Month: August 2011

A Work in Progress – My Teaching Philosophy

I’m mentoring a new teacher to our school this year and he recently asked me about my teaching philosophy. Our school’s website has these snazzy little bios about each of us that include a picture, contact info, a snippet from our teaching philosophy and a fun fact about ourselves. (Looking at mine, I really need to find something fun to do in my life.) In order to prep his, the teacher I’m mentoring hoped to read over mine to get an idea of what one should look like. And I’m afraid I may have failed him. My teaching philosophy is small and still a work in progress, so I’m not sure how helpful it was.

See, when I started teaching many moons ago, I didn’t know squat about instructional methods, pedagogy or assessment. So when writing my first teaching philosophy, I filled it with edujargon and things that I thought teachers were supposed to say. Looking back at it, I cringe and wonder why my current school ever decided to hire me. I’ll spare you from reading my thoughts on Socratic dialogue and “knowing your audience” (I can’t believe I wrote that). Hidden under all of that jargon though lurked a single thought about teaching that drove me. I think I was too embarrassed at first by its simplicity to share it, and once I ultimately chose to share it, I would downplay it by joking about it. Here was the sum total of my thoughts on teaching physics circa 2002-2007:

I love physics. I will do anything in my power to get more people to learn physics so that I have more people to talk to about physics.

That was it. I’m not sure how I used this to inform my classroom structure or grading scheme, but it was something I honestly felt. Looking at it now, the statement is incredibly self-centered which was probably reflective of the approach I took to teaching my classes at the time – me at the front of the room putting on a show. Thankfully, for my students, I’ve learned some since then.

A year ago, our head challenged us all to articulate our philosophy surrounding our practice and to reflect on it during some summer professional development work. Having taught using modeling instruction for two years and spent my first few months online reading teacher’s blogs, I took a stab at revising mine. It’s not much longer, but here, in unedited form, is what I came up with:

  • Science is something that must be done by students. Reading about it will not suffice. Science is an activity, not a topic. (Ex. Modeling Instruction)
  • Everybody can learn physics. Physics is often seen as the first gate class which admits smart kids but keeps dumb ones out. This is a damaging view to the students and the subject.
  • Students should always know exactly where they stand at all times. This requires timely, descriptive feedback that is not obfuscated by points. Additionally, they should know exactly what you want them to learn. (Ex. SBG grading)
  • It is my job to make my students realize that they don’t need me. They are capable of learning about the world around them and how it works on their own. (Ex. being less helpful, confidence)
  • Let students push beyond the bounds of your set goals and when they do, reward them.
  • Technology must be an appropriate part of the classroom, as it is a part of the students’ lives. (Ex. electronic book, LabPro and many more)

Obviously, it still needs some work. I’ve started to include examples of how I incorporate these ideas and you can clearly see the influence of some of the superheroes of the edublogoverse. I’m not entirely happy with the technology one, especially the examples, but I felt it was important to address it. Tech is not the answer to all of educations problems but it can be a powerful tool for learning at appropriate times. Additionally, I now note that there isn’t anything addressing gender or specifically teaching girls. I need to think about why I didn’t address that. Ultimately, each of the above ideas needs some expansion and discussion, but I wanted to get at the core thoughts I’d developed in recent years.

I shared the above with my mentee and I’m waiting to hear back from him. I’m eager to see what he comes up with as a new teacher more firmly entrenched in this new century and the current educational climate in the country. Until then, I’d love to see what others have written, so if you care to share yours, be sure to leave a link here.

…But Modeling Instruction Works Better

In my last post, I suggested that one of the ways to approach the subject of curricular and pedagogical change with colleagues, especially as it pertains to modeling instruction, is to share one’s own personal story of transformation. So here’s mine.

I used to be an awesome teacher. Seriously, that’s what everyone used to tell me and I had started to believe them. For the first six years of my career, I did my very best to make my classes dynamic and engaging by incorporating various types of activities. During lecture, I was enthusiastic and worked hard to distill an idea down to its essence when explaining it. My reviews from students were always glowing and the administration loved what I was doing. And the awards! In those six years, I taught at a rural public school, was a TA at a state university and spent the final year of the first six at my current school. In that time, I won three teaching awards and was nominated for two others. By every measure I had available, I was a great teacher. And then, the FCI came along.

The FCI (or Force Concept Inventory) is 30-question, conceptual multiple choice test meant to determine how well the students in your class understand the Newtonian concept of forces and the results of their application. No calculations are involved. The FCI came to me through Dr. Kathy Harper at OSU. She had presented a short, one-day workshop on modeling instruction locally and had followed up with flyers inviting the participants to the summer workshop. I signed up and as part of the process, I was asked to give my students the FCI before coming to the workshop. Looking over the test, I thought my students would make short work of it. After all, we were ending the year on magnetic induction, so surely they understood Newton’s laws of motion. We’d been using them all year. With the first year at my new school ending, I administered the FCI to my students. When I reached the summer workshop, I eagerly sought out the results.

College Prep Physics – Mean = 6/30 (20%)

Honors Physics – Mean = 9/30 (30%)

AP Physics C:Mechanics – Mean = 13/30 (43%)

WTF?! How were those scores possible? I spent a year teaching those students physics. The FCI covers some of the most fundamental ideas I told them about. They got As and Bs! The AP scores were all 4s and 5s! While I didn’t expect perfect scores, I did expect results significantly better than guessing. Those FCI scores were like a swift, spiritual kick to the head that altered my reality forever. I had to figure out what was going on. I began by doing what every normal person would do in this case – I blamed the test.

When I started the workshop, my skepticism for modeling instruction was high – very high. Of course, kids taught with modeling do better on the FCI – it’s written by the people that developed modeling! How does it relate to other measures of physics learning? (It correlates very strongly.) How many students do we have data on? (At this point, n> 10,000.) Students still learn by lecture. Why bother changing? (Because more of your students will learn more material using modeling.) All of my questions had answers. The research on modeling instruction and the tools used to evaluate it is extensive. (Here’s a start.) As a science teacher, if I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk. Having been confronted with what I found to be convincing evidence, I was obligated to investigate this pedagogy and see if it had an effect on how well my students understood physics. After the workshop, I returned home, prepared for the coming year and did my best to implement modeling in the following months.

It was difficult. I felt like a first year teacher again. Rushing home to review and prepare for the coming day, I was forced to truly change the way students engaged with the material and forego much of what I had developed over the past six years. Too many times, I’d start to revert to simply explaining some idea rather than forcing the students to provide the explanation. As the year progressed, it became even more difficult as we started covering content that the workshop never got to. I’d never been good at writing assessments and my old ones weren’t addressing the things I was now asking about. It was a mess. But there was a noticeable shift in how my students were acting in class. They began to enjoy the content rather than the show I used to put on. Their confidence in their knowledge was much greater than it had been in the past. But, to my critical eye, those things, while very important, were not measures of how much physics they’d learned. Was this admittedly chaotic year more productive than the way things had been in the past? For that comparison, I needed the FCI.

At the end of that first year of modeling, I only gave it to my honors physics class. I hadn’t taught college prep that year and hadn’t used modeling in AP. Nervously, I scored the tests and tabulated the results:

Honors Physics – Mean = 18/30 (60%)

I stared at that result for a long time. Even in the face of the frankly terrible job I felt I had done that year, my students had shown incredible learning gains. The next two years showed even greater improvements on the FCI as I refined and adapted modeling instruction to my own style of teaching. The pre- and post- scores remained consistent with the national averages. Additionally, enrollment in the 2nd year AP Physics class has grown from 4 to 13. AP scores remained high. And the unmeasureable qualities I mentioned earlier continued to grow in both intensity and frequency. From those results, I had to conclude that modeling instruction was more effective than lectures at producing lasting learning and getting students to adopt a Newtonian view of the universe. That seems like the only logical conclusion to draw. It would be irresponsible of me to continue to teach the way I had been when confronted with this information. So, I started using modeling and have not gone back. That’s my story.

I’ll leave you with this analogy. Newton’s law of universal gravitation works. We used it to discover Neptune and Pluto, both invisible to the naked eye. It predicts the paths of comets and dates of eclipses. We could continue to use it, but then we’d miss out on solving the mystery of Mercury’s perihelion, the bending of starlight, GPS, black holes, the origin of the universe and more. If you know about general relativity, but refuse to use it, then all of those problems remain unsolved. I refuse to leave any tool unused that will demonstrably improve the knowledge and experience of my students.

Lecture Works…

Recently, the Twitterverse has been awash with debate on the merits of traditional lecture-based instruction in science classrooms. I’ve watched with growing concern as many of my progressive colleagues have made claims that “Lecture doesn’t work.” or that “Kids don’t learn from lecture”. These blanket statements are both demonstrably false and harmful to the dialogue and discourse about research-based practices that many of us support.

Let me be clear about this: lecture can be used to teach students. That’s not my opinion. That’s a research-based conclusion that can be drawn from this graph:

from How Effective is Modeling Instruction?

If you have trouble reading the graph, the vertical axis is the mean FCI scores for students in physics classes and the horizontal axis is the type of  instruction students received. See that first bar? Students in a traditional (i.e. lecture-based) class, showed a gain of 16 points from pre- to post-test. That looks like learning to me.

Now, you might be saying, “But what about the modeling bars? Even novice modelers achieve greater learning gains with their students than lecture-based classrooms.” And you’re right. However, when comparing those bars to the traditional one, all I can conclude is that modeling instruction is more effective than traditional instruction. Those results don’t invalidate the gains showed by the students in the traditional classrooms, nor do they invalidate the methods used in those classrooms. Teachers who use lecture have students that learn. (I won’t even go into the anecdotal evidence. Suffice to say, that I only received traditional instruction and I think I know a thing or two about physics.)

I love modeling instruction and I wish that every physics and chemistry teacher out there would undergo the training, adopt it and use it in their classrooms. Like many of my colleagues, part of the reason I join the conversations on Twitter and write here is to spread the word about this amazing research-based pedagogy. When I see teachers curious about it or challenging it, I like to talk to them and find out what they’re thinking. But, if I lead with a statement like “No one has ever learned by lecture.”, they’re going to think I’m foolish and give much less consideration to the rest of what I have to say. It shuts down the discussion before it can even begin.

Getting teachers to take a look at modeling and seriously consider it requires them to challenge their preconceptions about the way education works. Mine came with my first post-test FCI scores. Malcolm Wells, one of the fathers of modeling had a similar story. I think most of us come to appreciate and understand modeling instruction through redesigning the model of education that we have built in our heads and that we have implemented in our classrooms – not by being told that what we were doing was wrong. Ironically, lecturing people about it just isn’t that effective. Instead, if you find yourself with the opportunity to share your passion for this method of teaching offer the evidence that supports modeling or even better tell your own story about how you decided to change your viewpoint. Give your colleagues the chance to discover what you’ve known for a while now. I promise that if you let them do that, you’ll be more effective.