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Pitfalls of Metaphors: Does Warm Air Hold More Water?

Posted: Jan 15 2015 by Glenn Dolphin & Kim Kastens
Topics: Metacognition, Perception/Observation, Interpretation/Inference


The following is a guest post by Glenn Dolphin (aka "Flipper"), of the University of Calgary Department of Geosciences.

This discussion first appeared in the ESPRIT list server, a lively forum for discussion of earth science teaching, mostly at the secondary school level. When Flipper's ideas below came forth, there had been an extensive multi-person, multi-day discussion of whether it was useful or misleading to tell students, during their study of weather and climate, that "warm air holds more water vapor than cold air." Although this and synonymous statements are common in popular science treatments (for example, here and here), this form of explanation has been roundly criticized in other expositions for the public (for example, here and here).

A point of view held by several teachers could be summarized by one who wrote: "As I see it, declaring that air 'holds' water isn't nearly as awful as it's made out to be." I was reminded of my blog post and followup comments about Telling Lies to Children, asking where is the borderline between a pedagogically valuable simplification and a lie. Air "holding" water is not literally true; it is a metaphor in which air is compared to a container with a limited holding capacity. Metaphors can be valuable tools for helping the human mind come to grips with (another metaphor) an unfamiliar concept. But they also have pitfalls, as explored in the guest post below.

—–Kim Kastens–Earth & Mind co-editor

Guest blog post

In my research, I am looking at the metaphors we (experts, for the most part) use in science and their effect on how students (novices) understand them. We use many metaphors (selfish gene, black hole, big bang, electron cloud, tectonic plate). As experts, we may very well be able to use "hold" if we have a good physical understanding for the air/water system. However, people who don't, like our novice students, will generate meaning based on their own physical experiences of containers that hold things. This could then lead to difficulties in understanding, most likely because they will always start from this point, and not give other meanings a chance. More

Educating for "Sapience"

Posted: Sep 8 2013 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Evolution, Systems Thinking, Community, Metacognition, Solving Societal Problems

I've recently been digging into the writings of George Mobus on the subject of "Sapience." Mobus begins by asking himself and his readers "If we are such a clever species, why is the world the way it is, and heading in such a bad direction?"

His answer is that most humans, even very intelligent and clever ones, have too little "sapience."

"Sapience" is Mobus' term for a human attribute that is a combination of judgement (based on life experiences), moral sense (primarily altruism, thinking about the welfare of the group as well as of yourself), taking a long view of the future (strategic perspective), and systems perspective. He thinks that sapience is present in all humans, but very unevenly distributed with a few people having a lot and most people having little. More

What precursor understandings underlie the ability to make meaning from data?

Posted: Jun 6 2013 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Research Idea, Interpretation/Inference, Temporal Thinking, Metacognition

I've been thinking a lot recently about how scientists and students make meaning from data, spurred in part by the Earth Cube education end-users workshop. Among other things, I've been trying to understand what kinds of deeply foundational understandings might be constructed by young children through unstructured observation using the human senses, and then later re-purposed as they begin to work with data.

Here is one candidate: Future data users need to understand that:

  • events in the world leave traces, and
  • by looking the traces, we can make inferences about the events.
  • More

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"Some Students Will..."

Posted: Apr 21 2012 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Interpretation/Inference, Metacognition

Mediterranean Salinity Map Recently my "Teaching & Learning Concepts In Earth Sciences" students and I renovated one of my old data-using lab activities, from the days when I used to teach "Planet Earth" to non-science majors. The old version of the activity led students step-by-step through a series of manipulations of an on-line global data base, using a professional data visualization tool. The old directions provided a lot of scaffolding for how to make data displays of ocean salinity in and around the Mediterranean Sea, but little support for how to extract insights about earth processes from those displays. The new version assumes that students are already pretty adept at getting computer apps to do what they want, and refocuses the scaffolding on how to think like a geoscientist, how to think about the meaning of the data. More

Turning Nature Into Categories

Posted: Feb 13 2012 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Metacognition, Perception/Observation, Interpretation/Inference

Two years ago in this space, I wrote about "Turning Nature into Numbers," humanity's accomplishment of developing instruments and methodologies that can turn the fleeting qualitative impressions that we have of our surroundings into quantitative values–numbers–which can be readily stored, shared, transmitted and compared.

Numbers are great, but it seems to me that for developing an opinion or making a decision, humans often want categories rather than numbers. More