Lessons from Schrödinger's Cat

There are some ideas which seem to translate nicely into fields of thought far from their point of origin. These are ideas which shine a metaphorical light on concepts and allow us to develop a deeper understanding of that concept once we see it from a fresh perspective.

Schrödinger's cat is a concept within quantum physics; a field that is far from the day to day functioning of the typical (non-science) educator. It is a thought experiment developed by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to help explain quantum superposition. For those who do not spend their days contemplating quantum physics, the ponderous circumstance that Erwin’s cat is placed in is a response to an article that "highlighted the counterintuitive nature of quantum superpositions, in which a quantum system such as an atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes." (Wikipedia)

Schrödinger proposed a scenario in which a cat is placed inside a box with a vial of poison which at a random point in time is broken open resulting in the cat’s tragic death. With no way of seeing into the box the observer does not know if the cat is alive or dead. Schrödinger proposed that we can thus think of the cat as both alive and dead up to the point where we break the box open and confront either an annoyed and very much alive cat, seeking vengeance for its confinement or find ourselves in need of a shovel.

What might this radical oversimplification of a great physicist's work have to do with education?

Consider a typical unit plan or sequence of lessons. Students are introduced to a concept or idea. The teacher guides them through the material essential for them to learn. There might be a lecture, perhaps a stimulating video. Most likely the students will be asked to read something related to the topic before the teacher spends time in class discussing the parts of greatest importance. New methods will be introduced to the students. There will be modelling of the process by the teacher, followed by an opportunity for the students to practice the new method. New vocabulary will be introduced and as the unit draws to its logical conclusion the teacher will artfully draw the many pieces together.

The last piece of the puzzle is the final assessment. Maybe it is a class assessment or maybe it is a high-stakes standardised and formalised assessment such as the Higher School Certificate or the SAT. In this final summative assessment the quality and depth of the students learning as a consequence of their engagement with the learning process and the teachers skill in making the concepts and understandings is put to the test. The result of this assessment is a clear numerical statement of the success or not of the whole learning endeavour.

The final assessment of the student is somewhat similar to opening Schrödinger’s box. Only at this point do we know if the student has mastered that which we set out for them to learn.

When we draw a parallel between Schrödinger's cat and our learning sequence as described above we see a fundamental flaw in our design. While Schrödinger’s sealed box serves a purpose in his metaphor, the educator is much better served by a box with a window. We want to be able to observe our students at every point in their learning journey and should their metaphorical vial of poison break, we want to take immediate action. And yet when we rely heavily on summative assessments as the measure of learning we create a situation where we only discover gaps in learning long after the point where we could have taken appropriate action.

The clear antidote to this scenario is to rely upon formative assessments and strategies to make our students thinking and learning visible; to us and to them. By constantly gathering and acting on evidence of where our students are in their learning journeys and by enabling them to be observers and drivers of their own learning, we set a window into Schrödinger’s box. Our goal is to drastically shorten the time between noticing that a student has misunderstood a concept, is not mastering a new skill or has missed a key connection and the implementation of actions we collectively take to remedy this.

To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, we want to know when the vial breaks open, we want our cat to notice it too and together we want to find a way to avoid an unfortunate ending.

By Nigel Coutts