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My daughter and I just went to see Particle Fever. What a lovely, well-done movie; emotional, exciting, filled with well-spoken scientists talking about their passion. By far my favorite part was near the end, when images of European cave paintings are superimposed with images of equations on a chalkboard.

Huh?

Bear with me, because the metaphor is beautiful and deep. Our ancestors wanted to understand the world. They painted gorgeous, intricate, carefully considered images of the natural world as they saw it – horses, rhinos, lions. They were expressing a deep need to connect with this world into which we find ourselves thrown. They were the dragon hunters, the myth makers, the dreamers of dreams.

Image

Today physicists scribble chalk on a chalkboard, or ink on paper, or electrons on a screen. But the goal is the same. They want to understand. They want to connect. They want to grasp something of what this world is. Not just for survival, but because they are driven by an urge, one they don’t understand and perhaps are not even aware of, to know. What’s under that rock? What’s in the next valley? What’s on the backside of the Moon? What is the world made of?

higgs decay

Some of the physicists in the movie expressed concern, even fear, that what they uncover might not be so beautiful, might lead in the end to disappointment. Nonsense. It isn’t the facts that matter. It’s that we, a stack of walking meat with senses that often mislead us and that at their best barely get us through the day, have nonetheless grasped something of how the universe works. We did that. People. The most significant phenomenon in the universe. We can understand.

Today’s particle physicists are the dragon hunters. They are the makers of myth. They go to that dark place Joseph Campbell talks about and pull the beast out into the light. I can’t wait to see what they discover next.

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I’m often reminded of the importance of teaching gently – usually when I’m on the receiving end of less-than-gentle teaching myself. It makes me want to explain (gently, of course) why such teaching is so destructive, and to┬áredouble my own efforts to teach gently myself.

I remember myself in far too much less-than-gentle teaching. Science teachers are trained from the crib to hate and detest that most evil of memes, the misconception. I’ve been just as evangelical as anyone else at times. But I see the world differently now. Misconceptions are models of the world, and all our models are imperfect. We are always at the beginning of infinity.

Think about what that means! It means that every time we teach, of necessity we teach misconceptions. They are unavoidable, because all our knowledge is filled with them. Every time we teach, we are helping our learners to create castles of the mind, structures that never before existed, structures that are as unique and individual as each of our learners. This act of creation, imperfect and messy, is to be celebrated.

And sure, much of learning involves un-learning our misconceptions (and replacing them with better misconceptions). This is as true for the Kindergartner as it is for the practicing physicist.

Science teaching (and maybe all teaching, I’ll have to give that one some more thought) is all about metaphor. We link the unknown to the known, we build on existing (imperfect) knowledge. Too often, I think, the fear of misconception prevents the exploration of metaphor. Too often, metaphors are loaded down with caveats and equivocations. If all teachers would embrace the fact that no matter what they teach they are teaching misconceptions, and if we imbued our learners with this knowledge, and a deep skepticism as well, think of how far we might go.

Embrace misconception! It is the path to even better misconception.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
April 2014
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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