Monday, September 22, 2014

Week 4 Memo: Representation and Clinical Interviews

This week’s readings deal in detail with the practice of conducting clinical interviews as a means of assessing student thinking, as well as with the nature and purpose of various forms of representation in math and science.

First, Ginsburg discusses at length the set of practices and behaviors that, he believes, allow for success in drawing out student thinking during clinical interviews. He makes a distinction between the interviewer as researcher, who would like to examine student thinking for the purpose of increasing/enhancing the general body of psychological knowledge, and the interviewer as practitioner, who would like to examine student thinking for the purpose of helping the student become a better learner. Both roles rely heavily on a highly developed sensitivity for the condition of the child in question (hence the term clinical), and both require a great deal of mental flexibility to be able to provide the child with the necessary conditions for revealing her mental processes to the interviewer. Ginsburg describes many potentially helpful habits and dispositions, which may be applied before, during, or after the interview. His recommendations, however, come with an ‘it depends’ caveat, as Ginsburg points out that children are diverse and unique and will therefore necessitate a diverse and unique repertoire of interview techniques.

Second, Russ and Sherin explore the clinical interview from a teacher’s perspective, holding it up as an effective and desirable way to assess student thinking prior to entering new units of instruction. The utility of the clinical interview in the educator’s eyes, according to the authors, lies in its ability to disclose to the teacher what children already know, thereby informing instruction and enabling the teacher to design curriculum that builds on students’ existing ideas. The authors present three primary strategies in using clinical interviews to explore student thinking: contextualize the concept (give it real world ‘flesh and bones’), probe student responses (ask how and why they got that answer, what they mean by x, etc.), and seed new ways of thinking (rephrasing questions, giving hints, etc.).

Third, Greeno and Hall explore practices of representation both in and out of school. They focus on representation in math and science, though they are sure to point out that forms of representation in other disciplines are fundamentally the same as in science, despite their typically qualitative character. The authors present representational practices not as an educational end in themselves, but rather as a tool used by both students and professionals alike to assist in and give form to the construction of new understandings, as well as to facilitate communication of this understanding from person to person. A key idea from this article is that a representation without someone there to interpret it is simply notation, and as such lacks power as a tool for creation of new meaning.

Common threads:
  • Students are active learners, capable of constructing complex understandings based on prior knowledge and current instruction;
  • Student thinking can be articulated via original and/or canonical forms of representation;
  • Student thinking should inform instruction, both through prior knowledge’s influence on curriculum and through the impact of students’ communicated understandings on other students.

I’m left thinking about how clinical interviews ideally contain an opportunity for students to both engage in modeling and to shape and communicate their understandings via representation. The power of representations to be both foundations upon which students can construct understandings as well as stages from which to pronounce these understandings is an important asset to clinical interviewers and educators. Not only does the content of representations aid the teacher in assessing student learning, but also the language/form such representations take. For example, many physical phenomena may be described visually (through pictures), orally, mathematically, or graphically (through tables, charts, etc.). The tendency of a student to employ a particular mode of representation, or a combination of any, may surely be very telling to the teacher/interviewer of how the student goes about describing to herself the nature of the world and her learning about it. It is clear to me that the practices of representation, modeling, explanation, and argumentation are very closely linked, and may be engaged in the classroom through instruction, clinical interviews, and student collaboration.

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