Month: June 2011

We’re Too Good At What We Do

I want to try and lay some of the problems with the current educational model at the feet of an unlikely culprit – efficiency. And strangely enough, I think the cause is that we’re too efficient at the job of educating a massive amount of our population. In our culture, more people are demanding to know more stuff in less time, so that they can go on to college/get a good job. In order to meet this demand, educators, and those that help us manage our institutions, have had to be more efficient. But unfortunately, as the level of efficiency improves, the quality of the product goes down.

This isn’t far-fetched. Consider the trends of our food production in the United States. The food that is most efficiently produced consistently is of lower quality than food that requires more time and resources. McDonalds feeds 58 million people everyday. That is a staggering accomplishment. I am honestly in awe of an organization that can do this day after day. However, in order to do this, they have to decrease the quality of their ingredients to make it affordable yet profitable, cook in a manner that is fast but unhealthy so that all of those people can eat and deemphasize their concern about the environmental impact of their food producers so that they can meet demand. I’m not casting judgement on these acts, as McDonalds would not be able to feed so many without taking these steps. What I will question is whether or not regular consumption of their product is beneficial.

How does this manifest in education? In the US, there are currently 65 million people enrolled in public schools and they need to be educated every day. This is an equally impressive task. But how do we meet this demand? First, in order to get the information to the largest number of students in the smallest time, we rely on lecturing. Sit quietly and pay attention so that everyone has a chance to hear. Next, we need to know how all of these students are doing, but grading 65 million assessments takes a long time. So, we develop some efficient ways of quickly assessing them and giving them feedback – multiple choice, true/false, and plug-n-chug problems are much more efficient than narrative reflections, projects or portfolios. With the push to cover more content (after all, you need class X to get into college), we must spend less time on each topic so that students can learn all they need too. Thus classes focus on breadth of exposure over depth of understanding. All these decisions are starting to seem strangely familiar to me, and I have to wonder, is the education we’re providing beneficial to our students? I think the answer is yes and no.

Does the education they receive provide them with what they need to survive in the world? Yes. Just as a diet of fast food provides enough nutrition to live. Does it provide them with a high quality of life? I’m not so sure.

Just as with McDonalds though, I’m not casting aspersions at those involved in education. On the contrary, I think we should be applauded for providing a daily education to 65 million students (::pat on the back::). Thinking about these ideas, I realize that those who make these decisions that we as teachers deem damaging to students aren’t doing so maliciously nor are they being obstinate. The people that brought us to this point and those that want to keep us here are just prioritizing a different problem. They are attempting to answer the question of “How do we provide as many people as possible as much knowledge as possible in a reasonable amount of time?”. Any answer to that necessarily drives down the quality when you are dealing with the numbers and scope that we are. As teachers though, we’re trying to answer “How do I give the absolute best education I can to the students in my care?”. Smaller numbers, different scope. We are ready to slow down and spend more time with each student, but we can’t do that and remain efficient in the system outlined above.

If you’ve read this long and are expecting an answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m still wrestling with these ideas myself. Looking at this problem through this different lens though may help us see solutions that we hadn’t considered before.


Modeling Workshop – Day Awesome

As I mentioned yesterday, these past two days were an opportunity to pilot a portion of our units with the rest of the advanced workshop participants acting as students. Today was our day to present and we tested our practicum for the balanced torque model. If you’ve ever taught rotational motion, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.

This problem is in every physics textbook, so we decided to drag it kicking and screaming into the real world. Here is our take.

Starting with only the board, first, without showing the readings, ask students how the readings on the two scales will compare. (We used force plates and Logger Pro.) They guess that they’re equal. Awesome. Show them the readings. Ask them what the readings can tell them. They figure the weight of the board. Cool, then hide the readings and push scale #2 in towards the center of mass, maybe 1/3 of the way in. Then ask them to use the balanced torque model to predict what the two scales will read now. Let them work through it and bring you their prediction. Check against reality. Horray!

Now, we ramp up the challenge. Since every physicist loves symmetry, we want to keep the scales at their new locations, but get them to read the same thing again. So, we drug out a crate of books. The challenge was to decide where to place the crate of books on the board so that the scales read the same thing. Make what ever measurements you need to, feel free to move the board, but you have to place the crate on the board yourselves.

To say that the teachers in that room were engaged was an understatement. Not all of them had the background for this topic, some of them had it in the past but had forgotten it and some were well versed. We were lucky to have so many hard-working “students” in our class. Tyler and I circulated around the room, helping where needed, being less helpful when we could and looking for misconceptions that our students may have. Overall, awesome presentation. But in all honesty, I don’t care about how well it went for our sake, because here is what I want to share tonight. Here is the power of modeling instruction made manifest.

One of the teachers today came into the unit having studied rotation years ago in an intro physics class. Her knowledge of this topic had been long forgotten when we unveiled this problem today. I spent some time at her table, talking to her about the ties between balanced force and balanced torque. It was clear, she wanted to learn. Why? Her grade for the workshop (we can earn graduate credit) didn’t depend on this activity and all she had to do was provide us with anonymous feedback on which she could have written very little or even a message about how this was beyond her experience. In other words, she had no vested interest in this problem and could have easily given up. But she didn’t. She dug in, wrestled with the ideas, tried things, failed at them, and tried some other things. She dealt with her confusion and frustration head-on and then, just as we were wrapping up, brought me an answer and excitedly asked if it was right. We uncovered the scale readings and she was spot on. And then, this adult woman, who had just spent 30 minutes working to learn something for no other reason than to know it, burst into dance. The joy she felt at having learned simply could not be contained. I wish her students could have seen her today.

Dammit! Do you people get this?! If this was a problem in the book for homework, do you think she’d have that reaction? She said later that she probably would have given up frustrated if it were. I bet your students do that and then come in the next day and ask you to go over the homework. Anyone reading this probably does get it since you’re interested in modeling instruction. But to you then, I have to ask, how do we get more people to see the power of this? How do we get them to realize that we can make our classrooms – any classroom – about learning and not about grades?

Modeling Workshop – Day Eight

The rubber met the road today for four of our groups. This was the first opportunity for groups to try out material they had developed on the rest of us (in student mode) and solicit feedback about it. It was an incredibly insightful day for me and our group didn’t even get to present yet!

The groups that presented today included an underpinnings unit that ran us through a measurement activity, a physics group who had us develop Ohm’s Law and two chemistry groups. Now, I’m unfamiliar with chemistry modeling but I was immediately struck by the notion that we were no longer dealing with things but instead with the idea of things. There were no hydroxide ions in front of us, only a blue liquid, a clear liquid and a sensor that gave us some number. And when learning about reversible reaction rates and equilibrium, the activity actually required us to represent concentration of reactants and products with volume of water in straws. Both activities were well constructed and interesting to me, but the level of abstraction required as a student was significant. According to the teachers, not every activity is as abstract as those today, but when you’re driving principle is that the entire material world is made up of tiny particles, you can’t really avoid it. As a chemistry teacher, it falls on you to construct opportunities for the students to develop this model, and if that fails, you need some means of convincing them. The only reason they have considered this particle model as a possibile explanation of reality is because you suggested it. Contrast this with physics, where students already have a pretty developed set of models to explain the world based on their own observations.

As a physics teacher, I want to bring more of modern physics into my classroom but to do that I have to confront the same challenges that my chemistry colleagues do. How does one tease Placnk’s constant from the light of LEDs? Or the idea of dark matter from galaxy rotation curves? Are high school students cognitively capable of making these connections? I think back to how excited these ideas made me when I discovered them in high school (Yes, I was a geek even then.) and I want to share that excitement with my students. No one thinks physics is cool because of boxes on inclines. It’s cool because it predicts weird things beyond our imagining and then proclaims that they are real. No other high school class can do that. I don’t know how to bridge this gap yet, but I need to figure out how.

Modeling Workshop – Day Seven

The second week of the advanced modeling workshop is moving along at a good clip. The primary activity that dominates our days is the development of materials (assessments, practica, labs, etc.) for our unit. The pace can feel intense at times though it has not overwhelmed us yet. A few key pieces of what we have accomplished include:

  • a final storyline that details what models we are developing, how we are deploying them and how each activity serves the models
  • a working rotational inertia apparatus (prototype)
  • a fun practicum involving a balance beam, two bathroom scales and an additional weight
Much of my evenings are spent reading articles, writing more material and completing the small reflective assignments we are given. Tomorrow begins the process of testing some of the materials with other groups. I’m looking forward to getting some feedback and the chance to see what some other groups have developed. 

Today’s discussion developed out of an article by Eugenia Etkina regarding weekly reports as a means of determining student understanding and allowing students to reflect on what they have learned in the past week. The three questions students are asked to address in the weekly report are (1) What did you learn this week?, (2) What questions do you stil have?, and (3) If you were the teacher, what questions would you ask this coming week to make sure students understand the material? I’ve wanted to begin including some reflective writing in my courses for the past few years, but I hadn’t found the right prompts nor the right delivery system. Dr. Etkina has come up with these great prompts that allow for some really amazing insight into what students think they know and what I might be doing a poor job teaching them. However, in the article we read, she had only 17 students, so managing this much reading and providing meaningful feedback was manageable. I’m really lucky in that I typically have between 50 and 60 students in a year, but even that would quickly become overwhelming and I know I would let these slip to the bottom of my to-do list, especially if they are hand written.

Our group had asked during the discussion about electronic submission and then I recalled this awesome post by Chris Ludwig – Blogging in the Science Classroom: The Worksheet is Dead . I think student blogs would be a fantastic way to implement this and Chris’s idea of using Google Reader to manage them is brilliant. Not only could I provide feedback directly to the student, but other students could comment as well and even set up their own readers if they wanted to. Seeing that they each had questions would also make it easier for them to ask questions during class and alleviate the ever-present attitude of “If I don’t get it the first time, I’m stupid.” thought process. I’ll most likely pilot this in my AP class next year as they are used to my crazy new ideas.

Modeling Workshop – Day Four

I don’t have a lot to write about today. The entire morning was spent working on our unit. We’re making good progress and have compiled a list of learning objectives (aka standards), matched them to the AP standards since Ohio doesn’t seem to care if your kids know why things rotate, and knocked out two assessments. Today’s article discussion continued the theme of alternative problems/assessments with the focus on ranking tasks. I like these a lot and we’ve incorporated a ranking task activity into our unit involving bars like these. I’m going to build cheaper ones though. There was a good discussion around the placement of the explanation portion of ranking tasks from a suggestion that students be prompted before the ranking portion of the exercise to engage them with the idea first.

Eventually, we have to come up with two alternate problems to present and include in our unit, so I think the other one is going to be a goal-less problem. I’ve wanted to try these since I first read about them on here and here. They appear to have originated from Paul D’Alessandris (ref), but I can’t find much literature on them. In particular, I like that as students develop a wider array of knowledge, you can revisit older problems and see what additional layers they add to them.

Tomorrow is a short day and then I’m driving back home for the weekend, so I’m not sure if I’ll be posting. I do have some thoughts on the whole Khan Academy firestorm and I’d still like to tell my pseudoteaching story, so maybe I’ll try tackling one of those this weekend. Thanks to everyone for reading this week!


Modeling Workshop – Day Three

Work continues apace on our unit. Our desire to develop no less than five models (balanced torques, constant torque, rotational inertia, angular momentum and rolling motion) has had to face reality and deal with the fact that the workshop is only another 11 days long. I believe we will restrict ourselves to fully developing the curriculum for the first three models above, but attempt to include as many notes as possible for the other models.

While much of the day is devoted to working in our small group and fielding questions from the workshop leaders, we did come together as a class for two discussions. First we tackled the questions of “What is modeling?” and “What makes modeling modeling?”. That first one is a tough one to answer. I’ve always relied on simply describing the initial pendulum unit to convey the difference in how the class is managed and constructed. As other teachers mentioned today, you still get responses like “Oh, I do a lot of labs/demos in my class too.” or “Oh, that’s inquiry learning.” which both miss key components of what the modeling cycle entails. One of the best responses today was that modeling is a way to organize your curriculum. Everything you do, from development to deployment, including assessments, is directed toward explaining, refining, testing and breaking the model and so, the model must be the core component of the curriculum.  This means that if you want to develop a new modeling unit, the first question you have to answer is “What is the model I want my students to build?” repeatedly followed by “How does this question/activity/lab address the model?”.

The other discussion was about our article reading. Two articles were assigned this time – one on the role of the lab practicum and the other on context rich problems. Now, I love lab practica and try to include one in every unit we study. I think they are a fantastic means of assessment (though I don’t grade them) and they push students to really develop confidence in their initial model development. Context rich problems though rub me the wrong way. They seem filled with unnecessary and unrealistic context, at least from my limited exposure to them. Here’s an example:

Roller Splash: A company that designs amusement park equipment asks you to design a new roller coaster splash ride. A cart with passengers starts at rest and rolls down an inclined track to a horizontal section at the bottom where it flies off to land in a pool of water – what fun! For more excitement, physics students using the ride must decide their starting position in order to land safely in the water. You are asked to build and test a miniature model. For this model, determine the position of the Hot Wheels track that a Hot Wheels car should start so that when released it moves down the track and flies off the horizontal section to hit the target on the floor.

So much of this bugs me. First, all of these seem to be couched in terms of “you work for a company…build a miniature model”. Unfortunately, your miniature model is nothing like the real ride. It doesn’t account for weight distribution of people (How many people are on the ride and does their weight matter?), drag forces, rolling motion, how you would get this rolling car out of the water and more. By dressing it up this way, the author seems to be indicating that this topic isn’t interesting to students normally, so we’re going to try and make it interesting with some flavor text. You don’t need to describe a “bungee jump system that provides the jumper the extra thrill of just missing the ground” (because no company would ever actually build this!), just hand the students a spring and an egg and say “Okay, you’ve all learned about energy and springs…decide how high to hang your spring so that when I give you a 200 gram mass to attach at the end and drop, it doesn’t crack the egg lying directly underneath it.” They will work so hard to protect that egg and the excitement in the room will be palpable when that first student lets go of the mass.

Now, I’ve heard good things about context-rich problems elsewhere and I like the actual activities as they are really just lab practica. So, what am I missing? Why is that silly context so important? Or isn’t it?

Modeling Workshop – Day Two

Okay, time for a confession…I’m a thief. Like many teachers, I hunt through old texts, dig through others curriculum, chose what I want, modify it, discard the rest and pass it off as my own assessments. It’s kind of odd when you think of how much we harp on plagiarism, but we “borrow” liberally from other teachers ourselves. All of this is just my round about way of saying this – I do not have a lot of experience in designing curriculum. Turns out, it’s a lot of hard work.

Today started with us jumping right back into working on developing our initial storyline for our model. We needed to decide what model(s) we were asking the students to develop, identify what representational tools would be needed, the investigations they would use to develop these models and the general sequence of events. Thankfully, this is our first draft, so we can get it wrong. We’ve identified our model as the rigid rotating body model and have kept the general flow of torque -> rotational inertia – > angular momentum for now. I won’t explain everything right now as I’d like to share the work with the interwebs when we’re finished, but here are some pics of the madness that emerged from our minds:

My partner, Tyler, snagged the torque simulation from PhET and we think we can put it to good use in building the model of torque. Our main tactic is to let the students build on previous knowledge to draw conclusions, so we lead off by repeating the hover-disk questions from the BFPM but now applied to a rotating disk. I’ll let you have fun trying to chart our course through the whiteboards in the photos. Suffice to say, we are very happy with how we lead the students through a development of the idea of balanced toque on a rigid body, constant torque and the rotational inertia of a rigid body, but then we stalled at angular momentum (Check out the far left board in the pic above.)

This might have been my fault, but I just wouldn’t settle for the standard demos. I want a phenomena that not only requires angular momentum to investigate, but also one that will invoke questions from students, not physics teachers. And I want to avoid that feeling of contrivance. It should feel natural. We wracked our brains trying to come up with something beyond the spinning ice-skater and flipping the bicycle wheel. I’m not saying these aren’t great demos that are cool to see, I just think few kids would be interested in them if their physics teacher weren’t drawing attention to them. We talked to everyone at the workshop about our mental block too, and people were supportive and offered ideas. It’s great to work with folks who will put aside their own work to help you make yours better. There are a lot of good folks at this workshop.

After lunch, we spent time discussing this article by David Hestenes. We do have readings from journal articles each night and we spend time the following day discussing them as a group. The article sparked some good discussion points, but I think we all still feel kind of new to each other so the conversation felt a bit stilted at times. If you’re a modeler and haven’t read this, I highly recommend it. If you aren’t a modeler, it is worth a look, but I don’t think some of the explanations will resonante with you as much as they do with me.

We wrapped up today by presenting our first draft to the entire group. This was a great way to organize our thoughts into something more coherent than the atrocity you saw above. Additionally, we could field questions and ask for assistance on particular trouble spots. Some of the other advanced groups are working on the following units: forces for 9th grade physical science, circuits, chemical equilibrium, acids and bases, and scientific underpinnings. It’s a very nice mix.

Finally, I wanted to mention how awesome Twitter is for professional development. If you read the Day One post and saw the challenges pic, you noticed that one of the issues mentioned was feeling alone as a modeling teacher in your building. Many of us who are new to modeling are the only ones in our building who are using it. Well, be alone no longer! When Tyler and I found ourselves stuck today on angular momentum, I put out the following tweet:

Avengers Assemble! It was like this awesome call to a super-hero team. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, tweet after tweet arrived bearing examples of angular momentum. Other teachers shared eight different ideas including the following awesome video (Merry-go-round video). Oh, and literally as I’m writing this another popped up on my Twitter feed. So awesome. Seriously, if you are a teacher, get on Twitter.