Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Result of Mistaken Meaning

Thoughts as I was falling asleep last night: The word misconception can be broke down to mean "the result of mistaken meaning". Let's break it down further.

(1) The word 'result' emphasizes that misconceptions are events that happen.

Another way of thinking about it is like this: Students can't have misconceptions; because they simply are not things you can possess. Oddly, enough, the English language allows us to say things like "I'm having a misconception", even though misconceptions aren't possessions. I'm OK with this, because this is said much in the same way you'd say "I'm having a birthday party!"

And just like students want to invite their friends to the birthday party they are having; as a teacher, I want students to invite me into the misconceptions they are having. Dropping the pejorative language of "misconceptions", I might just say, "I want students to invite me in on what's perplexing to them and into their struggle to understand that perplexity"

(2) By using the word 'result', the definition also emphasizes some other causes.

If you perceive yourself (or someone else) to be in the midst of experiencing some misconception, you can't explain that event by saying, "It's because of a misconception." That's a tautology. We could debate what the variety of causes are, but my point here is just to say that a misconception is not a cause. The pursuit to understand causes is important. It's not simply that teachers should come to make sense of students' experience of misconceptions and their causes, but students must come to know their own minds in ways that help them to understand them as well.

(3) "Meaning" is something achieved across individuals as they attempt to carry out some common activity

This is important because it helps bring clarity to the notion of "mistaken meaning". Students don't have "mistaken meaning" by themselves. Students have ways of making meaning which we often don't understand, and we often have ways of making meaning which students don't understand. There is reciprocity in events of misconception, taking place among many participants. Putting it this way helps me: Teachers experience misconceptions when they fail to understand their students' ideas.

I've written about this before, but I have learned a lot of physics by listening to and engaging with students. The reciprocal nature of it all means that we all have something to learn by engaging in each others' perplexity and thinking.

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