Private Universe Theory and the study of the painfully obvious….

As the private universe theory attests, misconceptions in science and other disciplines are hard to debunk.  It seems that in physics, astronomy, or just about any other field, we oversimplify important facts and our ability to explain the natural or social world is somewhat impaired.  Like many Harvard grads surveyed in A Private Universe, I too thought that the earth’s season were due to the earth’s closeness to the sun as it orbits it.  This is not quite the case, yet this is myth pervasive.  I can’t pinpoint a reason for the prevalence of a myth, but I can attest to its power of myths as I have taught sociology. People have their myths about how the world works, based on their private universe (normally anecdotal evidence) and its nearly impossible to break these myths.  Dr. Muller outline five reasons that teaching facts in science education is difficult.  I took a screenshot of the video at the point in which he shared them:

5 myths

Let me discuss my own dilemma in teaching ‘facts’.  I have taught sociology at several community colleges and for some, its truly mind-boggling.  Sociology has been dubbed the ‘study of the painfully obvious’ for several reasons.  For one, sociologists are notorious for developing sophisticated terms to describe mundane concepts. I think that this gives people the impression that we are attempting to appear clever when we could simply describe social phenomenon in everyday terms.  Another reasons is that in many cases, sociological research backs up what most people intuitively ‘know’ to be true.  The causes however are often not individual ones (i.e. students make their fashion choices with no regards to others).  Time and time again, sociologists point to structural causes of social phenomenon, while most Westerners (and I suspect most humans) see behavior as individual.  The private universe theory manifests itself in sociology education when you present a theory and a student feels that it can’t be true since they can cite anecdotal evidence to the contrary.  For example, I presented Emile Durkheim’s research on suicide in a community college class and one wrote me privately and told me that this could not be true.  Durkheim found that the socially isolated people were more likely to commit suicide.  This student could not believe this since her outgoing father took his own life.  I explained to her that many sociological studies outline the propensity of certain groups to do certain things and that a finding like Durkheim’s does not mean that all socially isolated people will commit suicide (or on the flip side, that people like her father won’t).  Another reason is the epistemological overreach of early sociologists.  Until the 1960’s, sociologists made grand theories to explain universal behavior.  They made culture fit their concepts, rather than viewing culture as it truly exists.  This seems absurd in a post-modern intellectual landscape.  And yet most critics of sociology cite its worst offenders in this regard (ex. Talcott Parsons, Auguste Comte).  Finally, sociologists are typically far left-of-the-center politically and this tendency casts doubts on the validity of their research and conclusions, especially from right-leaning political pundits.  So like Muller and other science educators, I find it difficult to break through the private universe, particularly when students doubt that the scientific method could be applied to the social world!

Multi-Dimensional Media + Inquiry-Based Learning = Knowledgeable Students

I believe that the extensive use of videos and media in the classroom will better assist all types of learners (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners) to grasp concepts.  In my mind, technology is a not a cure for all of education’s woes, but it can certainly address the deficits of traditional education.  As an older millennial, I can see how my educational experience in grade school was limited by technology.  Graphs and images are expensive to publish and sadly, many older textbooks opted out of visual depictions of concepts.  This is less the case, but watching a video about how the earth simultaneously rotates and revolves is far superior to reading it in a textbook or having a teacher with limited illustration skills attempt to sketch it out on a chalkboard.  I wish, for example, that I had the benefit of YouTube in my education to explain seasons, like this simple video does.  Textbooks and lecture-based teaching do not engage visual and kinesthetic learners, so many learners missed out on important concepts.  Students with limited English proficiency or who struggled with reading were further impeded by text-based transmission of knowledge.  Educational videos, if done correctly, could remedy this problems for visual learners.  Simple hand-on activities using Web 2.0 technology (i.e. Padlet, Google Drawings) could benefit kinesthetic learners.

Using media and creating media alone will not solve our educational deficits.  As Muller pointed out in his YouTube video, many students gloss over what they think they already know.  The private universe ‘satisfices‘ our curiosity to understand the world, making it difficult to consume new information.  Presenting students information, particularly in the sciences, is counter-productive since students don’t get to experience the scientific method.  Inquiry-based learning, on the other hands, presents a problem and guides students through the problem-solving process.  Presenting students with conflicting narratives and having them solve a problem using the scientific method (or information literacy skills more broadly).  Making students aware of their gaps in learning is a good way to debunk their misconceptions.  Testing a hypothesis for oneself is far more valuable than having facts imparted to students; they learn to be critical consumers of what are essentially hypotheses and practice good research skills to test them.  This would, of course, cede the passive learning model of education, but that’s a soapbox for another day!


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