Using Professional Noticing to Address Middle Level Students' Alternative Conceptions of Lunar Phases

By Wilhelm, Jennifer; Cameron, Shelby et al. | Science Scope, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Using Professional Noticing to Address Middle Level Students' Alternative Conceptions of Lunar Phases


Wilhelm, Jennifer, Cameron, Shelby, Cole, Merryn, Pardee, Rachel, Science Scope


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This article focuses on how teachers can "professionally notice" the many alternative conceptions that students hold about lunar phases. Students form these alternative conceptions based on social and physical interactions they have had with this phenomenon (Driver and Oldham 1986). The term "alternative conceptions" refers to explanations students construct that are different from the accepted scientific explanation (Danaia and McKinnon 2008). According to Jacobs, Lamb, and Philipp (2010), professional noticing:

"is introduced as a way to begin to unpack the in-the-moment decision making that is foundational to the complex view of teaching endorsed in national reform documents. The authors define this expertise as a set of interrelated skills including (a) attending to children's strategies, (b) interpreting children's understandings, and (c) deciding how to respond on the basis of children's understandings" (p. 169).

To professionally notice students' thinking, teachers must not only take into account or familiarize themselves with historical misconceptions of particular disciplines described in the research literature (e.g., the alternative conception that the Earth's shadow causes lunar phases), but also attend to and interpret students' subtle cues and gestures that are not readily recorded in research studies. These noticeable cues emerge only when instructional practices include students exploring, observing, modeling, and discussing. During activities that include exploration, modeling, etc., the teacher acts in the moment (Mason and Spence 1999) and determines how to advance students' understanding through strategic questioning and lesson development.

Professional noticing can be used across many subject areas as a way to collect information and make instructional decisions based on students' preconceived understandings. Recent research with preservice elementary teachers in mathematics methods courses revealed that professional noticing is not an automatic talent, but it is a teachable concept (Schack et al. 2013). Professional noticing uses three stages: attending, interpreting, and deciding (Jacobs, Lamb, and Philipp 2010). Attending refers to the physical evidence observed by the teacher (such as a student's drawing or model). Interpreting uses this evidence to determine students' understanding, which then informs the decision phase, where instructional tasks are determined.

For the purpose of our investigation, we examined the following questions: What alternative conceptions do students hold prior to instruction on lunar phases? How can these alternative conceptions be addressed successfully through professional noticing in a middle level science environment? Results from investigating these questions can help teachers in science classrooms attend to their students' ideas regarding lunar-related concepts, interpret what these ideas mean about students' understanding, and then decide how to plan instruction for middle level students that targets the alternative conceptions they might hold. The information gained from teachers' observations allows them to help students form a scientifically correct understanding. This study diagnoses students' understandings of the Moon and its phases and determines, via professional noticing, instructional strategies to address students' needs.

Background for lunar-related professional noticing example

Black (2004) claimed that "Moon phases, an astronomical phenomenon involving movement of a half-lit body in space viewed from the unavoidable fixed position of Earth observers" (p. 10) is an extremely difficult concept to grasp. Understanding the cause of lunar phases requires well-developed spatial skills, along with knowing about Earth and Moon orbital motions and their relative positions with respect to the Sun. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) address these concepts in MS-ESS1-1 and MS-ESS1-3. …

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