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The Art of Explanation – Terminal Velocity January 6, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea.
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In the preceding post I discussed the aforementioned book and wondered if there were any lessons to be learned from the messages the author, Lee Lefever, had to offer. Given how successful they clearly are, could the CommonCraft techniques be applied to the way we do things in school? Of necessity having to return to my subject-teaching roots, I elected to choose the topic of terminal velocity – a term (thanks to the film of the same name) with which students are largely familiar, but have less understanding of the concept.

terminal velocity

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by juls10: http://flickr.com/photos/juls10/30719930/

So we have around 3 minutes to follow the general structure mentioned in the previous post. I wanted to solicit agreement using a big-picture statement, set the context by saying why this might be important for them, tell a story which explains how and why a character experiences terminal velocity (and lives to tell the tale!), make connections to other examples with which the audience should be familiar, then conclude with a summary.

Turning that into a CommonCraft-style video would then entail several hours more work to produce the resources, film the sequence, then edit and produce the final movie (something for later perhaps?). However I did go to the trouble of writing the script and recording the narration:

Assuming that I finished off the project and produced a video, does it have a place in a Physics teaching context? Well, yes, no and maybe. It certainly summarises the concept of terminal velocity and with illustrative visuals would hopefully capture the essence in a way all (most?) students could grasp. It assumes a certain level of knowledge – forces, gravity, air resistance, acceleration – this is OK under CommonCraft ‘rules,’ but does require that you are familiar with your audience. I guess the video could be used as a resource to which students could refer back upon competing the topic, or even as an introductory piece – create an almost identical video (not too much overhead) containing an error; students then have to explain which they think is the correct version and why. But we have to be careful not to stray too far from what a Commoncraft-style video actually is; Lee is very clear that they’re about explanation, not description, illustration, definition or elaboration. Maybe the video serves as a touchstone to which students can refer back; a foundation on which they can build further knowledge and understanding.

Producing a Commoncraft-style video then is perhaps more about the process of interrogating your own understanding of the concept you’re trying to explain, so that you re-evaluate the way you usually introduce that learning. I wonder if there’s value in students producing videos – an artifact which would display their true understanding surely, rather than the regurgitated facts examination questions often demand?

And finally something for you to think about:

If a human falls from ten-times their height, they’ll probably be rather unwell. If a spider falls from a hundred-times its height, it’ll walk away unscathed. Why is that?
If you understand terminal velocity, you’ll be able to explain 😉

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