Stamp collecting

When I took my Physics mock A level exam, I barely passed it. To be fair, I didn’t really deserve to pass it. I’d only ever done the absolute minimum that was expected of me, and in my head, I just “didn’t get Physics”. This view was supported by a previous teacher telling me that Physics is the only real science, and the others were just “stamp collecting” (Rutherford). In other words, he told us, you don’t need to learn physics at all. You just have to understand it (whereas Biology was just a list of facts…).

I did buck up my ideas a bit after the shock mock result, and managed to achieve a good grade in the final exam 3 months later. But this only confirmed what I already believed: I didn’t “get” Physics before, but now I did. Things had finally clicked, and now that I understood it all, there was nothing to learn.

When I did my A levels, I thought Physics was something you “understood” and Biology was something you “learned” (1). Until very recently, I thought “facts” and “concepts” were entirely separate entities. I assumed that you learn facts, but you understand concepts. I believed that facts are “stamps” that you collect in your memory, whereas concepts are almost akin to a feeling, something to be understood, broken through, mastered via a one-way non-returnable track…

I’m not sure where I stand on this now. I feel that there is more of a continuum or a fuzzy line, rather than a clear-cut border, between facts and concepts. But that’s about as far as my thinking stretches at the moment, and I’m going to think about it more over the summer.

Fuzzy lines and troublesome journeys

I had a really interesting discussion (about mimicry, mastery and “true understanding”) during the Learning Scientists’ recent chat, and various people have pointed me at things to read about it, including this about Boundary Crossing (thanks Sally) and a whole lot of stuff about concepts and misconceptions (thanks Adam), as well as looking further into idea of transfer (thanks Tim). What I do know is that it’s definitely not a straight path sometimes from novice to expert, and from naiveity to mastery. I keep coming back to this by Glynis Cousin, and the idea that the journey to true understanding of the most troublesome concepts is a tricky one. And it starts with mimicry (and can sometimes end there).

“It is not novel to point out that learning is a recursive process but in the insistence that there needs to be a number of ‘takes’ and looping back on the conceptual material to be grasped, the threshold concept perspective refreshes the critique of a simplistic, linear, learning outcomes approach…In short, there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain.”

I’m convinced that the idea of spaced practice is a valuable one with conceptual understanding, as well as for the retrieval of facts (just leaving aside for a moment the discussion about how these are actually identified). I think students need time and space to come back to ideas and re-examine them in different ways. They need to challenge their beliefs via careful questioning, and as their teacher, I need to allow them to practice applying tricky concepts in a range of contexts.

I need to think about all this as I spend the next few weeks cycling (2), and maybe at one point, I’ll have my own lightbulb moment! Or maybe, it’ll just be another fuzzy, liminal journey back and forth (with many an interesting discussion along the way…) as I strive to work out how best to support my students next year.


(1) If you are in any doubt that Biology is not simply “stamp collecting” then this post by Pritesh Raichura is a good place to start.

(2) Cycling around the Netherlands for a few weeks. I will take a notebook!