Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Power of Language

This week I was working with two really good physics teachers (now retired) leading a workshop called "The Science of Cell Phones and Wireless Communication".  This is a piece of curriculum the three of us wrote about 7 years ago that puts high school students in the position to learn how cell phones work.  And I mean more than turn it on and download apps - I mean how are the signals sent, how are the signals converted to digital, what is a "cell", why are calls dropped and much more.  It is awesome.

During the first day of this two day workshop we were brainstorming devices in their every day lives that use wireless communication.  One of the participants shouted out RFID chips.  Mark, the lead facilitator, asked him how they worked.

The participant stated that the RFID chip is, "magnetically charged" and sends out a radio signal.  At that very moment I wasn't really paying attention but my head went up so fast I think I pulled a muscle in my neck!  Many of the other participants were nodding along as if that made perfect sense.  Mark just nodded along - because he didn't want to tell the participant that he wasn't making any sense.  And the conversation continued...

I kind of wanted to say something at that point but I knew that we would talk so much wireless communication over the next two days that I hoped that he would get his issues cleared up.

But it made me consider how important the language we use is to teaching and learning.  Let's focus on the terminology that he used, "magnetically charged".  This really highlights some common misconceptions that we know exist in our students and apparently in teachers!

How often have our students confused the complicated ideas involved in the interaction between electricity and magnetism?  Too often!  

Let's consider the forces we call Gravitation, Electrostatics and Magnetism.  We call these "spooky forces" more specifically called "field forces" which I like to call "non-contact forces".  Do any of these names give us a clue as to the nature of these forces?  My question is; how are they the same, How are they different?

We know from middle school that if  you wrap a piece of wire around a metal nail and connect it to a battery it will turn into a magnet!  There is a relationship between magnetism and electricity but do you think kids might be confused?  

Do you think this confusion leads to kids using terms like "magnetically charged"?

My point is that the language we use in the classroom matters to the understanding that we'd like our students to develop.  It is important for us to be cognizant of this and help our students to use the language that is appropriate for student conceptual development. 

Good Luck,



1 comment:

Leif Nabil said...

I had the same reaction you did when I read it. But as I kept reading, I realized "magnetically charged" can make sense based solely on the mentioned middle school experience and a very loose definition of "charged":

"Charging" is something that is done with wires and mystery to prepare a device to carry out its function. The syntax of "magnetically charged" suggests that Magnetism was used to prepare the circuit element. Perhaps "charged to behave magnetically" would have been more appropriate given the loose and wrong definition of charge.

That said, thanks for mentioning the workshop. I found a related pdf posted by WSST.