Building Knowledge From Facts
Every year my students write down some version of this definition: “Period: a row on the periodic table. The atoms of elements in the same period have the same number of electron energy levels.” They memorize it and can spew it out on a test or quiz, but they don’t really know what it means. I know they don’t completely understand because when we begin constructing models of atoms they just build, adding electrons from the center out. I tell my students that there is a pattern and once they find it, predicting electron configuration will become much easier. It is a rare student that sees the pattern they already memorized before building 20 or more atomic models.
I have to admit that I love being there when they do make the connection. I set up a data table to make it easier for them to see the pattern and throughout the class I hear the snap of understanding, that moment when a memorized fact becomes knowledge. Sometimes the birth of knowledge is easy, and sometimes I have to midwife it into existence. A few weeks ago I was working with a group of students that was struggling to see the connection between an element’s period and the number of energy levels on its atom. They ask me a question which I answered with the question, “What is a period on the periodic table?” They spurt off the definition. “OK,” I say, “then what is an energy level?” Sometimes that is enough and it clicks. Sometimes a group of students needs to write out the definition or summarize it. Sometimes they need to rearrange the data in a different way, but eventually it clicks.
For me a fact is an isolated bit of understanding, and knowledge occurs when that fact becomes interconnected with an individual’s understanding of the world.
This process happened for me recently with the unlikely fact of barrier islands. I knew the definition of a barrier island, a coastal land form that is parallel to the mainland coast and usually occurs in chains, but the definition was for many years an isolated fact. I knew that when I went “down the shore” to Ocean City, New Jersey that my feet walked upon a barrier island. I knew that during a storm barrier islands protect inland areas especially salt marshes and estuaries, but these were orphan facts hanging on little bits of mental string that could be easily cut and forgotten. It wasn’t until I flew out of Atlantic City Airport that I actually gained knowledge of barrier islands. After the plane lifted off and started flying south I looked out my window and saw them arrayed before me, one island after another.
Like Ocean Drive, a series of local roads, which connects the islands the isolated facts began to string together and became my knowledge of barrier islands. I could hear the snap of understanding in my own head as the individual facts became connected to my experience of the flight and what I viewed outside my window. I forget sometimes that I am not a thinking machine, but rather I need to experience things with my body to truly understand them. I needed to see barrier islands with my eyes and not just on a map or on the television to truly have knowledge of them.
Last Monday Apostrophobia wrote a post about active learning in which she commented on many common misconceptions of the teaching style as highlighted in the comments of the article “Professors’ Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I am a huge proponent of active learning, or guided inquiry or whatever name you give to your style of student centered learning, because it follow so closely with my understanding of how people learn.
Those of you in the know about educational theory will not be surprised when I say that I am a constructivist. Constructivism is an educational theory that states that knowledge cannot simply be poured into a brain, but rather must be built onto a framework of an individual’s current understanding. An orphan fact will be stranded and useless unless it is connected to something else. Those connections can be direct, factual connections like my example of seeing the barrier islands or my students building atomic models, or they can be indirect. For example a piece of information is connected to a conversation with a classmate and therefore when you look at that person you remember that information. The ideal would be that either way, direct or indirect, that piece of information will be connected to other information to form a whole web of interconnected knowledge.
Active learning with its stress on the student experience promotes the formation of connections. No one is sitting passively by as information is pour from the fount of wisdom, but rather information is actively worked. It is through this working that connections are formed.