30 January 2012

Meaningful vs rote, discovery vs reception

Ausubel takes great pains to point out that many teachers believe all discovery learning is inherently meaningful, and that all reception learning is inherently rote.

I wrote once before about the nonsensical "discovery learning" we were asked to do in science at high school: boiling a beaker to determine the boiling point of water.  This was an absolute waste of time, and it was pure rote learning -- we determined that it was less than a hundred degrees, then the teacher told is it was 100 degrees.  But this is rote -- although we allegedly "discovered" the knowledge, the simple act of setting up the apparatus did not provide a meaningful framework in which to understand the data.  The act of boiling did not reveal anything new.

However, reception learning gives us a very memorable framework.

How do you measure heat?  What is your standard?  Well, we all know what ice feels like.  We all boil water.  So we already know about that.  Which is why some Swedish guy decided that it would make sense to use the boiling point and freezing point of water as the reference points on a scale.  Now, you should know before it comes to boiling that water freezes at zero -- now we know that it's no accident.  But what about boiling?  Well, how do divide up a metre?  Correct.  100 Centimeters.  So water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.  (He could have made it 1000, but that would have been confusing as his name starts with C, and millimetres start with M.  OK, so he probably wasn't vain enough to think this way, but as we associate C with hundreds, it's a meaningful association, even if accidental.)

So now we have two useful points of reference, and all within a meaningful and useful framework.  Heck, you could even throw in Celsius's first name (Anders) if you wanted to, and you could talk about body temperature too, and all this would be taught and learned in less than the time it takes to boil a beaker of water on a bunsen burner.

No demonstration is needed, because the student has all the concepts required - I don't need to see boiling water to understand the concept of "boiling", nor do I need to see a block of ice to understand the concept of "freezing".
OK, so I've wandered off the language track a bit with that, but I think it's an important point to make, because it shows that a known abstract concept can be meaningful.

The concept of zero is evoked by talking about ice.  The concept of that temperature is evoked by that word "ice".  The word itself evokes the concept better than any demonstration.  As language teachers, we can use that... as long as we don't fear the "translation bogeyman"....


Anonymous said...

You mean, "how do you measure *temperature*" not 'heat'. Your physics teacher wasn't up to the job if you never learned to distinguish these two concepts. Agus dé mu dheidhinn Kelvin?

Nìall Beag said...

Is it that important to you?