Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Teachers Listen, Students Talk: The lesson from PRIVATE UNIVERSE, the documentary from the 1980s about the PERSISTENT private theories of students

Students have persistent theories about how the world works.   Asa math teacher, I find some "imaginative" private talk when I ask students to show me their work and talk me through how they talk themselves through a problem.

I learned to LISTEN to my students and watch how they lecture to each other because I watched this powerful and engaging documentary that the Annenburg Foundation funded in the 1980s.   IT is called "The Private Universe" because students carry a view of the world that persists even after they have gone through school.

See the website:

You can find this world view by asking Harvard graduates to explain the mechanism of the seasons and the phases of the moon.   That's the first four minutes of this video.

Here is the part that teachers will benefit from.  Just patiently watch the segment from 6 minutes to the end (about 3 minutes).  It is painful to watch.
6:30  The teacher: "I hope she will tell you what she knows."
Heather:   The earth doesn't go in a circle.  

Heather talks about the beams being indirect and so we experience summer
indirect beams cause summer

"It doesn't go in a straight line"

Heather's private theories contradict the teachings of elementary science (minute 8)

Heather:  "The rays from the sun come around the earth and illuminate that part of the moon because of the earth's shadow.   (how the moon forms a sickle shape)

Teacher:  You assume that they know certain things.  Even the day that I taught it, I assumed that they had the basic idea and they don't.   Heather's teacher was unaware of the student's private theories.   (from minute 8:30)

In his commentaries about education, Dr. Fischler describes the "discrepant event."   The teacher should introduce information that challenges the child to think about the world.   The new information should conflict with the private universe and cause the child to wrestle with the new information.  This takes time.   It takes discussion and projects to elicit the errors and the steps in the child's thinking.  

When students work together in small groups on projects, they become self-motivated, interested in the problem that they are working on, and learn to help one another by sharing responsibilities.
The CAI approach delivers the needed level of comprehension. Jean Piaget says that we redefine a concept every time we meet a discrepant event: An event for the learner that does not fit the concept that he already has. As a result, the learner has to go through questions: “Did that really exist?” “How do I modify the concept to accommodate the new information?”
Students go through this when they learn that electrons might not be particles. Electrons act more like clouds in certain circumstances.


In order to do new things, they have a concept of what ought to be. But now they are confronted with a surprise, something that does not fit. That is the discrepant event. Then the individual has to go through assimilation, asking, “Does that really happen? Is that real? What is true? What am I seeing or what have I been told? What did I expect to happen?”...and then it did not happen. Then, the student has to go through the process of accommodation, and modify his mental concept to take into account something that occurred which they did not expect. Then they are at equilibrium, and they are content again, until the next discrepant event is introduced. When you talk to children, you have to know their level of comprehension, so you know what information needs to be provided to help them develop and become more knowledgeable. The individual learner must experience these steps. The teacher introduces the discrepant event, and first the learners assimilate and then accommodate the information.
If the student does not have the basic comprehension, you will miss the mark – the information that you think is a discrepant event will “go over his head.” For example, you can tell a six-year-old that the earth is rotating on its axis at a rate of 25,000 miles per day, and this phenomenon is what creates day and night. Why don't we feel it? But, if you were in an automobile and you put your hand out the window, you would feel that force.
With a six-year-old, you are going too fast. You do better by starting with “day is when the sun is out” and “night is when the sun is hidden.” You can ask, “Why is the night dark? What gives light to the moon?” You can give a six-year-old a bit of this, but he does not really understand this concept.
After introducing a discrepant event, we need to give the student time to process the information.
We tend to start with what the child can observe. Science for grades 1 to 3, the focus should be on “what can you see?”

Explaining that the earth is turning is not going to foster understanding in younger students. Rather, wait until they begin to ask you about rotation. However, not all students will be ready to ask you at the same developmental time. Some require more time, others less, but these concepts should be taught around their proximal zone of development rather than on an arbitrary schedule that inevitably prevents some students from being able to grasp the information.
From Dr. Fischler's book -- you can get a free copy by visiting and you can see excerpts at

This is why Dr. Fischler uses the phrase, "Time is a variable."

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