“She said she was going to join a church as soon as she decided which one was right. She never did decide. She did develop a terrific hankering for a crucifix, though. And she bought one from a Santa Fe gift shop during a trip the little family made out West during the Great Depression. Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five [emphasis added]
It was never supposed to be like this, of course. Many of the great thinkers of the past conceived of the human mind as a vast pyramid: either an inverted pyramid resting on an apex consisting of a single, unfalsifiable thought such as “I think therefore I am” as Rationalists such as Descartes posited; or, alternatively, as a pyramid resting on a base of simple sense-impressions as Empiricists such as Locke suggested.
The truths emerging from modern cognitive science indicate that things are a good deal more complicated and messier than either the Rationalists or Empiricists supposed.
In fact, all of us are closer to Mrs Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five than we would generally like to admit: the uncomfortable truth is that we are all closer to opportunistic concept-grubbing, “gift shop”-magpies than the systematic pyramid-masons of either Rationalist or Empiricist thought. Each and every one of us is, to a greater or lesser degree, “trying to construct a life that makes sense” from random things that we find lying around in real or metaphorical gift shops.
Perhaps (of all people!) Dashiell Hammett put it best:
“Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.”
— Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
Defeat From The Jaws of Victory: “Here’s to you, Mrs Pilgrim.”
Andrea diSessa (1996) recounts a series of interviews with “J”, a freshman undergraduate student of Physics at university. During one interview, J was asked to explain the physics of throwing a ball up into the air. She recounted a near-perfect, professional physicist-level analysis of the phenomenon, noting (correctly) that after the ball leaves the hand the “only force acting on it is gravity”. However, when diSessa asked the seemingly innocuous question about what happens at the peak of the toss:
Rather than produce a straightforward answer, J proceeded to reformulate her description of the toss. The reformulation is not instantaneous . . . Strikingly she winds up with an “impetus theory” account of the toss. “Your hand imparts a force that at first overcomes gravity, but gradually dies away. At the peak, there a balance of forces, which is broken as the internal force fades further and gravity takes over.”
In other words, even a student of Physics, educated to a much higher level of domain-specific knowledge than the typical layperson, can be persuaded to retreat back into the ”foggy muddle” with surprising ease. In other words, even the very best of us can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory all too easily.
diSessa (1988) explains this and similar models as part of the KIP model (Knowledge in Pieces). For example:
intuitive physics is a fragmented collection of ideas, loosely connected and reinforcing, having none of the commitment or systematicity that one attributes to theories.
The basic “atom” or building block of this empirical model is the p-prim or phenomenological primitive.
P-prims are elements of intuitive knowledge that constitute people’s “sense of mechanism”, their sense of which happenings are obvious, which are plausible, which are implausible, and how one can explain or refute real or imagined possibilities. [diSessa 2018: 69]
P-prims are abstractions of familiar events that come to serve as explanations as they are applied to a wider range of contexts. The p indicates that they originate from the phenomenologically-rich and lived experience of human beings; the prim indicates that they are primitive in the sense that they sufficient explanations of phenomena. Once a p-prim is invoked, usually no further explanation is required or possible: “That’s just the way it is.” Examples of p-prims suggested by diSessa [1996: 716] are:
- The “Ohm’s Law” p-prim: the idea that an outcome increases as a “force” increases, but decreases as the “resistance” increases.
- The “Balance and Equilibrium” p-prim: systems which are “in balance” will be stable; systems which are “out of balance” will naturally and spontaneously return to equilibrium.
- The “Blocking and Guiding” p-prim: solid and stable objects can stop objects moving without applying a force; tubes and railway tracks can also “guide” moving objects without applying any force.
- The “Dying Away” p-prim: lack of motion or activity is the natural state of inanimate objects; if disturbed, they will naturally return to this state as the perturbation “dies away’
P-prims are subconceptual: they comprise a fluid and changeable layer below concepts and beliefs. Humans may have hundreds if not thousands of p-prims. There is no strict hierarchy: we may shift from one p-prim to another with simply a shift of attention. Where multiple p-prims conflict, one facet of the situation may cue the application of a particular p-prim rather than another. [see diSessa 1996: 715]
The Wrath of Kuhn: “So You Say You Want a Revolution?”
In his hugely-influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Thomas Kuhn suggested that scientific progress had two distinct phases:
- Normal Science, where essentially scientists engaged in puzzle-solving activity but where the guiding paradigm or disciplinary matrix of the science is more or less accepted without question. An example might be pre-Copernican astronomy where astronomers made observations and predictions without questioning the geocentric model of the Solar System;
- Revolutionary Science, where scientists realise their previously-successful paradigm is no longer able to adequately explain observed phenomena. An example might be the rejection of the Newtonian paradigm and the acceptance of Einsteinian relativistic physics in the early 1900s.
Scientific progress was thus viewed as a gestalt switch between two incommensurable systems of knowledge. One either sees a “Newtonian”-duck, or a “Relativistic”-rabbit. One cannot see both simultaneously.
Kuhn’s work was immensely influential (perhaps overly influential) in a number of spheres; in the context of education, the heady seductiveness of Kuhn’s approach directly influenced what diSessa [2014: 5] dubs the “misconceptions movement”.
Broadly speaking, proponents thought that students had deeply entrenched but false beliefs. The solution seemed obvious: these false beliefs were barriers to learning that had to be rooted out and overcome (c.f. the Ohm’s Law p-prim above!) . Students had to be persuaded to ditch their false beliefs and accept the correct ones.
But what was the nature of these false beliefs? diSessa [2014:7] argues that some like Carey (1985) drew explicit parallels with Kuhn’s work, arguing that children undergo a paradigm-shift at about 10-years-old when they recognise that inanimate objects do not have intentions and begin to think of “alive” as describing a set of mechanistic processes. Others (argues diSessa) like McCloskey (1983) supposed that students begin school physics with a well-formed, coherent and articulate theory (with parallels to early medieval scientists such as Buridan and Galileo) that directly competes with and interferes with their acceptance of Newtonian physics.
However, all of these approaches can be categorised as being part of the “Misconceptions Movement”.
Yin vs. Yang: Positive and Negative Influences of the Misconceptions Movement
A positive influence of misconceptions studies was bringing the importance of educational research into practical instructional circles. Teachers saw vivid examples of students responding to apparently simple conceptual questions in incorrect ways. Poor performance in response to basic questions, often years into instruction, could not be dismissed.
[diSessa 2014: 6]
Another hugely positive influence of Misconceptions research was that it showed that students were not “blank slates” and that prior knowledge had a strong influence on future learning.
However, according to diSessa the misconceptions movement also had some pernicious negative influences:
- It emphasised the negative contributions of prior knowledge: it almost exclusively characterised prior knowledge as either false or unhelpful which led to “conflict” models of instruction. Ironically, the explicit detailing of “wrong” ideas in order to “overcome” them led to them being strengthened for some students.
- How learning was possible was not a matter that was often discussed in detail. The depth, coherence or strength of particular misconceptions was not always assessed: were they simply isolated beliefs or coherent theories of a similar nature to those held by working scientists? As a result, practical guidance on how to teach particular concepts was not always forthcoming.
Tourist: “Is This Way To Amarillo?” Local: “Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.”
As a working Physics teacher, one of the most useful teaching tools that I’ve begun using as a result of becoming aware of diSessa’s work, is that of a bridging analogy. This approach was outlined by Hammer 2000: S54-55. For example, how can we successfully introduce the idea of a normal reaction force, say in the context of a book resting on the surface of a table?
Students often invoke the “blocking” p-prim in this context. The table passively “blocks” the action of gravity — and that’s all there is to it.
However, a bridging analogy can be used here. Show an object resting on (and compressing) a spring; identify the forces acting on the object. Because the spring is an “active” component in this situation, students can accept that pushing down on it produces an upward “reaction force”. One can then extend this to (say) a student sitting on a plank (which “bows” slightly with their weight) and then apply it to more stable structure such as a table which exhibits no visible “bowing”.
I have found such approaches to be the most productive: in other words, we aim to work around the p-prim rather than attacking the p-prim head on, and along the way we try to get our students to activate more helpful p-prims that have more direct applicability to the context.
As teachers, we only very rarely have the luxury of choosing our students’ starting points. There is no “Well, if you want to get where you’re going, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.”
We are teachers. Whatever the situation, we start from where our students start. Ladies and gentlemen, we start from here.
Carey, S. (1985). Conceptual change in childhood. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books
diSessa, A. A. (1988). Knowledge in pieces. In G. Forman & P. B. Pufall (Eds.), Constructivism in the computer age (pp. 49-70). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
diSessa, A. A. (1996). What do” just plain folk” know about physics. The handbook of education and human development: New models of learning, teaching, and schooling, 709-730. [Accessed from http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~savel101/fi-msecint/literature/disessa1996.pdf on 22/10/18]
DiSessa, A. A. (2014). A history of conceptual change research: Threads and fault lines. [Accessed from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1271w50q on 22/10/18]
diSessa, A. A. (2018). A Friendly Introduction to “Knowledge in Pieces”: Modeling Types of Knowledge and Their Roles in Learning. In Invited Lectures from the 13th International Congress on Mathematical Education (pp. 65-84). Springer International Publishing. [Accessed from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-72170-5_5 on 22/10/18]
Hammer, D. (2000). Student resources for learning introductory physics. American Journal of Physics, 68(S1), S52-S59 [Accessed from http://oap.nmsu.edu/JiTT_NMSU_workshop/pdfs/StudentResourcesHammer.pdf on 22/10/18]
McCloskey, M. (1983). Naive theories of motion. In D. Gentner and A. Stevens (Eds.) Mental Models (pp. 299-323). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.