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Physics Education Research Conference 2009 Invited Talks

Invited Sessions

Bridging Cognitive and Neural Aspects of Classroom Learning

Michael I. Posner, Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology

A major achievement of the first twenty years of neuroimaging is to reveal the brain networks that underlie fundamental aspects of attention, memory and expertise. We examine some principles underlying the activation of these networks. These networks represent key constraints for the design of teaching. Individual differences in these networks reflect a combination of genes and experiences. While acquiring expertise is easier for some than others the importance of effort in its acquisition is a basic principle.

Networks are strengthened through exercise, but maintaining interest that produces sustained attention is key to making exercises successful. The state of the brain prior to learning may also represent an important constraint on successful learning and some interventions designed to investigate the role of attention state in learning are discussed. Teaching remains a creative act between instructor and student, but an understanding of brain mechanisms might improve opportunity for success for both participants.

Causality in Pieces: The Construction of Causal Schemes

Andrea A. diSessa, University of California at Berkeley

I will present two case studies of different early high school classes constructing (with no direct instruction from teachers) ways of explaining temperature equilibration. Students were asked to explain, when a cold glass of milk is left on the kitchen table, how and why does it come to room temperature? The first case study shows an unusually clear example where students build an essentially correct causal explanatory scheme (Newton's law of heating) pretty much simply by combining a number of reasonably well-documented intuitive ideas. The second case study shows a similar construction, but of an incorrect causal scheme. Because the elements used in the first case have been reasonably well-studied, we can determine both what had to change in the pieces and how the pieces were combined. This leads to a list of plausibly general "mechanisms of learning."

Moving between discourses: from learning-as-acquisition to learning-as-participation

Anna Sfard, Michigan State University

These days, the times of incessant changes, everything seems to be fluid, including our ways of looking at the world and of talking about it. Although easily noticeable also in 'hard' sciences, nowhere is this conceptual fluidity more conspicuous than in research on human learning. In this talk, after a very brief historical review, I will concentrate on two basic metaphors for learning in which current educational research seems to be grounded: the metaphors of learning-as-acquisition and of learning-as-participation. It will be claimed that these metaphors generate discourses which are incommensurable rather than incompatible - discourses which, although seemingly contradictory, can live side by side without any risk to the consistency of the research enterprise. Researches should be choosing their leading metaphor according to their needs. Using empirical examples as illustration, I will discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of each of the two options.

Download Anna Sfard's Invited Presentation

The biology of physics: What the brain reveals about our understanding of the physical world

Kevin Niall Dunbar, University of Toronto

Fundamental concepts in physics such as Newtonian mechanics are surprisingly difficult to learn and discover.  Physicists, philosophers, and educators have painstakingly detailed the use of concepts such as force yet the underlying mechanisms involved in the use of these concepts has been elusive.  Over the past decade we have been using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), brain damaged populations, and other neuroimaging techniques to uncover the neural substrates of conceptual change.  Using tasks derived from physics, chemistry, and biology we have found that conceptual change often involves the inhibition of prior knowledge and/or the recategorization of knowledge. The specific brain sites that we have discovered as being involved in conceptual change are the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate as well the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These regions are part of a network of brain sites that are involved in changes in knowledge use that are modulated both by experience and situational factors.  In this presentation I outline our findings and the implications for educational interventions.