A Welcome Shift

The Fall semester (I have been in education so long I don’t see seasons as much as school terms), is one that is full of conferences and opportunities to reach out into the broader educational community. In my dual roles between AIMS and FPU, I end up at a significant number of conferences. This Fall was no exception. The months of October, November, and now December, I was presenting at a minimum of one conference a month. The communities of STEM, Science, and Mathematics teachers all put them on in California. Though presenting is nice and a great big piece of what I should be doing (especially in my role as a professor), attending these conferences is always enriching for me.

I would like to tell you a little about just one overarching theme that I have seen slowly being revealed in all of these. This theme fits nicely into the work we do here at the Center. Each of the symposia, conference, or workshops I attended, had a keynote speaker or featured talk that discussed the need for teachers to pay attention to the understandings that the student possesses. There is a growing awareness, it seems to me anyway, that starting with what the child knows and seeking ways to frame that and assist them to build upon that knowledge, is key.

This concept, not new nor particularly novel, has not been a core piece of the educational process. The concept has been around for ages, we can see it in how Aristotle discusses philosophy, but the actual practice of it became lost somewhere in the 20th century’s seeming inexorable movement toward an adherence to efficiency models for teaching. Lecture is an efficient way to get information out to the world: the knower tells the non-knower and now the non-knower is also a knower – magic! As anyone who has raised children through to adulthood will tell you, telling someone something seldom means the hearer “knows” what they have been told. But the teller does feel as though they have engaged in an efficient means of communication.

This shift towards first seeking to understand what the student already knows, and building from there, is music to a Constructivist sentimentality. A basic focus of the Constructivists of all flavors is that new knowledge is built upon old understandings and schemes; it is only when old knowledge gets called into question, or shown to be incomplete, that new knowledge can be constructed with more accurate schemes. The idea that more and more teachers are hearing more and more conversations focused on attention to a student’s understanding from keynote and featured speakers is very encouraging to me, a veteran conference attender. It is a welcome shift. Furthermore it is at the heart of what we here at the AIMS Center are about.

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