Wednesday, November 02, 2005

From navigation to education

I am really enjoying reading Cognition in the Wild, but so far I have only read chapters one and two which give descriptions of life and work onboard a navy ship and on navigation in Micronesia in rich detail. I have to admit though that in terms of the principles of navigation I was confused pretty soon. I have a really hard time understanding how you get a boat to go into a certain direction. I tried to sail a tiny boat once and it was a frightening experience for me and my colleague, and I gave up geo-studies a few semesters ago because I just could not get into my head how exactly the earth rotates and what effects that has and so on. As you can see, I am just trying to find an excuse for being thrown overboard by the principles of navigation. Therefore, I will now deviate far from navigation (hopefully not too far) and turn to educating children.

What really stuck to me after the first two chapters of Hutchins was: There is no one best representation! Although the Micronesian navigators base their navigation on different representations than the navy crew onboard the Palau and the researchers who worked with the Micronesian navigators, both representations work great for the persons who hold them and they build the basis for their computations. When I think back to my developmental psychology courses, so many times we dealt with childrens’ misconceptions and how to overcome these. Of course I would not want my child to grow up and keep believing that the earth is flat or for my child to hold two images of the earth, a round one in space and a flat one which we stand upon. But instead of confronting the child with his misconceptions directly and ruling out any discussions about it (and risking that he will hold on to it very tightly because it is a safe ground for him), sensitivity to the child’s concepts seems more appropriate. Why does a child hold a particular concept and how does not that help the child to make sense of the world and to act in it? This also has implications for schools. I remember my 11th grade math class. There were students who had been taught by different teachers for the previous years and these teachers had used different external representations for and different ways of solving certain math problems. Instead of acknowledging that students were using different representations, the math teacher tried to impose his way of externally representing the problems and eventually a number of students were left behind. So it seems to me that teachers should be more sensitive to students’ representations and acknowledge that these might work just as well as the teachers. In another class I have this semester, we talked about different types of teachers’ knowledge. The understanding of students’ representations would certainly fall under “pedagogical content knowledge”, understanding how a certain group of students learn in a particular subject, which instructional methods can help them best and where their difficulties lie.


Blogger jmj said...


An interesting post. I was especially intrigued by your comment about the child's two ideas of the world in his/her head: the round one that "exists" and the flat one that is navigated. I thought this was perceptive, because we cannot help but have constructions like this to help us navigate the world we live it. Unless we are all geo-science majors, most of us do not walk around thinking consciously about the earth being round and its rotation (around the sun / through the solar system). As Clark pointed out, this would be a severe detriment to most of us because it would slurp up cognitive power we need for performing more immediate tasks (unless, of course, we are geo-scientists).

11:14 AM  

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