Month: June 2013

The Tao of Modeling

Today was our first full day of the workshop and things are off to a great start. First, we have a great group of teachers (24 in all) enrolled in the first year physics workshop. Even with the torrential downpour that we started the day with, each of them showed up eager and ready to begin. I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts about the workshops, but spending three weeks with a group of people who want to learn how to get better at their job is invigorating. It energizes you. And this time is even better, because I get to help them learn how to do that. Teaching teachers turns out to be really cool.

After paper work, introductions and FCIs, we got down to business and walked the participants through the ball bounce lab as a way to introduce model building. They did a good job as students – sometimes too good of a job – and kept the discussion moving along. They were a bit overwhelmed and had questions about all the things that everyone new to modeling has questions about: time, classroom management, textbooks, etc. My co-leader and I ended the day with some extra time in teacher mode to address their questions. As we fielded each one, I began to realize that I was responding with the same question I use on my students…”I don’t know. What do you think?”.

See, modeling is not a set curriculum, like say a textbook might be. It’s a framework or skeleton that can be used to build any scientific curriculum. How each teacher constructs that curricula differs according to their personality and classroom needs. There are a number of ways to guide students in the development and deployment of new models. For instance, I don’t use the ball bounce lab in my class while my co-leader does. He grades deployment labs while I’ve moved away from that. Whiteboarding might involve every group’s board going up for discussion or we might put all the boards up at once to look at patterns. There are as many ways to implement modeling instruction as there are teachers that practice it.

That’s one of the big lessons that I hope the participants take away from the workshop. Success as a modeler means finding your individual way…your path…your Tao. It means knowing your students and what the technique and tone for asking them questions is, because I know you have to question them, but I can’t know your kids. It means finding what is important to your class as the time crunch starts to force you to drop topics, because every modeler has had to (since meaningful reflection takes time), but we don’t know what standardized testing you face or what your principal will challenge you on. And it means deciding how to give your kids feedback, because I know you have to, but I don’t know how tightly you, your kids or their parents cling to grades. All I can do is share my way and hope it provides some insight to the teachers that will be trying this for the first time.*


* – Contrast this with the highly scripted, one-size-fits all explicit direct instruction (EDI) methodology that seems to be the newest form of pseudoteaching.


Modeling Workshop: Behind the Curtain

I’ve been using modeling instructional methods for the past five years in my physics classes. My first experience was in a one-day teaser workshop, which I followed up with the full first year mechanics workshop. A few years later, I returned for the second year advanced workshop which focuses on teaching you how to take the modeling framework and use it to develop your own materials. Now, two years after that, I’m back again, only this time, I’m co-leading a mechanics workshop in Columbus, OH.

The idea of introducing a room full of my colleagues to modeling instruction and teaching them how to use it in their classrooms is intimidating and exciting at the same time. Tomorrow is the first day of the workshop and it primarily involves introductions, the distribution of materials and paperwork, but we may have time to start on the ball bounce intro lab. Our plan for the next three weeks looks something like this:

  • Intro Modeling Units (Ball Bounce and Pendulum)
  • Constant Velocity Model (Buggy Investigation and Game of Chicken)
  • Constant Acceleration Model (Cart on Ramp and Police Chase)
  • Balanced Force Model (Hover Disk, Modified Atwood Machine and Force Table)
  • Unbalanced Force Model (Wiggling Force Detector, Modified Atwood Machine and Atwood Machine)
  • Energy Transfer Model (Kelly’s Intro to Energy and Energy Transfer Lab)
  • All pretty standard, but that’s because it’s all great stuff and it works to introduce new folks to how their classrooms will change.

    One of the great things about modeling workshops is the distinction between student mode and teacher mode. For much of their time here, we ask the participants to work in student mode, acting as if they were students in a physics class, making mistakes and asking questions that they think their own kids will in the fall. We, the facilitators, use this to show how to navigate the issues raised by students (including pushback). By going through this themselves, the participants see how to transform their students from passive sponges to active participants in their own learning. We give plenty of time for teacher mode though, in which the participants reflect on the experience and how it will need to be modified for their own classroom setting. The three weeks we spend together here can be intense, but I’m hoping that each of the teachers, who have chosen to give up part of their summer for this experience, finds it rewarding and transformative.