What do electrons want? (A study in metaphors and causality)

Some interesting comments on my recent post about causal thinking have got my wheels turning.  It puts me in mind of the conversation at Overthinking My Teaching about whether “repeated addition” is the best way to approach teaching exponents. In that post, Christopher Danielson points out the helpfulness of shifting from “Why is Approach X  wrong” or even “Which approach is correct” toward “What is gained and lost when using Approach X?

In that light, I’m thinking back on my post and the comments.  For example:


I talk about the difference between “who/what you are” (the definition of you) and “what caused you” (a meeting of sperm and egg).  In the systems of belief that my students tend to have, people are not thought to “just happen” or “cause themselves.”  It can help open the conversation.  However, even when I do this, they are surprisingly unlikely to transfer that concept to atomic particles.


“Purpose is a REAL facet in all of nature because everything has a natural function e.g., the role of mitochondria in eukaryotic cells is ATP production, or that the nature of negatively charged electrons is to attract and repel + and – charged particles respectively, etc.”


But I think it’s the same mistake to presume that they really *mean* that the electron has desires and wants, which is a slippery slope to thinking they *can’t* access or feel the need to explore the deeper causal relationships.

I’m noticing that there are ideas I expect students to extend from humans to particles (forces can act on us), and ideas I expect them to find not-extensible (desire).  These examples are the easy ones; “purpose” is harder to place clearly in one category or the other, and “cause” probably belongs in both categories but means something different in each.  I need to think more clearly about which ones are which and why, and how to help students develop their own skills for distinguishing.

I’m trying to stop assuming that when students talk about electrons’ “desires,” that they are referring to a deeper story; I also need to avoid assuming that they are not, or that they don’t want to/aren’t drawn to.

I’m on a personal “fast” of discussing electrons’ purposes and desires, at least while I’m in earshot of my students.  It’s hard to break those habits, exactly because they are so helpful.  However, it has the useful result that all the ideas about purpose and desires that are getting thrown around in class come from the students.  The students seem more willing to question them than when the ideas come from me.  Unfortunately they are having a really hard time understanding each other’s metaphors (even though the metaphors are not particularly far-fetched, by my reckoning), and I’m having a really hard time facilitating the conversation to help them see each other’s point of view.  But that still seems better than before, when the metaphors were not getting questioned at all, and maybe not even noticed as metaphors.


    • Interesting point — the knowledge we construct is certainly designed, perhaps well or poorly for a given purpose. The Foundation for Critical Thinking published a survey of attitudes of ed school profs that noted how easy it is to lose track of this. Just because a student constructs their own knowledge, doesn’t mean they construct it well; prejudice is just as constructed as fairmindedness.

      So the idea of “designing knowledge” is an interesting one — especially if it can help us (or even just me!) distinguish between cause, role, and purpose. Thanks for the suggestion — I’ve added it to my summer reading list.

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