Launch Pad #4: An answer
August 2, 2010
I bet you’re finally wanting to know what was up with my experiment of several days ago, hm? Well, it was a smashing, roaring success! Thank you all for the many, many responses! I had no idea so many people would play along with me, and I appreciate it.
I haven’t run detailed stats or anything on the answers I got, and I don’t plan to. This is mostly to illustrate a point. But a rough breakdown: Almost everyone got it right. Gold stars for everyone! Throwing out the creative and snarky answers (turtles, indeed!), there were about a half dozen wrong answers, and about as many half-wrong answers. The interesting thing is, there are reasons people have wrong answers to this question, which I’ll get to.
The answer: the Earth’s tilt on its axis causes the seasons.
The wrong answer: the seasons have nothing to do with the shape of the Earth’s orbit and the distance of the Earth from the sun. Yes, the Earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, but it’s so slight as to have no noticeable effect on the planet’s climate or temperature. It all has to do with the tilt, and which hemisphere has greater exposure to the sun during which part of the orbit. Here is a full and detailed explanation from NOAA.
Now, the explanation for why I did all this. I basically wanted to rerun someone else’s experiment to see what happened. To wit:
Launch Pad included quite a bit of discussion of pedagogy: how we teach, how we acquire and retain knowledge, and so on, since big part of the whole point of the workshop is to teach writers like me to be better educators when it comes to science. As part of the discussion, we watched a short, eye-opening film: A Private Universe. In it, researchers ask a group of Harvard graduates — and a couple of professors — what causes the seasons. And most of them answered wrong — that seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the sun. The researchers then went to a junior high classroom and did the same thing, thinking these kids haven’t had a chance to learn wrong information — well, they had come up with wrong answers too. So where was everyone getting the wrong answers from?
It turns out a lot of us have a lot of assumptions about the things we think we know, and those assumptions — preconceived notions and misconceptions — can run smack dab into reality. And they can be hard to get rid of.
We are never teaching clean slates — people come to learning with a lot of assumptions already in place, and part of good teaching isn’t just imparting knowledge, but confronting wrong assumptions and overcoming them. A lot of misconceptions come from experience:
In our daily lives, we all know a basic truth: if you move closer to a heat source, you get hotter. You feel more energy. Therefore, if you knew absolutely nothing about the Earth’s orbit, and axial tilt, this would actually be a pretty good assumption about why the Earth gets hotter in summer. This is the reason why pre-Copernican astronomy was so insistent that the Earth was the center of the universe — of course the Earth can’t be moving because we can’t feel it. And we all see the sky turning overhead. Therefore. . . But that’s wrong. Observational data doesn’t support that assumption.
There’s another item that researchers discovered: many textbooks when discussing the seasons and the Earth’s orbit draw the Earth and sun from a side-on view, mimicking 3-D. Like this one. The trouble is, those diagrams turn a near-circular orbit into an ellipse and make the Earth appear to get significantly closer to the sun at various points on its orbit. Unwittingly, in an effort to teach one concept, these diagrams plant a misconception in students’ minds.
Now, what does all this mean for me as a writer? How do I deliver information, knowing that I may be dealing with readers’ misconceptions? How do I deliver information that doesn’t cause new misconceptions? What’s the best way to overturn someone’s faulty preconceptions? I’m still mulling it all over. It’s pretty heavy stuff.