Press releases of Europa-Universität Flensburg (EUF)

Objects of Understanding

Scientific conference at the Europa Universität Flensburg examined the central role of instruments, demonstrations and models in teaching

Scientific teaching in schools and universities is inextricably linked to objects. Yet knowledge about the creation and use of teaching tools is decidedly thin. Although the history of science education has moved from the periphery to the center of the history of science in recent decades, the central role of instruments, demonstrations and models in historical and contemporary teaching remains poorly explored.

This void represents a serious shortcoming

"This void represents a serious shortcoming," explains Peter Heering, professor of physics and its didactics and vice president for research and transfer at the Europa Universität Flensburg (EUF). Together with Roland Wittje, professor of the history of science and technology at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, he organized the five-day international conference "Objects of Understanding" at the Europa Universität Flensburg, where scholars from various disciplines in the natural, cultural and social sciences explored instruments in educational settings.

 "The study of scientific instruments offers fundamental insights into the past and present processes of how knowledge is understood, generated, and transmitted. Thus, the study of 'Objects of Understanding' deepens our understanding of scientific methods and practices. We have seen how significant this understanding is for the cohesion of our society during the pandemic," Heering emphasized.

Ethnographic analysis of a contemporary experimental box

The opening lecture was given by Jochen Lange, a Siegen professor of education with a focus on Sachunterricht. He focused on contemporary objects of understanding. Along the ethnographic analysis of the development process of an experimental box on the subject of light, he illustrated that object-like teaching aids - contrary to what has long been assumed - are by no means neutral things, but "mixed objects". They are therefore objects in which various interests, ideas, assumptions and constraints are inscribed, such as material properties, physical knowledge, concepts of science, economic calculations, scenarios of school practice, anticipated needs of teachers and students, new curriculum specifications, didactic goals and intentions collide.

Beginnings of experimental physics and a totally new methodology of teaching

Using instruments and archival documents, Sofia Talas from the University of Padua looked at the beginnings of experimental physics education. In 1738, Italian astronomer and mathematician Giovanni Poleni became one of the first professors of experimental physics in Europe at the University of Padua, together with figures like Pieter van Musschenbroek and Willem 's Gravesande. For the first time, science teaching was  based on observations and demonstrations, and the new professors actually had to elaborate a totally new methodology of teaching.

A classification plan for objects

The renowned U.S. science education researcher, William McComas, Parks Professor of Science Education at the University of Arkansas, was fascinated by the variety of objects presented at the conference: telescopes, maps, graphs, tables, physical instruments, pictures of instruments, drawings, slides, diagrams, models, wax moulages etc. "These various objects can all be used for science education purposes," McComas explained in his closing lecture. " It just occurs to me, because these objects are of such different types and their host in such different ways, some are in museum collections, some are in teaching collections, some have historical importance, some are ordinary. Over the past days I counted maybe 15 different sorts of objects and I realized, they are very likely to have their own advantages and challenges, when trying to use them in educational settings. So the suggestion that I offered is to produce a kind of classification plan for these objects so that people who are doing work in a particularly kind of object could come together."

Questions of materiality, performance, and education

Peter Heering drew a positive summary: "First, it has become clear that real conferences with real exchanges have a completely different quality than the digital conferences of the last two years. Secondly, we have made some progress in the question of what role material objects play in educational processes and what we can understand from objects that have historically been used in educational processes about the intention of the educational processes at the time. A central aspect of this is the cultural embedding of objects in the reciprocal process of research and teaching - both in terms of school-based general education and in terms of specific education, for example in academic education or vocational training. Accordingly, this research brings together questions of materiality, performance, and education."

The five-day conference "Objects of Understanding" was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the "Center for Research on Education, Teaching, Schooling and Socialization" (ZeBUSS) of the EUF.