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The Importance of Discussing Wrong Student Ideas+ #59

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“Knowing the right answer requires no decision, carries no risk and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless. Any wrong idea that is corrected provides far more depth than if one never had a wrong idea to begin with.” -Eleanor Duckworth, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education, in her essay ‘The Having of Wonderful Ideas’

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The Importance of Discussing Wrong Ideas in the Classroom


Upcoming Events

The Importance of Discussing Wrong Ideas in the Classroom

In this post, Sapna Shah, Academic Dean at the GenWise Summer Program at Manipal University that ended on May 29, 2022, shares GenWise mentor, Sukanya Sinha’s post on her experience with an unplanned spontaneous learning experience with young school students. The deeper learning that happened through digging into a wrong idea is striking!

Last week, GenWise mentor, Sukanya Sinha, shared a beautiful post on Facebook about how students in her Scientific Inquiry course at the 2022 Manipal Summer Camp were “figuring things out!” 

Her post reminded me of one of my favorite books on teaching and learning, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” by Eleanor Duckworth. (We shared an extract from an essay of the same name in this book in this earlier post- How to get children to have wonderful ideas)

According to Professor Duckworth, “teaching is about helping people learn, NOT telling them what you already know.” Sukanya’s post is closely linked to Professor Duckworth’s pedagogical approach known as critical exploration. Here the classroom experience is almost entirely driven by the learner with the curriculum adapting to the students as they engage with materials to build new levels of understanding. There are two aspects to critical exploration: 


Setting up learning experiences such that students are directly engaging with the learning materials 


Listening to the learners as they explain their thinking

These 2 aspects are illustrated clearly in Sukanya’s Facebook post which is reproduced below.

An exploration of water flow rate through a paper napkin

I was a teaching assistant for a few engineering physics courses for undergraduates while I was a graduate student. As I was grading papers , I came across a student’s paper with rather interesting responses to questions. He was obviously clueless about the whole course, had not studied at all and did not know any of the basic formulas. However, this did not make him shy away from answering the questions.  In response to a problem which asked, “What is the final equilibrium temperature?” he wrote – “ Very hot”. In response to “What is the height to which the ball will rise?“ he wrote “Very high!” In spite of his originality, I had to give him a zero, since “very high” does not have any place in physics, if you do not at least qualify it with high compared to what, or give a quantitative measure with units. 

In contrast, I heard that the three year old son of a Professor at the Indian Institute of Science had been indoctrinated into the quantitative mode of thinking so early in life, that he would not allow any loose statements to be made around him. A visitor to his home had casually remarked that something was very large, and was promptly interrogated by the child asking “large compared to what?” 

Last week I spent a few days with a bunch of middle school children doing simple experiments and talking about science. One of the experiments we did was to transfer water from one glass to another via a paper towel. One end of the scrunched up paper towel was dipped into the glass full of water and the water climbed up the tissue paper to eventually drip into the other empty glass. 

Now, the interesting thing about this is that if they had read about it in a book or watched a time lapse video on youtube, which some of them had, they would have had no feel about the rate at which the water climbs or drips. 

As the water climbed up the towel, one of the kids declared with great excitement , “I think water is being transferred at the rate of 1 ml/second!” I was glad that he ventured a guess and tried to associate a number with his gut feeling. We then sat together with the rest of the class to analyze whether his guess was reasonable.  

About forty minutes had passed since the start of the experiment, and not a single drop had fallen into the empty glass yet. I asked the child to figure out how much water will be transferred in an hour at his conjectured rate. He quickly figured out that 3.6 litres would be transferred, and he himself realized that that doesn’t seem right. We had started out with about 150 ml of water, and this would imply that the entire water will be transferred in less than 3 min. I suspect that the child said 1ml/sec because both 1 ml and 1 sec seem small quantities, and he saw the water climbing very slowly, hence this must represent a slow rate…but a small quantity in the denominator messes up that intuition. 

Then the first drop of water fell. The kids did a loud countdown before that and there was a big round spontaneous applause in the room when the drop finally left the tissue. One child quickly recorded the time of fall on the board. 44 minutes since the experiment began. Another child declared that now a new calculation of rate was required. The data showed one drop in 44 minutes! That immediately led to a debate on estimating the volume of a water drop. Children came up with different estimates from various points of view, and it was agreed upon that it would be about .01 ml. That would make the rate 0.000004 ml/sec! that was a million times smaller than the original guess. 

While this was being debated, another drop fell and then another.. Children rushed to the board to record the times for the second, third and fourth drop. This time they were separated by tens of  seconds. The children were puzzled. Now the rate seemed to be much greater. So which is the correct rate? Should they take an average of the times separating the drops and then calculate the rate?  Does it make sense to include 44 minutes in the average alongside the other readings in seconds? Is it okay to exclude it? What is the correct way to quantify the rate? Why is the rate increasing after the first drop? Will a uniform rate correctly capture the process? All these questions arose following their observations. 

The interesting thing is that I did not plan the session to go in this direction. The questions and the idea of recording times came from the children themselves.  It goes to show that a lot of learning can happen spontaneously even from a simple experiment and observations if there is ample time and freedom.

Note #1: Students estimated the volume of the water drop from the observations of an experiment done right before this. They had counted the number of water drops that would fit on a 2 rupee coin. They got about 50 water drops on the coin, and estimated the volume to be about half a teaspoon full -2.5 ml., which gave a volume of .05 ml per drop

Note #2: Children also wondered what if the tissue paper is replaced by an ordinary A4 sheet? Or, by a cloth? Unfortunately they did not have time to try it out, but they promised to go home and try. They did feel that A4 paper would perform the poorest, but I told them they must try it out and give a concrete comparison with the tissue.”

End Notes

As we notice in the above example, learner’s in Sukanya’s class are directly engaging with the learning material and the authority in the class is the subject matter, NOT the teacher. Sukanya had faith in the subject matter and the power of her students’ minds. This helped students get to the heart of the matter – how do we quantify certain phenomena? 

Her post highlights how deeply engrossed the students were in figuring this out! This is extremely powerful given research on student engagement shows that as students move to higher grades engagement decreases! This is not just because the learning experience is  carefully set up to help students uncover a topic but also because Sukanya showcased deep interest in her students’ thoughts and listened as they worked through their own confusion. Even though it is not obvious from her post I am certain that the more interest Sukanya showed in her students’ thoughts and questions, the more interested they became in their own thinking. Duckworth states that learners thrive when a teacher is interested in their questions and thoughts. They become more willing – even eager- to take their thoughts deeply into the subject matter through their own explorations. 

In conclusion, I wish more students and teachers have this exhilarating experience where both students and teachers can explore the power of their own mind!

Upcoming Events

1)How do animals behave? This week’s edition of ‘Talk to a Scientist’ features Dr. Vishwesha Guttal from IISc Bangalore. On Sat, Jun 11, 2022 at 5 PM IST for children from ages 6-16. Register here.

Questions like the below will be explored in the session-


Why do flocks of birds fly in a V formation?


Why do fish swim in groups?


How do animals communicate?

How do they keep predators at bay?

2)The Industrial Revolution and the Global Environment, 1780-???? on Thursday, 16 June, 2022, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m (IST). In this talk in the Krea University Lecture Series, Prof John McNeill explores ecological consequences of industrialisation, focusing not on the industrialised landscapes, but on zones around the world that supplied ever-larger quantities of the ingredients of industrialisation, including fibers, ores and lubricants. Borrowing the concept of “teleconnections” from atmospheric science, Prof McNeill conceptualises the ecological relationships between industrialising core regions and the natural world in places such as northern Argentina, the US and Canadian prairies, New Zealand, Lebanon, the Niger Delta, East Africa’s savannas, Borneo, and the high seas.

Attend via https://krea-edu-in.zoom.us/j/89454060209… Meeting ID: 894 5406 0209

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