There is No ‘D’ in Stonehenge: Using “Word Clouds” to Reveal (and Dispel) Student Misconceptions

April 16, 2014 No comments exist

Mick Charney
Associate Professor, Architecture
Kansas State University

London’s British Tours, Ltd. owns the domain name www.stonehedge.com. As they explain on their webpage, they’ve come to realize that many customers misspell “Stonehenge” more than any other British tourist site. They can only surmise it’s because “henge” is so thoroughly British in its quirkiness that most folks automatically substitute “hedge” for “henge” since the proper spelling is inherently connotative of nothing. In actual fact, the etymology of “henge” equates either to “hanging” (as in the lintels bridging two uprights and thus seeming to hang in air) or to “hinge” (as in the mortise-and-tenon joints connecting beams to columns in a manner that limits undesirable rotation).

As an architectural historian, I can attest to the disheartening frequency with which design students unwittingly replace “Stonehenge” with “Stonehedge.” It’s one of my greatest frustrations, especially because our discussion of the most familiar of all prehistoric monuments comes at the very start of the semester and immediately I’m challenged to conquer a mammoth cognitive barrier almost before we’ve even begun. No amount of verbal badgering or points deducted for misspellings expunge the misnomer from my students’ minds.

However, I’ve recently discovered one digital technology exercise that seems to pulverize the error completely . . . without any punitive action. And, it can be used to reveal (and dispel) many other student misconceptions.

Before we discuss Stonehenge, I ask students to write down everything they think know about the image of the crude boulder-like building they see projected on the screen in just two minutes. I distribute small sheets of carbonless paper; they keep the original and turn in the copy. That night, they e-mail an exact digital copy of their transcribed remarks directly to me whereupon I pool them together into one massive word processing file and then dump all that raw data into a word cloud generator. I like www.wordle.net because of its versatility and infinite choices of graphic formats.

Word clouds count word use frequency and then automatically size individual words within a graphic image so that the most frequently used words are largest in scale. In an exercise like this one, “Stonehenge” will loom large in the word cloud graphic, but “Stonehedge” is also visually prominent enough so that it cannot be missed. I project the word cloud in class and we talk about its quirks. With misspellings graphically magnified, someone eventually notices the discrepancy which organically leads us into the etymology of the word “Stonehenge” and consequently a discussion of its several structural components. In the process, minds are rewired – and dramatically so – because of the verbal/visual connections they make.

At the end of our discussion of Stonehenge (about a two-session process), students write another two-minute paper about what they now know for sure about Stonehenge. Repeat exercise: carbonless paper, e-mails, raw data, word cloud, class introspection. They see how much deeper their understanding of Stonehenge is – more focused, more sophisticated. Just as importantly, although still in the cloud, “Stonehedge” is now miniscule in size. Here’s the good news: when asked on the exam to identify a projected image of Stonehenge specifically by name, no one – absolutely no one – includes a ‘D’ in the word. For all practical purposes, there is no longer a ‘D’ in Stonehenge!

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