Friday, May 06, 2005

Shut Up While I Teach You About Mass!

I promised you some Astronomy Education about a week ago, so here it finally is.

Zeilik and Morris-Dueer present an interesting review of what astronomers believe should be in an Astro 101 . But, as per usual, I have a bone to pick with the leading lights of astronomy education. They just don't jump out of the box enough for me.

The basic idea for the paper is this: The authors made a big list of every concept they could dream up that might go into an Astro 101 class, attached a Likert Scale to it, and asked a couple groups of astronomers to pick out what they thought were the most critical concepts to a class. One group they asked were "expert" astronomy educators (I'll bite my tongue on that one. You find me an expert college level astronomy educator, and I'll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn. Yeah, some people have been doing it for awhile, but expert?) And the other group appeared to be a bunch of random astronomy educators at a AAPT meeting. It's interesting to note (down in the appendix) their agreement on the fundemental concepts of Astro 101 classes.

Zeilik and Morris-Dueer also do this interesting cognitive mapping deal to see what the brain patterns of the "expert" educators are. They draw out some sort of concept map (even though it's not a concept map) to show how the experts are thinking about their class. Apparently, there are four main nodes about electromagnetic spectrum/photons, stars, mass, and cosmology. Even though one would have been naively able to come to the same conclusion, it is nice that they actually did the research and laid it all out.

And so there we have it, but what does it mean for the rest of us.

Any fool could tell you that the EM spectrum is vitally important to most instructors. There is always a chapter about EM radiation in all intro astronomy books, and there is almost always a section on the topic on professors' syllabi. However, the cognitive map thingy would seem to imply that this is a dumb way to go about teaching astronomy. The cognitive map thingy shows that EM radiation is buried under a complex net of other topics and subjects. It isn't approached by the instructor's mind directly, it is approached through any number of different contexts.

In the author's (MZ) comments about his own teaching, you can see this is the case.

I also do not cover astronomical technology as such, but do examine results (many of the cooperative learning team activities are based on real data.

(Don't I just love a blockquote these days?)

The author doesn't teach about decontextualized telescopes and the properties of mirrors, he actually goes ahead and uses (fake) telescopes to get data and then is able to bring the cognitive web back in on how telescopes and the EM spectrum might be useful to astronomy.

Another quote:

These ideas imply that a novice's knowledge structure will be simple and contain misconceptions (Goldsmith, Johnson, & Acton 1991), and that as novices become more knowledgeable during a course, their representations will become more structured overall and more similar to the expert consensus.

Exactly. But simply because the novice's structure contains misconception is no reason to simplify the whole structure for them. Let them develop misconceptions and then try help them figure out how they're wrong. These are adults we're talking about here.

If we want to teach that ideas in astronomy are deeply connected, then we best show that they are through our teaching. This is why all the workshop based classes work. The idea that connections are important is actually taught, and thus the idea that connections are important is actually learned.

It'd just be nice if the authors called out bad astronomy teaching for what it is.

One further note. If you go scrolling through the list of topics that the instructors were asked to evaluate, you'll find one big omission. There ain't nothing there about the structure of science. There's one entry about scientific models, but nothing else. Thankfully, the scientific model one scored fairly high in both groups, but it really does say something about how Astro 101 classes approach the basic principals of science. They don't. They worry about teaching the decontextualized foci of their web instead of showing the whole web.

At the risk of redundancy, teach the web!


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