That Grow. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich Publishers.

Harcourt Brace Janovich Publishers

VanCleave, Janice. (1993). A+ Projects In Biology: Winning Experiments for Science Fairs and Extra Credit. New York: John Wiley & Sons. (paperback, 217 pages, $12.95)

John Wiley & Sons, Inc

SemNet Plus - Professional version. For creating large nets with multimedia attachments. Advanced editing features

Available from:
SemNet Research Group
1043 University Avenue
San Diego, CA 92103


SemNet 1.1 Academic - Student version. All basic features for creating and making small nets. Can view multimedia attachments

Available from Intellimation: 1-800-346-8353


SemNet 1.1 Shareware - Trial version. All basic features for creating and viewing small nets

Available from the Internet or by sending a diskette & self-addressed stamped envelope to the SemNet Research Group


B. Further Reading on Photosynthesis

Amir, R., and P. Tamir. 1994. In-depth analysis of misconceptions as a basis for developing research-based remedial instruction: The case of photosynthesis. The American Biology Teacher 56(2): 94-100.

Novak, J. D. and D.B. Gowin. 1984. Learning How to Learn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roth, K. J. and C. Anderson. 1985. The Power Plant: Teacher's Guide. East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University.

Roth, K. J. , C.W. Anderson., R. Hollon., and T. Blakeslee. 1985. The Power Cell. East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University.

Tourtellotte, S.W. 1990. Biology and chemistry combine in photosynthesis: An interdisciplinary focus on a natural occurrence. Journal of College Science Teaching 19(5): 287-291.

Wandersee, J.H. 1986. "Plants or animals: Which do junior high school students prefer to study?" Journal of Research in Science Teaching 23(5): 415-426.

Wandersee, J.H. 1983. What research says: The concept of "away." Science and Children 21(2): 47-49.


C. Bibliography on Photosynthesis

Barker, M. and M. Carr. 1989a. "Teaching and learning about photosynthesis. Part I: An assessment in terms of students' prior knowledge." International Journal of Science Education 11: 49-56.

Barker, M. and M. Carr. 1986b. "Teaching and learning about photosynthesis. Part II: A generative learning strategy." International Journal of Science Education 11: 141-152.

Eisen, Y. and R. Stavy. 1988. "Students' understanding of photosynthesis." American Biology Teacher 50: 208-212.

Smith, E. and C. Anderson. 1984. "Plants and producers: A case study of elementary science teaching." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 21(7): 685-698.

Roth, K., E. Smith, and C. Anderson. 1983. Students' conceptions of photosynthesis and food for plants. East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University.

Stavy, R., Y. Eisen, and D. Yaakobi. 1989. "How students aged 13-15 understand photosynthesis." International Journal of Science Education 9: 105-115.

Wandersee, J.H. 1983. "Students' misconceptions about photosynthesis: a cross-age study." In Helm, H. and J. Novak. Proceedings of the International Seminar on Misconceptions in Science and Mathematics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.


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