Looking for a better way to teach, he became interested in the research being conducted in the nation's universities on how students learn. While earning a Ph.D. in science education from the University of Washington in the late 1970s, he worked with several researchers and even won a research grant of his own. By that time, cognitive research had clearly established that students don't enter the classroom as blank slates; they bring with them logical but incomplete or oversimplified ideas. For example, some students enter physics classes believing that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones because experience tells them a rock hits the ground before a feather. Students are reluctant to abandon such commonsense ideas and accept the formal laws of physics.
Minstrell began to use this research in his teaching. Instead of lecturing, he helped students articulate their naive ideas and test them through experimentation. He discovered that they learned more this way and actually got excited about the principles of physics.
Minstrell wanted to understand more about students' preconceptions and how to use them in teaching. He also wanted to bring his new methods to other teachers. So, in 1987, with the assistance of cognitive researchers Earl Hunt of the University of Washington and Andrea DiSessa of the University of California Berkeley, he applied for a grant from the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation. The foundation awarded a total of $4.5 million dollars to 13 research teams that year; Minstrell received $375,000. He was the only grant winner from a secondary school.
After winning the grant, Minstrell recruited teachers Virginia Stimpson and Dorothy Simpson, two of his colleagues at Mercer Island High School, to work with him on the project. Among other things, they teach some of Minstrell's physics classes, freeing him to focus on the research.
The project has three closely related goals: to identify in more detail students' preconceptions about the physical world; to explore ways teachers can use those preconceptions to teach physical laws; and to prepare classroom materials that other teachers can use to teach physics.
The classes run by Minstrell and his colleagues are the most important raw material for the research. At the start of each unit, students are asked to predict the outcomes of hypothetical experiments and explain in writing the logic behind their predictions. For example, they are asked to predict what will happen to the weight of an object when it is sealed in a bell jar and all the air inside the jar is removed. Some students think the object will weigh less because of the absence of air pressure. Others, recalling the weightlessness of outer space, think the object will weigh nothing. Still others believe the object will be heavier or weigh the same. Minstrell writes their initial predictions on the board.
Then, he asks students to debate their predictions and stays out of the discussion as much as possible. Eventually, the students suggest doing an experiment with a real scale in a vacuum. "They start placing their bets on what's going to happen,'' Minstrell says.
He calls the first experiment of a unit the "benchmark experience'' because it forces the students to revise some of their original predictions. Later, the students perform other experiments and work on a special HyperCard-based computer program called "diagnoser/prescriber,'' designed by Minstrell and Hunt with the McDonnell grant money. Students also complete work sheets. Most of them gradually realize that air, like water, has a buoyant effect; thus, an object weighs slightly more in a vacuum. Students are tested at the end of each unit, the end of the semester, and the end of the year. They do significantly better than students taught in more traditional ways.
The teachers closely monitor the students' preconceptions and analyze how they change. Classes are videotaped by Emily van Zee, a researcher who won a postdoctoral grant from McDonnell to join the project. She transcribes the tapes and then analyzes them, noting the pattern of dialogue, the questions asked, and the process the class goes through to understand the physics. The "diagnoser/prescriber'' program also provides teachers with learning data. Minstrell and his colleagues evaluate and revise their teaching methods based on what they observe. They also use the research to prepare videotapes, improve the HyperCard program, and develop printed material so that other teachers will be able use this technique.
Mercer Island High School competed for the McDonnell grant against the top universitybased research institutions in the country, but, according to foundation president John Bruer, the proposal Minstrell submitted "was exactly what we were looking for.'' McDonnell funded the project through its Program in Cognitive Studies for Educational Practice, which encourages the application of cognitive science in the classroom. "That's why it was so exciting to find Mercer Island,'' Bruer says. The foundation recently announced Phase II of the cognitive studies program, and the team hopes to win another grant.
Bruer would like to see more teachers involved in research. He notes, however, that most find "the demands of their jobs don't give them the time or energy.'' He suggests that schools use inservice training to encourage collaboration between cognitive researchers and teachers.
The principal at Mercer Island High is worried that his teacherresearcher will leave to pursue research full time. But Minstrell, who has taught college, prefers teaching high school and has no plans to give up his dual role at Mercer Island. "Here,'' he says, "kids are more honest than at the college level, more willing to ask questions that push me.''