Let Them Play the Game!

At a recent family gathering, my adult niece told me that she would be teaching catechism for the first time to a group of seventh and eighth grade students. She asked me, a professional educator for nearly as long as she’s been alive, if I had any advice for her. I’m a science teacher and don’t teach catechism, but the one strategy I suggested is one that works with any topic and any audience. I told her “before you explain anything to them, let them play with the idea first.”

I seriously doubt that anyone learned to play basketball or baseball by first sitting down to an hour lecture on the sport. They learned by picking up a ball and trying to play. Coaches then helped them refine their skills by explaining or showing them the correct technique, after they had an opportunity to explore on their own. They learned by adding new information to what they already knew from experience.

Young, old or anywhere in between, people know stuff. They come to any learning opportunity already knowing something about it and everyone’s knowledge is just a little bit different. If I want to teach something, the first thing I need to know is what my audience knows, and I can’t find that out by launching into a lecture on the topic. I need to give my audience a chance to show me.

Take the example of my niece. She wanted to discuss the concept of peace with her students. Heeding my advice, the first thing she did was to have the students create a collage depicting what peace meant to them. She now knew, at least a little bit, about what her students knew and what they thought. She had a starting point.

We know that everyone comes to us with vast experiences but we don’t really know what those experiences have been. By engaging in “exploration before explanation,” we know for sure that the audience has had at least one experience in common (the one we set up) and we can use that to add context to whatever it is we want to explain. My niece referred to the collages throughout her lesson to make a personal connection between the topic, peace, and her students. She used the common experience, the collage, as a point of reference.

An added benefit of “exploration before explanation” is that it allows us to see if participants have gaps in knowledge or misunderstandings about the topic. For example, if I want to explain the reasons for the seasons, I would be wise to first have my audience draw a picture of the sun and earth showing the relationship between the two during fall, winter, spring and summer, giving them an opportunity to express what they know prior to me talking about it.

Some will likely show the earth being closer to the sun during summer and further away during winter (incorrect). Knowing what they think helps me structure my explanation to correct their misunderstanding. I can tell them that the real reason for the seasons is due to the Earth’s tilt on its axis relative to the sun, but why should they believe me? They’ve gotten through life just fine knowing what they know. What makes my explanation better than theirs?

Explanation has to be more than just telling. Getting people to change what they think requires presenting evidence that conflicts with the learner’s incorrect assumptions and forces them to grapple with the inconsistency. It’s much easier to disregard something someone says than to disregard firsthand experience that contradicts one’s existing paradigm.

To correct the misconception that it’s the distance from the sun that causes the seasons, one effective technique is to have participants model the earth orbiting the sun using Styrofoam balls and flashlights. Seeing the relationship between the Earth and sun for themselves is much more impactful than just being told. Watching the ball fly out of the park has a greater impact on a player than the coach telling them that they are swinging better.

“Exploration before explanation” can tell us a lot about what people know (or think they know) and it provides a frame of reference from which we can build. Truth be told, exploration is also fun! Explaining first is like reading them the rulebook without letting them play the game.

About Dr. Barry Roth

Dr. Barry Roth is an associate professor of practice and co-director of the Teach Arizona master’s degree teacher preparation program in the department of Teaching Learning and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona. Dr. Roth has extensive experience with using research-based and inquiry-based science pedagogy and with implementing programs for education of both pre-service and practicing science teachers that include both science content and pedagogical components. He also is active in United States Master’s Swimming and is an ardent supporter and volunteer official for the UA Swimming and Diving Team.

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