real learning

In the early 1980s, two physicists at Arizona State University wanted to know whether a typical introductory physics course, with its traditional emphasis on Newton’s laws of motion, changed the way students thought about motion.

They gave the test to people entering the classes of four different physics professor, all good teachers, according to both colleagues and their students.

Did the course change student thinking? Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists gave their examination once more and discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought. Even many “A” students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they had interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.

The conducted individual interviews with some of the people who continued to reject Newton’s perspectives to see if they could dissuade them from their misguided assumptions. The students performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid confronting and revising the fundamental underlying principles that guided their understanding of the physical universe.

Those physics students who made A’s yet failed to grasp anything about Newtonian concepts had not rebuilt their mental models about motion. They had merely learned to plug numbers into formulae without experiencing an expectation failure with the universes they imagined in their minds. They took all they heard from their professors and simply wrapped it around some pre-existing model of how motion works.

Perhaps because they were focused on grades rather than on understanding the physical universe, they didn’t care enough to grapple with their own ideas and build new paradigms of reality.

Ken Bain,  What the Best Teachers Do