May 29, 1997
University Gazette


Full contents
Police Log
Gazette Home
Gazette Archives
News Office


  Video Revelations

Teaching teachers what kids are not learning

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

If you graduated from Harvard, do you think you would know why it is warmer in summer than in winter? Educators who surveyed Harvard students on their graduation day in 1986 discovered that most of them could not correctly answer this question.

They gave reasonable, even eloquent, answers, such as the Earth is closer to the sun in summer. But these answers were wrong. The Harvardians did no better than ninth-graders from a nearby school.

For a second survey, in 1994, the questioners went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the premier engineering schools in the nation. They presented graduates with a simple problem.

"If you were given a piece of wire, a battery, and a flashlight bulb, could you light the bulb?" Most of them quickly answered "yes." But when actually given the bulb, battery, and wire, few could do it. One graduate protested that she was a mechanical engineer, not an electrical engineer.

The embarrassing quizzes have generated fallout to this day.

Members of Harvard's Science Education Department (SED), who conducted both surveys, made a film of the Harvard results and sent it to the National Science Foundation and other organizations concerned with science education.

"The film made a big splash," recalls Matthew Schneps, director of the SED's Science Media Group. "We never thought so many people would see it, or that it would be so influential."

The film led to the funding of four projects at the SED, which show graphically why students don't learn science and what might be done about it. They include an update of the shocking Harvard-M.I.T. quizzes, case studies documenting the struggles of science teachers, and interactive television programs for both students and teachers.

"You hear a lot of rhetoric about how to reform education, and how to compete with nations whose students outscore children in the United States on science and math tests," Schneps says. "Instead of opinions, we have evidence of what goes on. It's not just gaps in teacher training and lack of money. It's more fundamental. Students leave classrooms with concepts that are totally different from what teachers believe they have taught. What is being taught is not what is being learned."

Minds of Their Own

Schneps and his group, based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), are now distributing three one-hour television programs that combine the surprising results of the 1986 and 1994 quizzes with new research into how children learn.

These videos show teachers giving detailed explanations of various scientific concepts. The material is presented clearly and accurately. Yet, when students are interviewed carefully about what they "learned," their ideas and facts are often are wrong.

Take seeing in the dark. After a lesson on how people see, students were asked to imagine themselves in a totally dark place, say at the bottom of a mine shaft where no light can reach. All insisted that they would be able to see objects once "their eyes became adjusted to the darkness."

Interviewers sat with a student for 10 minutes in the darkness. She admitted that she couldn't really see anything, but insisted that objects would become distinguishable if she waited long enough.

Another student explained that we see because our eyes send out rays, like flashlight beams, which hit objects, then bounce back to our eyes. He reached that conclusion from watching a TV show that explained how bats "see" by sending out sound waves. Also, some fish that live in the lightless ocean depths carry luminous organs, like a miner's lamp, on their heads. Even his own family cat comes out of the dark with its eyes glowing.

"He put these beliefs together from his own experience," Schneps points out. "Hundreds of in-depth interviews conducted with such kids show that everything a teacher tells them is filtered through their own experiences and beliefs. As a result, they often walk away from class with a totally different picture than what a teacher intended."

Schneps' group now works on trying to get science teachers to appreciate this problem. "You have to convince them to change the way they've been doing things for years," he says. "Few programs exist to help them do it, however. It'll take decades before children get the benefit of this new knowledge about learning. So we're trying to use TV to give the teachers some help and to apply what we know directly to the kids."

Interactive Television

A Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series that dramatically shows the problem via interviews with students is now being distributed. Called Minds of Our Own, the three one-hour segments are being been sent to public broadcasting stations nationwide, which in turn air them on their own schedules. Two thousand of the neediest schools have directly received videotaped copies at no cost.

In addition, the Harvard-Smithsonian team broadcasts four hours a day of educational programs via the Annenberg/CPB Television Service. These are hosted shows put together with material created by Schneps' group and Annenberg. The programs go directly to schools via satellite and cable across the country.

"Any place with a satellite dish can download these programs," notes Nancy Finkelstein, director of the project. "In Massachusetts, schools are wired up through the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications."

Aimed at science teachers, these programs are interactive. Teachers can ask for help or make suggestions via telephone, fax, e-mail, or the Web. The programs and interactivity began last October.

Additionally, the Science Media Group is preparing interactive programs aimed directly at 9- to 12-year-olds. Schneps describes the weekly half-hour dramatic episodes as "a series of live-action, cliff hangers that leave characters in trouble at the end of each episode. Getting them out of the trouble, or getting them into it more deeply, depends on responses from the viewers."

Each plight involves what, at first, looks like a simple problem. Of course, it turns out to be not so easy to solve. For example, one episode finds our heroes out at sea on a floating device that isn't working as it should. To stay afloat, they must either add air or let it out.

To many viewers, the obvious answer will be to add air. But air has weight, so it can also make things heavier. The kids make their choice and find out the next week whether or not they sank the heroes.

"These concepts are counter-intuitive; teachers can spend months explaining them to students, but some of them still don't get the point," Schneps says. "These programs should help in such situations."

Not All Pretty Stories

To help teachers more directly, the Science Media Group recorded the individual efforts of 24 kindergarten to eighth-grade teachers as they struggled with trying to teach science more effectively. Over a two-year period, Alex Griswold, the series producer, videotaped the teachers and their students every few weeks to follow their progress, or lack of it.

Halfway though the process, teachers sought help to change what they were doing. "Sometimes the aid we gave was beneficial, sometimes not," Schneps admits. "They're not all pretty stories."

Feedback from other teachers who watch the strivings of their colleagues has been excellent. "They appreciate seeing depictions of problems faced by teachers like themselves," Griswold says. "They want to learn how ordinary teachers, not presidential award-winners, cope with tough situations."

Philip Sadler, head of the Science Education Department and assistant professor of education, has been using the tapes at the Graduate School of Education. "The response has been tremendous," he says.

Sadler helped conduct the original interviews of graduating college students that got these programs going. He, Schneps, and Irwin Shapiro, director of the CfA, also played a major role in obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation, the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Results to date have been gratifying. One case study and the Minds of Our Own series have won gold medals at the 1997 Houston International Film Festival. And there are many more personal victories.

"Teachers come up to me after seeing our programs," says Schneps, "and they say, 'You scared the hell out of me! I always considered myself a good teacher, but now I sometimes think that I don't know what I'm doing.' Then they tell me that we have started them on a new course of self-discovery and learning. That's very rewarding."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College