Where is Heather?


[by Adam]

Every year I show a group of preservice teachers the videos from “A Private Universe.” Every year I wonder the same thing: Where is Heather now?

Many of us, I suspect, “grew up” with Private Universe in one way or another. Myself, I was entrenched in physics education and science misconceptions (or, if you prefer, alternative conceptions), and watching Heather and others grapple with their own ideas that flew in the face of instruction and evidence was exciting. Not horrifying, but exhilarating. Even now in undergraduate and graduate courses, I revel in my students’ clearly wrong ideas. In a similar vein, I love to watch my own preservice teachers watching Private Universe for the first time. Their jaws drop, they gasp, they laugh and shake their heads. How could someone think the moon’s phases are caused by shadows? Why does that girl insist that she can see in the dark? How does the Harvard grad, with a background in chemistry, get away with saying that there shouldn’t be substantial amounts of carbon in a piece of wood? And how is it that all these people think elliptical paths have anything to do with a planet’s seasons?

Heather is the star of the show. We see her grapple with classroom instruction, textbook diagrams, and her own thinking-throughs and sketches to come up with a still wrong explanation of the phases of the moon. Year after year I see this video footage, and year after year the narrator concludes how imperative it is that we fix this problem. We must free these people of their imprisoning, constricting, private universes. Otherwise . . .

Otherwise what? This question strikes me with each annual viewing. And this is what makes me start to wonder about Heather’s current whereabouts.  Is she poor, destitute, sitting on a curb and hoping that a kind soul will spare her some change? Did her misunderstandings, the confines of her private universe, lead her to a life of discontent? Did she miss out on opportunities because of her funny, bouncing light model of moon illumination? Other than a missed question on a random quiz, or the missed connection that could have spurred her on to a career in astrophysics, what opportunity did she really lose?

Here should be our real fear: What if Heather is perfectly happy and successful, in spite of her private universe? I suspect she enjoys her career as a lawyer in the greater Boston area. She has a family and is active in her community. Her two children are enrolled in a prep school where they, too, have misconceptions about phases of the moon — maybe even the cause of the seasons. In spite of all the emphasis and empathy we have for science misconceptions, what if they really don’t matter that much?

I’m left with these morals: My primary research emphasis is mostly peripheral, though interesting. Maybe it leads to other insights about cognition on the individual level, but for the most part it doesn’t really mean that much. I’ll continue to pursue it, but I’m not going to think that a ninth grade misconception really has grand meaning in the grand scheme.  Instead, Heather and her many successful possibilities remind me that there are more important issues to tackle. Heather was well supported, her teacher cared for her, and she was in an environment where learning was valued, where she was valued. She was so valued, in fact, that cameras and microphones were intently turned upon her, and year after year we continue to watch the ageless teen grapple with light rays. Heather didn’t suffer from a private universe, she benefited from it. I suspect that she is mostly happy and healthy and even prosperous because we gave her the education she deserved. If only we gave all our children, from all schools, in all neighborhoods, the same opportunities, the same universe. There ought to be room in Heather’s universe to share.

3 thoughts on “Where is Heather?

  1. Cory Buxton

    Adam, you continue to amaze and impress me with your ability to reflect in unexpected ways on seemingly taken for granted understandings. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve probably shown Private Universe in various classes several dozen times and never once asked myself (or my students) what ever became of Heather and why would this matter. I promise not to show it again without this thoughtful follow-up.

  2. Actually, when I show this to my classes each year, I DO wonder aloud where she is now. Kids invariably ask when the film was made (1987), so we estimate (Fermi problem) Heather’s age now. If the film was shot in 1986 (two years after I started teaching full time!) and Heather was 15 then (9th grade), then she was born in 1971 and would be about 41 now. She probably has kids of her own, and I would LOVE to know how their Private Universes are turning out.

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