(This work is still in progress)
Transition from “I do not know it” to “I know it” is memorizing
Transition from “I cannot do it” to “I can do it” is training
Transition from “I do not understand it” to “I understand it” is thinking
There is no need for repeating again and again that the ways of teaching must be improved, that memorizing only is not enough and teachers have to develop students’ problem solving skills, etc. Today the question is what specific changes must be done in teaching techniques in order to help developing students’ problem solving skills.
Neurology can offer at least three sources for rethinking the structure of teachers’ action.
Neurologist know that learning is always resulting in some changes into a brain (for example, see 1,2). These changes can be changes in the state of brain cells, or in the connection between the cells, but there are always some kind of physiological changes as the result of learning.
Any changes into a brain structure is always the result of a brain activity. Without acting the owner of a brain cannot achieve any learning effect. Educational constructivists interpret this in the following way; any specific knowledge must be constructed by a person during the performing of a specific learning work. If we believe in constructivism (and we have to because of neurology), we have to rethink the way of preparing a school curricula. The common way of preparing a curriculum is “first teacher have to tell this, then this, then this”, etc. We can call this kind of curriculum as “curriculum of knowledge”. From neurological point of view the way to prepare a curriculum is to be like “firs students must perform this action, then that action”, etc (of course, all the main/unit learning actions must be found out first). We can call this curriculum as “curriculum of actions”.
After the rethinking a curriculum we will have to rethink the time needed to study a subject. In the current way of timing an educational process based on a curriculum of knowledge the unit of time is the time needed to a teacher to tell out the unit of the information. The using of the curriculum of actions leads to the new basis for the timing of the educational process; now it must be a time needed to perform a unit action (which might be different for different students).
A teacher alone cannot reconstruct the whole teaching process, but at least the one can change the ratio between lecturing time and time using for students actions. In learning physics acting means solving problems (theoretical or experimental). If the circumstances allow it a teacher can try keep at least two hours of problem solving on each our of lecturing.
Now we came closely to the next educational problem, i.e. developing students’ problem solving skills. To solve this problem the second lesson from neurology will help us.
We are starting our reasoning saying that problem solving skills can be developed only through solving problems. Creating the solution of the given problem involves the specific process usually called as thinking (almost every teacher while giving to a student a problem to solve tells to the one “think about it”). In order to perform thinking the one needs to use a very sophisticated biological tool, which is called a brain. There is not thinking without a brain (the opposite is not true).
We can say that the quality of a brain defines the quality of thinking, which defines in turn the quality of problem solving skills. Development of problem solving skills is closely connected with development of a brain.
For example, if we wanted to develop the students’ ability of running we could work on the developing of students’ lungs, but first of all we need to work on the developing of students’ legs, because legs are the main instrument for running.
When we want to develop the students’ ability of thinking we have to develop first of all the main instrument of thinking, which is a brain. A brain is the physiological basis of thinking.
It is well know that a well trained/developed brain is able to solve difficult problems.
But there is an opposite connection. Solving problems systematically helps to develop a brain.
Let’s use an analogy.
Let us assume that students have been doing for years one type of physical exercises only, which are squats. Then at the end of education, they can squat many times without any difficulties. However, all the other muscles, which are not involved in squats, would be highly underdeveloped. Students would not be able to perform any other exercises effectively.
A brain works the same way (it is kind of a muscle, at least is consist of a cells – neurologists tell this, and it is the second lesson for us, teachers). If for years the majority of school lessons have been based on memorizing and reproduction, other kinds of intellectual activities would be difficult for students to perform.
The underdeveloped brain can deal with easy tasks only. At the age of 14 – 15 the human brain – as “a muscle” – is at the end of its development. It means, to make a significant progress in the further brain development, significant efforts and time are needed.
If we want to increase significantly the total nationwide number of school students well prepared to a college, we have to increase the number of school students having the well developed/trained brain. To achieve this goal we have to go onto preschool and elementary school levels and reorganize them making accent/stress/effort on the students’ brain development (this is what the early childhood education must be about!).
We do not have to pour into the child’s head a larger sum of knowledge (rather the structure of knowledge should be changed); a head is not a storage for information, but the place where new thoughts are being created (the best way to store information in a one’s memory is to deal with it, use it, but not just to memorize it). We have to exercise/train the child’s brain by using different tasks/problems/exercises to help it to become as developed as the Mother Nature allows do this.
One of the consequences of the offered view on the teaching is that one of the most important problems of educational science is the problem of the influence of training methods on the functioning of a student’s brain. I personally consider Math and Physics as the best subjects able to be used as a brain developing tool (“brainbuilding”).
To develop a one’s body we can exercise it by using a special technique, which means using a specific exercise for developing a specific muscle. Or, we can just keep the one doing a heave duty work, and after a while the one’s body become strong enough. It will not be an Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body, but it will be a developed body.
Even if a teacher dose not know a special technique to develop a students’ brain, the one can keep them busy with solving problems. There is just one nuance we have to take into an account.
There are two type of teachers (roughly). The first set contains “introducers”. An introducer concerns only about extracting knowledge from his/her memory and presenting it to students, plus about giving some illustrations.
Imagine, for example, a teacher who teaches a class how to play basketball. “It is a ball. You may bounce it from the floor; you can use your left hand or the right hand to bounce the ball. You may throw it out in a basket (not in your basket!), or you can throw it up to each other. Who wants to touch the ball? Do not kick it! Perfect. I think my job is done. Have a good game.”
This type of teaching will not help much to develop a students’ brain because a teacher do not have any influence on a mental process happening during problem solving.
The second set of teachers can be called “coachers” (not as just described before). A teacher’s responsibility as “a coach” is to help every student to become capable of “to play physics” (or other subject). It means, a teacher’s work do not finish with giving out a problem, this is just the beginning of a teaching work. A teacher have to find the way to help students to build/create the solution of the given problem, but it must be their solution, not teacher’s (because it is their brain that is to be developed during the solution of the problem).
If the problem is too easy to solve, there is not any developmental effect. But if the problem is hard enough, students get stuck. If a teacher reveals now the solution we will not get a developmental effect again. But if the students will not make any further success by working by themselves, we again will not obtain any developmental effect. So, it looks like without a help students cannot go further in the solution of the problem, but with a help the developmental effect is drastically reduced. What is the solution of this problem? The answer, in principle, is simple, actually; do not give them the answer, give them a clue.
Here the most important part of teaching work starts; what clue to choose?
And again, neurology can help us. The third lesson form neurology is any reaction starts with the recognizing of the action. When a brain receives unknown signals it gets confused, the first thing a brain is trying to do is matching the incoming signals with the signals stored in its memory. The first reaction a student gives on a problem is “I ‘ve never seen that kind of a problem before”, which means that the student just cannot recognize the situation described in the text of the problem.
Analyzing the teaching experience we can describe two main obstacles students have to overcome to recognize in the given problem the specific physical situation.
The first obstacle is students cannot translate the written/pronounced text of the given problem from an everyday language into a specific physical language. The problem, where “a car is starting from rest” and the problem where “a stone is dropt from the height” are different problems for students because they do not see the both of the problems describe the same situation where “an object accelerates with the initial velocity of zero”.
To help students overcoming this obstacle the table of correspondence between everyday lexicon and subject terminology can me used.
Below (Table 1) you can see an example of such kind of “a terminological dictionary” for problem solving in Kinematics (9th grade).
To make a correct choice of a kinematics model required to solve a problem we have to determine the value of two main parameters of classification: 1. the form of a trajectory; 2. the behaviour of a speed. Within the framework of school physics curriculum for 99 cases from 100 we deal with the following values of these parameters:
The form of a trajectory – a) STRAIT LINE;
The behaviour of a speed – a) DOES NOT VARY (constant);
b) VARIES (changing).
In the correspondence to the values of the parameters, four main kinematics models (Table 2) we meet in a school (within the framework of the school standard).
After the correct identification of the model students can make the next two steps, i.e. choose important quantities and, finally, correct equations to describe the physics situation they have met in the problem.
To do this the table of the correspondence of physical models and formulae can help (Table 3). Below you can see an example of the table for problem solving in Kinematics (9th grade).
All the textbooks starts the solutions with writing down the necessary equations, which then keep applying to find solve the problem. Reading this students keep be curios, how did the author know what kind of equations to choose? Usually they just try every possible formula without thinking of reasons for using them. But writing down the necessary equations is the final step of analysis! Physics is done after that! Math is beginning. The main cause of misunderstanding of Physics and of disability to solve Physics problem is the lack of experience of making the analysis which leads to necessary equations! This is the focus, the main goal and the most valuable result of Physics education. The using of the learning aids like three shown above tables of correspondence helps for developing stable problem solving skills.
We can see that taking into an account the neurological basis of learning leads to serious rethinking and reconstructing of the teaching practice and creating a useful learning aids.
1.Carole Wade & Carol Tavris, Psychology, Fifth Edition
2. Melanie V. Springer et al., The Relation Between Brain Activity During Memory Tasks and Years of Education in Young and Older Adults, Neuropsychology, 2005, Vol. 19, No. 2, 181-192