Monday, March 31, 2014

Learning through analogies

This past week did not start out well.

 On Monday I covered for an absent teacher by teaching a super-sized class as I included his students with the ones that were scheduled to meet with me. To make matters worse, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we had heat under repair, which made my usual lab uninhabitable and I taught in a multipurpose area, without even a whiteboard.

 So, I hit the last part of the week feeling like a bad teacher. My students had been replicating the work of three greats in chemistry-- Thomson, Rutherford and Chadwick. The lab was analogous to the real apparatus, and I thought they were barely getting it. Such moments in the classroom make me feel like I am trying to move the planets into orbit with my mind.

 But then they got it! After working with the analogous process for the past couple of weeks, and gamely and rather happily doing everything I asked while not actually understanding why they were doing it, I felt over twenty minds make a quantum leap. (Had to use that metaphor-- I'm teaching chemistry at the moment, after all.)

 I loved this post by Anne Murphy Paul about making smart analogies. So many of the examples she gives are from science- in fact, scientists successfully form ideas by speaking in analogies all the time. Part of the frustration my students felt comes from not being able to see what they are learning about right now. Learning through discovery can be harder than just drawing pictures or writing down definitions, even though discovery is more engaging. Students have to translate the experience into words in order to process what they learned-- and also to help me know that they did learned.

This week my ambition is to ask students to frame atomic theory making up their own analogies for the structure and discovery of the atom.