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First test and most important lesson of the year

September 1, 2010

I think the first test went well (blueberries were a hit). We had a 2 hour block, spent the first hour preparing (sending kids off in groups to have one volunteer explain a problem to others) and by the end, everyone felt sufficiently prepared. After looking at the exams, I was impressed by two things:

  • With the exception of a couple of minor errors in reading motion maps or velocity graphs, my students have the most solid understanding of this material at this point than any other class I’ve taught in the past. Could it be I’m sticking more closely to modeling? Could it be that I didn’t try to shove all fo 1-d kinematics (velocity and acceleration) down their throats at the same time? Maybe. Also, a bit thanks to Kelly O’ Shea, who had the great idea to teach Constant Velocity Particle Model, and follow that up with the Balanced Forces Particle Model, before going on to acceleration. I think this is going to be a win.
  • I told my students that I really want them to be focusing on form and process. Many problems they’re doing now seem easy—so mcuh so they can do the math in their head. We talked about a how a baseball player might feel really comfortable with with a sub-optimal swing when hitting off the pitching machine at low speed, but really, the should practice the correct swing they’re going to need to be able to keep up with Roy Halliday. So this means they can’t just write down answers, they need to start with an argument, which should begin with a general equation, like \bar{v} = \frac{\Delta x}{\Delta t}, and every time they write a number they must write a unit (this gets them to work symbolically for longer, which I think really helps honors students begin to explore the innards of problems). I told them yesterday, that if they did not do these things, I would assume they are still working to master the topic, and award them a 2 (instead of a 3—mastery). They seemed to see the wisdom in this, and so when I graded their exams, I only needed to invoke this rule TWICE in fifteen exams. I was stunned.

Equally stunning was the some of the takeaway from the mindset discussion with my Intro Phsycics class. A little bit of background. My school is pre 1st (our euphemism for Kindergarten) to 12th. All of the students I teach are freshman, and today was their 10th day of high school.

I took my students’ thoughts about their peers’ and their own mindset, and quickly tossed them into a keynote. Here it is.

Depressing, huh? I try to imagine my soon-to-be-born daughter wiriting these words in 13 or 14 years, and it almost brings me to tears.

We did have an incredible discussion about the powerful role mindset plays in our lives. All of the kids were shocked that one word of praise could make such a difference in a child’s willingness to take on challenges, and they all seemed to understand the need to move toward a growth mindset, but I think we all see the road is incredibly hard. I feel like I can honestly say that I’ve done everything in my power to make my class support and encourage the “growth” mindset (SBG, modeling, student-centered group work, lots of opportunities for feedback), but I know beyond my walls there are tons of things out there that push them toward the fixed mindset (starting with the fact that our freshman have to take the PSAT in a little less than 2 months). And this leaves me wondering what I can do to change things. I think my innovation incubator project, which borrows heavily from Study Hacks is certainly a step in the right direction, but I wonder if I should/could do more. Should I share this feedback with the administration?

But I do teach one junior, a new student, recently arrived from Mexico, and when I read her responses this afternoon, I think my hope for progress was restored:

My closest friends have “growth” mindset. Some of them love getting A’s, but that does not imply that they have “fixed” mindset. All of them love to learn and improve, no matter what. They may be considered as the nerds of the class, however, I know enough to say that they love improving on everything. All of my friends, and I love to learn, ask questions, and participate in good discussions. My best friend is the perfect example of “growth” mindset. He will always do his best to study for an exam, but never enough to say that he has mastered the subject. He takes the exam and always tells me that he did what he could, and once the teacher hands the exams over to us with a grade, he always gets around a C. Even though he never scores an A, he is without a doubt the smartest 16 year old. He ALWAYS asks questions, or answers them, and LOVES when people correct him. I have never witnessed him making the same mistake twice. He always looks for improvement, and new challenges, instead of worrying about the final grade.

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