Saturday, May 10, 2014

Making Misconceptions Visible

Learning occurs when misconceptions are revealed, addressed and overcome.  For this to happen, teachers must be comfortable and patient to first surface those misconceptions then do the challenging work of probing student thinking to help guide them to their error and a path toward a clearer, more correct understanding.

At Camarena Elementary, teachers are embracing this approach by exposing student error front and center and questioning the student's faulty thinking, engaging in whole class dialogue to bridge the gap between current misconceptions and the target skill or concept.  I observed this a few weeks ago in Kirsten Mena's class where she masterfully accepted a student's erroneous thinking in math and led the class to gently and respectfully probe that wrong answer until the student in question finally raised his hand to state, "I respectfully disagree with myself..."  Brilliant!  This is far superior to simply correcting error and giving the student the right answer.  Comprehension and understanding are highly doubtful in that second example.

This exchange reminded me of an example in Bob Sutton's book Scaling Up Excellence.  He relayed a story of someone touring an engineers meeting at Google where there was vigorous debate about the merits of some particular course of action where higher level Google employees were questioning and being challenged by lower level engineers on this particular project.  In the end, the senior executive had been persuaded and he stated, "I now strongly disagree with myself".

From Google to Camarena Elementary, the environment where ideas are debated and challenged can only lead to more learning and deeper understanding.  When misconceptions are left unchallenged and left alone, students will remain in the dark and will have something worse than the wrong answer.  They will think that their wrong answer is actually the right answer and will go on practicing error in happy oblivion!  So, find those misconceptions, bring them into the light and lead your students to problem solve, probe, and reason until they are able to justify clearly and precisely the thinking you are pursuing.

What do you think?  How do you create an atmosphere of healthy debate and helpful critique?