Paradigmatic Problems

Thomas Kuhn’s book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and his notion of paradigm shifts has had far reaching applications. For example, in my own field of science education the ways in which scientists become dissatisfied with old paradigms and adopt new ones has been applied to help explain conceptual change in student learning. That is, when a student has a misconception, they must become dissatisfied with the misconception, but must also be introduced (or develop) an alternative conception that is plausible, intelligible, and of course must be fruitful (e.g. fix or account for whatever created the dissatisfaction with the old idea). While much nuance has been explored within this framework, the fundamental aspects remain the same.

Not surprisingly, preservice and inservice teachers bring problematic paradigms to their learning about teaching. With 13+ years of observation, we have very deeply held, but inaccurate, beliefs about what teaching is supposed to be. One of the hardest things for me to do in my work with teachers is helping them question what they know about teaching. This task can be very emotionally draining for me and the teachers. Yet, I believe dissatisfaction with the way things are is a key step toward change.

Similarly, I think the notion of paradigm shifts and conceptual change applies to our learning and thinking about social issues. I don’t think any one can work to change systematic injustices until they are dissatisfied with the way things are. We can’t be anti-racist until we acknowledge that racism is still a problem.

When I work with kids learning science, I can’t exclaim, “No, you’re wrong! The moon phases are clearly not caused by the Earth’s shadow!” and expect them to learn anything. They might memorize the “right” answer, but they likely haven’t changed their beliefs. Similarly, I don’t scream at teachers, “You’re doing it wrong!” and expect any change in their teaching. Why do we think shouting, “No, that’s racist!” will change anyone’s beliefs?

Instead, with the science students and the teachers, I spend time providing concrete experiences and asking carefully worded questions to guide them toward noticing the problems with the inaccurate or problematic ideas. As they become dissatisfied, I try to introduce, or help them generate, new ideas that account for their dissatisfaction. How do we help our peers become dissatisfied with the realities people of color, those in poverty, and other oppressed groups face everyday? I don’t think screaming at them is going to work. Then, what are the key new ideas needing to be understood so that progress can be made?

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