Instead of Authority: Encouraging Non-Canonical Thinking

Last week in class, I showed some student examples of authentic, non-canonical thinking.  I asked the class to identify what they saw as good in those examples.  Here’s what they said:

“It’s honest.

It talks about electrons and energy.

It talks about physical cause.

It’s about the real world.

They noticed patterns.

They used analogies and metaphors.

They broke the ideas into parts.

They asked questions — clarifying and precision.

The were trying to find the limits of when things were true.

They said they didn’t know.

They proposed a hypothesis.

They said what seemed weird.

At a glance, it seems people wrote more than usual that day about what they think might be happening in their circuits.  I’ll post more when I read them… but I’m hopeful.


  1. I love the connection to a “spiritual crisis” and I think it is good to bring it up in class, with the level of care you seem to be demonstrating. And sharing admirable (if “wrong”) responses from the students is a great way for them to start to see the value. These comments on each other’s ideas seem like good evidence that they are indeed starting to see the value! I’m especially impressed they value explanations (right/wrong) that are getting at causes. Did you notice whether the students who tend to reason based on authority were among those noticing good things about “wrong” ideas?

  2. […] One tiny change I made this year is to use more “portfolio-style” assessments.  If you work for the same institution I do, you know that “portfolio” can mean a bewildering variety of things… I’m using it here in the concrete sense used by artists and architects.  So far this semester, that looks like doing in-class exercises where students work on 3-5 examples of the same thing. For example, our first lab about circuits required students to hook up 3 circuits, using batteries, light bulbs, and switches, and draw what they had built.  On the second lab day, I asked them to build the same circuits again, based on their sketches, and add measurements of voltage, current, and resistance.  On the third day, they practised interpreting the results, using sentence prompts. […]

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