Aarons Strikes Again

Apparently, implementing standards based grading doesn’t leave me a lot of time for reflection (aka blogging). I really want to change that, so consider this my first reassessment attempt on the “Share your work with others.” standard.

I was recently reading through Teaching Introductory Physics by Arnold Aarons as I began the AP physics unit on momentum. The book is fantastic and filled with not only the insights of a career educator, but the results of his research into physics education. As I begin a new unit in one of my classes, I usually pull it down and read over the appropriate section. The advice that Aarons dispenses serves to keep me on the lookout for those common conceptual misunderstandings students have and how to spot them.

During this reading, I came across the following passage:

” Many of the better students are very uneasy and feel that something is missing, but they fail to pursue the issue for fear of appearing ‘stupid’; weaker students simply memorize without comprehension.”

I’m thinking about how the above students appear to a teacher. “Weaker” students would be those that do well on many traditional assessments. They are good at memorization and can repeat knowledge back easily. Their problems are mirror images of the examples we provide and by many traditional measures would be the top performers. The “better” students, as described by Aarons, would appear to be floundering, confused and they would avoid asking questions or offering their thoughts, because those around them seem to get it. These don’t sound like the qualities we typically associate with “better” students.

What I take from Aarons’ words is the idea that we need to understand the motive behind the behavior of our students. What we’ve perceived as struggling students in the past may be those who are working the hardest and thinking the most about the ideas that we teach, while those students who most easily repeat our words back to us may have only a cursory understanding. Physics isn’t always an easy topic and the students we are teaching are only now taking their first careful look at the world and how it behaves. We need to encourage them to ask their own questions, while making sure that our own questions challenge them to explain how they know what they know.

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