Earlier this week, my teacher education students completed their month-long moon study. As I’ve been doing for years, we spend a class session “debriefing” and sharing the explanatory models each student has developed over the month. In general, this session reveals the conceptual difficulties children and adults have in making sense of phenomena from a scientific perspective. The difficulties arise from the conflict between what we observe and experience throughout our lives and what is actually occurring. A common “everyday” conception is that the moon moves from east to west around the Earth. We develop this understanding from seeing the moon “rise” in the east and “set” in the west. However, with careful observation over a number of nights, we will notice that the moon moves further to the east every night. Such an observation indicates that the moon is actually moving from west to east around the Earth.
The problem that arises almost every time I do this is that a significant number of students feel “stupid” for having difficulty “getting” the concepts involved. Sometimes students are in tears. Other times, they retreat into some “safe” place while solidifying their dislike for science (and other forms learning). For some reason, I’m always taken aback by these reactions. However, I too fall into situations where I feel “stupid.” It’s the legacy of our system of schooling.
The “feeling stupid” syndrome seems to arise from our experiences in school. If you don’t “know” something, the subtle or not so subtle message is that you’re not smart. This labeling is further reinforced by our ridiculous obsession with testing and by a wide assortment of other situations, such as the TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”
However, the research in student learning shows that these faulty conceptions are evident in almost everyone (including highly educated people). These types of understandings are so basic to our ways of viewing the world that we consider them self-evident “truths,” even though they are not accurate. So, why do we consider ourselves and others “stupid” for not having a particular understanding? Why are these feelings of “stupidity” propagated by our schools and our social institutions? These negative labeling patterns are major disconnections and acts of psychological violence that hinder our ability to learn and to enjoy learning. Instead of feeling stupid, we could feel “challenged to inquire further” or “intrigued by another interesting problem.”