Sunday, October 26, 2014

Problems vs. Questions: different epistemic objects?

When I first started using FLE3 several years ago I saw no important distinction between questions and problems. As a matter fact, it seems in much of the literature that questions were considered simply one possible expression of a problem. So it was natural or actually unavoidable that when I taught my students to participate in knowledge building discussions that I focused on questions. I taught them to ask questions of each other and of nature--an essential part of the Interrogative Model of Inquiry, a foundational element of progressive inquiry.

However, in my last three years of study I've gained a tremendous appreciation for the role of "problems" in the processes of science. Carl Bereiter extensively develops the idea of problems of understanding, and I had read a lot of his work, so I don't know why it took me so long to understand their unique role in knowledge building. Whereas questions serve as analytic tools for gaining understanding, problems are themselves objects of inquiry.

Being educated in the US science education research community, we don't use this term, "problems of understanding" but refer to the closely related "discrepant event." A discrepant event is an event that not only can not be explained by our current understandings, but one where our understanding trips in its effort to explain the event and that is cognitively disturbing! When this happens, Piaget describes our mind as being in a state of disequilibrium, and able to commence the arduous task of altering an established schema. Personally, I like Festinger's development of the idea of cognitive dissonance to explain the state of disequilibrium that results from a problem of understanding.

Bereiter might describe knowledge building as the discovering or creating of these problems of understanding and the subsequent, long-term, creative and collaborative process of solving them. Progressive inquiry then is a pedagogical approach describing and explaining how a class may be led--or grow--through cycles of activities as they discover, develop and solve these problems of understanding based on internal, external, and very importantly, distributed knowledge resources.

FLE4 is the 4th iteration of open source software designed to support a classroom's knowledge building efforts. It scaffolds a class' KB discourse in a threaded online discussion by requiring a student to choose the purpose of his/her comment before posting, and only 5 purposes (knowledge types) are allowed: Problem, My Explanation, Scientific Explanation, Process Observation and Summary.

I propose that these 5 knowledge types be expanded to 6 and that, as per a discussion with Minna Lakkala, "Scientific Explanation" be changed to "Source-based Explanation". The 6th knowledge type would be "Question", thus no longer conflating questions and problems. There are important metacognitive benefits, I believe, for students being able to distinguish between these distinct knowledge types, but won't argue that, here. However, briefly I'll distinguish these two KT's, here.

A problem is...

...centered around an experience, a perception, that defies adaquate explanation. A famous example would be Einstein's imagined event where he is traveling at the speed of light and looks ahead to a mirror he is holding. Another example familiar to the US science education community might be placing a current (amp) meter at 2 points in a simple battery/bulb circuit and noting the direction of current flow through the wires. Doing this test, one notes that, in one wire the direction of flow is away from the battery (as a student may expect) but that the direction of flow in the other wire is back towards the other end of the battery (which many students would NOT expected). This brings up a property of problems--they are referenced to not only the event but the understanding of the person perceiving: to one who understood electric current to be like water current, these results would be totally expected, no surprise, no conflict, no problem.

A question is... analytic tool we use to solve a problem. Looking at the second problem listed above, we might ask: "What is electric current made of?" "What is a battery made of and how does it work?" "How does a light bulb work?" and probably, "Does this meter really show the direction of current?" and "How is it possible that current flows into the battery?" Of course these questions can be too big and so they probably need to be analyzed themselves, breaking them into smaller constituent parts, or dividing them into different types of some general category, or organized into some sequence, or looking for causal relationships between parts. In the end, through this interrogation, a problem can be resolved and a new, more useful theory (and its connected body of facts and problems and ideas) are constituted.

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