Students create inaccurate models – but is that bad?

Students create inaccurate models – but is that bad?

I had the opportunity to observe 2 senior physics classes using SAM Animation as a modeling tool at Portsmouth High School, NH earlier this week, and it was fascinating to see the students create models that were fundamentally wrong — but, that’s not actually a bad thing…

The seniors were just launching into the chapter on free fall, so their challenge was to grab a partner and create a stop-motion video modeling one of the free fall problems in the problem set that they hadn’t yet solved. Of the 10 groups, not a single one created an accurate model. At first thought, that seems terrible — why would we let students spend 50 minutes building projects that were incorrect? But in reality, these inaccurate models were grounds for a great follow-up class discussion, and also provided the teacher a starting point for future lessons and lectures.

Animation is a modeling tool, giving students a way of representing what they understand or perceive before going into a unit, providing a baseline from which to teach. Think of yourself in the kitchen — before you go to the store to get the ingredients for cooking a new recipe, you see what you have in the cabinets first, right? Why would you get more salt if you already have plenty of it? Or why would you assume you had milk when in fact you did not, or it had gone bad? It’s obvious to check what you have on hand to give you an idea on what’s needed. A very simplified analogy, but not far off from the fact that it’s necessary to figure out where your students’ misconceptions are before launching a new unit, and what better way to do that than through stop-motion animation where the barriers of vocab and math are stripped away and you are testing for pure conceptual understanding. Do the students understand what constant acceleration means and how it’s different from constant velocity or not? More simply, does the class “get” that objects in air increase speed as they fall down ? According to the animated models, the students in fact do not, and that’s a great thing to know moving forward.

The next day the teacher was looking forward to using the inaccurate models to ask the class questions, and you can be sure that when those students realize they spent 50 minutes creating colorful vibrant “cool” videos that weren’t correct they’ll remember it! And they’ll want to do it over again…but the right way. So many factors come into play here: students have ownership over their animations because they created them, it’s media, and it’s a new representation medium; they have a visual model to process and reflect; and most importantly, they have provided the teacher insight to their conceptual understanding — he knows what’s in the cabinets.

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