The impact of a feather

Socrates could be talking about anything here, and I’m sure we could apply this statement to anything. Today, we’re going to apply it to knowledge- specifically the knowledge of students.

Students don’t come into your classroom as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. They come having already experienced life itself, and they have built their own knowledge from these experiences. For students to effectively learn, we must construct new knowledge from the old, and sometimes that is easier said than done. Constructivism is a method of teaching which makes this process more effective. 

The articles Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Parts I and II, by Alan Colburn, discuss constructivist practices, why they work, and how they can be used in the classroom. Links to the articles can be found here and here.

  • Our experiences can build our perception of reality.

As Colburn states, “reality is in the eye of the beholder.” The way we experience the world is going to change how we view the world, and that includes the way that we experience science. One thing I knew I had trouble grasping in Physics when I was younger was that everything falls at the same rate. I had seen that a feather and a rock fall at different rates- the feather hit the ground after the rock. I remember watching this video, which changed my understanding of falling objects:

This video allowed me to change what I had known about falling objects, a process called “accommodation.” Just seeing that single feather fall at the same rate of the hammer changed how I perceived the world.

  • Changing the preconceived knowledge that students have means building new information to change the old, not fighting the old.

Colburn recognizes the importance of helping students accommodate new information that challenges previous understanding. Failure to accommodate ultimately leads to the students’ rejection of the knowledge, and their memorization and subsequent loss of information. You can’t just lecture and expect students to accept what you say- they have to believe what you say.

  • Transforming your classroom into a constructivist class.
    Colburn identifies two ideas that are important to keep in mind in a constructivist classroom.

    1. Learning is an active process.

      Colburn states that in order to assimilate new information into existing knowledge, or to accommodate knowledge based on new information, students need to be mentally engaged. Most lecture styles do not create an environment in which students can become actively engaged, but it is possible to make them more active.

      1. During the lecture, take time to pause and have students summarize new information in their own words
      2. Give students opportunities to write reflections in their notes over the material being discussed.
      3. Don’t do the same thing every day- take breaks away from lecture to give students the chance to actively investigate topics in the classroom.
    2. To align student knowledge with scientifically accepted ideas, we must recognize misconceptions and present students with an alternative idea that works better.

      1. When asking for answers, always ask, “Why do you think so?” This gives students the opportunity to give reasoning and evidence to support their answer. If they can’t explain why, then you know they need more help on the material.
      2. Give students problems to solve and discuss rather than giving them a problem and immediately showing them how to come up with an answer. The more concrete the problem, the more students can relate, and it is more likely misconceptions will be revealed or challenged.
      3. Do a “Think-Pair-Share” activity to have students discuss material before going into the lecture. Use students’ sharing to gauge their pre-conceptions about the topic to guide the learning and relate it to what they already know.

In order for students to learn, you can’t fight their experiences, tell them they are wrong, and expect them to learn anything. Their previous experiences are the foundation upon which you are able to construct new knowledge. Don’t fight the old, build towards the new. Even just a feather has the power to challenge a misconception.
Activity: Reasons for the Seasons

  • Common misconception: “We have seasons because in the summer, the Earth is closer to the sun, and in the winter, the Earth is further from the sun.”
    • As an engage activity, have students roast marshmallows! in Each marshmallow, position a toothpick to represent the earth’s axis. Give students a longer stick to prevent them from getting too close to the flame from the bunsen burner. When students roast marshmallows and rotate the marshmallow by following its axis, what to they observe?
    • For explain, have students investigate when seasons occur on different hemispheres of the earth.
      • What does it mean that summer in the northern hemisphere occurs during the southern hemisphere’s winter?
    • Also have students investigate the Earth’s position in its orbit around the sun in the summer and winter.
      • When is it closer to the sun? When is it furthest away from the sun?
    • As an explore activity, have students in groups explore what else could explain the different seasons, if not the proximity of the earth to the sun.
    • To evaluate, have students in groups compare and contrast their different theories and present their findings to the class. Do any groups or individuals disagree?

      Colburn, A. (2007, October). Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part I. The Science Teacher.

      Colburn, A. (2007, November). Constructivism and Conceptual Change, Part II. The Science Teacher.


  1. Meghan,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog this week. One thing I liked was when you discussed your preconceived knowledge. Being able to take a concept such as free fall and breaking down the concept into tangibles is crucial. Like you said, many people experience a feather falling slower than a rock. Using visuals (such as the one you included) can be very powerful in overcoming those preconceived understandings. Also, I loved your idea for an engage activity. It would definitely grab the student’s interest and get them involved, while at the same time demonstrate the impact of the Earth’s axis in determining the seasons! Very nicely done!


  2. Meghan,

    I really like your blog this week! I think that is a great quote and that is applies to constructivism. I thought you did a great job of explaining constructivism and applying it to science education. Your pictures and media graphics helped solidify your points. I especially liked the video on the moon! Your activity demonstrated constructivism well. It took kids prior knowledge and common misconceptions and built their knowledge. Overall, great job!


    • Katin-
      Thank you! I think one of the most challenging things about constructivism is addressing misconceptions; you can’t tell someone their perspective is wrong! You kind of have to guide them to discover the knowledge themselves, and that can be tricky. Personal experiences and short, engaging clips do help, though!

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