I can still remember the third quarter calculus course I took my senior year of high school. The professor had developed this teaching style of continuously cold calling on students to work through problems he wrote on the board. He’s start off a lecture by writing an integral on the board, and then methodically start calling on students:
“What is the next step in this problem, Mr. Smith?” he’d ask, and if that student didn’t know, he’d casually switch over to someone else, “Well, perhaps Ms. Johnson can help you out.”
He did this so frequently that even in a class of 25, you were basically guaranteed to get called on at least twice. I can remember dreading this class every day, especially the moment I would be called on and wouldn’t know the answer, and suddenly everyone would realize I was the calculus impostor from high school sitting in on a college level class. From that moment on, I’ve always stayed far away from cold calling students when I’m teaching.
Last night, Bowman Dickson gave an awesome presentation on developing conceptual understanding before introducing mathematical formalism to the Global Math Department *. In his presentation, Bowman mentioned the great value he finds in cold calling on students, especially to bring out a range of different responses when trying to introduce an idea conceptually. He also stressed the need to explain to students from the beginning why he’s cold calling, and never to use cold calling as a form of punishment to call out students who aren’t paying attention.
This totally got to reconsider about a practice I’d previously written off. What if I when I started the year, and we were discussing the value of making mistakes and having everyone contribute to the conversation, I talked about cold calling as a way of working to intentionally help build our class culture to encourage mistake making and to help me quickly gauge our understanding as a class. I think this would dramatically change the tone of a practice that I’ve found distasteful in the past, and I’m sure most students find stress inducing.
It also made me think of how many of the friction-inducing practices we do as teachers, like not directly answering student questions, and instead answering with questions, would probably far more palatable and effective if we simply took the time to explain their rational and build a bit of buy-in.
* Incidentally, the GMD has been on a tear with some incredible presentations lately. Check out @sophgermain‘s great discussion of race and privilege, @suevanhattum’s excellent presentation on math circles and becoming invisible in discussion, and Ben Orlin‘s teaching as a form of writing.
It’s final exam time around here, and I’ve spent a bit of time trying to think of ways in which I can help students avoid some of those careless mistakes that often prevent them from showing the level of understudying they’re capable of reaching. Taking a page from Atul Guwande’s The Checklist Maifesto, I put together the following “How to solve physics problems like a boss” checklist.
I’ve emailed this out to my honors physics students, and plan to give them a paper copy on exam day as well. I’d love any suggestions you might have for ways to improve it. Are there check-steps I missed? I have a tiny concern that something like this might make some really slow some of my students down and push them toward bossing over details. What do you think?
In a semi-recent post, I discussed the incredible benefits I got from having Eugenia Etkina visit my classroom and coach me. I’ve also tried before to get some sort of virtual coaching going, but it’s always seemed a bit cumbersome. Here’s my latest effort to simplify this.
Here’s what I’m offering: I’d like you to visit my classroom virtually and give me some coaching.
What will you get in return: I’ll do the same for you.
Here’s my schedule of teaching for now until the end of the year. You’ll notice that since I work at a boarding school, I even have ultra convenient Saturday classes that you can observe from the comfort of your breakfast table in pajamas.
All I ask is that you email or tweet me a few days ahead of time to tell me what class you’d like to visit, and let me know what class of yours you’d like me to return the favor for (I’m generally free when I’m not teaching). I’ll reply and we can work out the details of exactly what I’d like you to look for, etc.
Then on the day of the coaching, I’ll bring you into class via Skype or Google hangout on an iPad.
After we visit each other’s classes, we will set up another Skype/G+ session to debrief.
I hope I’ll be able to do one of these a week. I also don’t want to limit this to just coaching in physics. One of the things I’m really working on is trying to improve discussion in my classes, so if you teach a discussion based English or History class, I’d welcome your feedback and want to see what you’re doing as well. I’m also itching to have a chance to see some math teaching again as well.
If this turns out to be a hit, maybe we can figure out some way of creating some sort of service to match folks up who are interested in doing this.
My school, St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, is looking for a full time physics teacher for 2014-15. St. Andrew’s is an outstanding coeducational 100% boarding school situated on 2500 acres of farmland, 1 hour from Philadelphia.
Here are a few other tidbits about this job and my school:
- The culture of the school is unique, and really must be experienced to be believed. 300 students and 80 faculty living and working together to find deep joy in learning, working to make the world a better place, and to create a compassionate, caring community that rejects the culture of pettiness and cynicism that can often infect the traditional high school.
- The school draws students from all over the world and is 100% need blind in its admissions. Nearly half of the student body receives financial aid, and the average grant is $38,000 (this is almost unheard of in the independent school world).
- The school is led by a visionary headmaster, Tad Roach. To get a sense of what an incredible educational leader he is, I encourage you to read a few of his chapel talks.
- The faculty are incredible. They are experts in their fields, deeply committed to the craft of teaching, collegiality and continuous improvement. I credit many of them with helping me to rekindle my interest in the humanities.
- You’ll have a lot of autonomy. One of the luxuries of teaching in private school, and our school in particular, is that you are given a large amount of control over what and how you teach, yet at the same time, you’ll have a tremendous network of colleagues with with to share ideas and gain feedback.
- You’ll have a great opportunity to shape the future of the science curriculum at our school. We use a modified version of the modeling curriculum in physics and chemistry, along with standards based grading, and very open to your ideas for how we can continue to experiment and improve science education for our students. You’ll be part of a vibrant and very collaborative department—we’re doing some very interesting work to create a longitudinal study of a subset of our students to help us define, measure and collect evidence of the skills we are trying to teach. We also have an amazing department chair.
- You’ll even have a chance to help shape the future of our building, as we are in the very early stages of planning for a two stage renovation of the science building.
- Clasess are very small, usually around 12 students, and a typical load is 3 or 4 sections.
- You’ll have tremendous resources to support you in your teaching. The physics department has a special endowment to bring leading scientists to campus to deliver a lecture and speak to classes (past speakers have included Brian Green, Bill Phillips, Janna Levin, Jill Tarter, and this year, Stephon Alexander. We have resources to bring teaching experts to campus to observe classes and offer coaching, like Rhett Allain who visited laster year, and Eugenia Etkina this year. We have the resources to provide for almost any professional development opportunity you can imagine.
- As a small school, we’re also very flexible. If you have interest in teaching another subject, this can likely be accommodated in the future. In my time here, I’ve taught multiple levels of physics, computer science, mathematics and worked as a college counselor.
In short, the community is truly inspiring. If you’ve never considered boarding school teaching, you’ll be amazed by the connections you can form with students and the things they can accomplish when you encourage their interests outside the school day. This year, I’ve helped students launch a nascent robotics club, work on developing an Arduino setup to allow the dryers to text students when their laundry is done, and am working with a group of girl who are learning programming and web design in order to build a clothes sharing app for their dorm, and helping another girl to launch a modern physics club to study string theory and other recent development in physics.
Here’s the link to the job description. Please feel free to ask questions (confidentially) in the comments, and I’ll try to answer them or connect you with those who can.
About a week ago, I asked twitter the following question:
As expected, faculty meetings aren’t a beloved institution for teachers. But there are bright spots:
I, too, have hopes that faculty meeting can be a useful and even inspiring gathering of colleagues, and today, I have just a bit more proof of how that is possible.
Our school participates in the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA). The CWRA is a standardized test designed to measure those 21st Century critical thinking skills we always talk about, and it does it with a real world performance task that pushes you to synthesize a bunch of different sources of information to analyze an argument.
My school uses this test to give a very basic measure of how we are doing at teaching these skills and try to being to assess the value we are adding. Since the CWRA is changing a bit in its format, and we haven’t discussed it in a while as a faculty, our academic dean decided decided it would be a good idea devote part of a faculty meeting to this topic.
And we did this not through death by powerpoint but simply by taking the sample task that you can download from the website. After 30 seconds of introduction, he asked the faculty to start working on the task from the midst of a student taking it, and it didn’t take long for the faculty to break into deeply engaged small group discussion. After about 15 minutes of discussion, our academic dean asked the faculty to switch gears and use the whiteboards to write out the answers to two questions:
- (Skills) What critical thinking skills are required to answer this task successfully?
(Validity) To what extent is this a valid measure of those skills?
I was amazed by how quickly the 20 whiteboards around the room were filled with all of the same skills and a recognition of the validity of this test. When we began to discuss our thoughts about the test, faculty quickly saw the value of collaboration in working on this task (something not permitted on the test itself, but a real world skill we want our students to have), and the need for our students to do more interdisciplinary work like this. All of this took only about 40 minutes of meeting time, and I think this exercise left all of us hungry to do more work around this assessment and thinking about our curriculum, which is a pretty exciting outcome of a faculty meeting, in my opinion.
And of course, I don’t think you actually need to participate in the CWRA to have this conversation with your faculty—this is just one way to assess student learning in macro way, and it’s certainly better than many of the other high stakes tests out there I read about. Simply get your faculty or department to spend 20 minutes taking this task, and see where the discussion takes you. You might even try it out with a small group of students to get a sense of how your own students wrestle with the question.
We write comments 3 times a year and give grades at the quarter and end of the semester. One of the things I dislike about this process is the tremendous amount of lag between me writing a comment or determining a grade and a student actually getting this feedback, and this has been true at every school I’ve worked at. It’s not uncommon for comments to take a week or more to get proofread, and then it takes time to get them out to parents, who then pass them along to kids. Often, by kids get their comments weeks after they were written which doesn’t do much to close the feedback loop and give students timely feedback in a way that can be beneficial to their learning. And of course, I dislike quarter grades themselves, a single number attempting to summarize what a student has learned, when we are really in the middle of the game and actually need to be having a conversation about learning rather than summing it up.
So I’ve tried to address both of these concerns in the small ways that I can. One thing I do is send my comments and/or grades to the student via email as soon as I finish them, and I usually enclose them in an email inviting them into a conversation. One side benefit from this is I get one more set of eyes to proofread my comments, but the real reason I do it is to continue a conversation about learning with each student.
But sending emails to 50 students can be quite tedious. Luckily, I have an awesome tool in my arsnel that makes this a cinch—textexpander. Text expander lets you expand short abbreviations like wwork with longer strings of text, like my work email address. But it is so much more powerful than that. I can also create fill in fields so that when I enter type the expansion shortcut, I’m prompted to enter values for the fields that are incorporated into the text.
So now typing a long email with a grade and questions I’d like the student to reflect upon is as simple as typing “1qtr” and filling in the appropriate fields, and I can even add a field to allow me to add a personal note to each student, which I can quickly type, which means I can send personalized emails to 50 students in a little less than an hour. Not bad.
And the payoff is huge. I’m convinced that there is great benefit to students engaging their teachers in 1-1 conversations, even if only in email. I’ve gotten incredibly thoughtful replies from students that give me real insight into their learning and are disarmingly honest, like this:
Last week we had the great honor of having PER legend Eugenia Etkina visit our department for the day to coach our faculty and talk about physics teaching. It was an incredible day.
Immediately upon arriving, Eugenia started observing classes, and by the time she’d seen one of my classes she had two great points.
In my intro physics class, we had gotten off on a tangent about whether air would have a higher or lower specific heat than water. I was trying to elicit arguments from the students, ask them to back them up with evidence and then try to compare them. One of the arguments revolved around comparing the mass of a water molecule and a nitrogen molecule (the main constituent of air). Without thinking too much about the final answer, I was sort of hoping that this student would help us to see that there are many more air molecules in a given mass than there are in an equal mass of water. But in our calculation, we saw that the atomic mass of water was 18, while the mass of a nitrogen molecule is 28. Puzzled, i realized I’d lead us into a bit of a dead end, and so I admitted my confusion and set the students to work on a lab to measure the specific heat of zinc and copper. Not my finest moment. However, afterward, Eugenia reminded me that it is true that water molecules have less mass than nitrogen molecules, and this is exactly why we have clouds, and why water vapor remains suspended int he air. It was a flash of insight that helped me to see just how much I was missing when I was trying to drive the class toward a “correct” justification that air has a lower specific heat than water.
When Mark and I first debriefed with Eugenia, she jumped right into some direct and honest feedback, “You guys like Socratic dialogue way too much,” she explained to us that we were walking students down the arguments and lab setups we had devised in our own heads, when what we need to be doing is having students construct those arguments for themselves. She then told us that the lab experiment to measure specific heat that we were having a group design discussion about (“what will you measure? how will you measure it, etc”) was a waste of time and we should just have students design the lab.
At this point, I was skeptical. My students were struggling with designing experiments—they didn’t see the reason for the decisions we were making and often seemed to crave step by step instructions (which we did not provide). How would they be ready to design experiments for themselves? “Your students are ready,” Eugenia said, and so in the second section of my intro physics class, I simply wrote the question on the board “Devise an experiment to measure the specific heat of Zinc or Copper.” I asked students to write up their proposed experiments on whiteboards, and here is what I got.
- Heat a copper rod by burning peanuts under it. You could then measure the temperature difference, and since you know each peanut has approximately 5 kcal, you can find the specific heat.
- Heat copper rod by putting it in boiling water and then dropping it into room temperature water.
- Put room temperature copper into warm water.
- Put 10 grams of each substance into a bunsen burner, and measure the time that it takes to raise the temperature of each substance by 10°. Then the ratios of the times are the same as the ratios of the specific heats.
These experiments were incredible—students were connecting to some of our past understanding of the energy content of peanuts, as well much of the work we’d done with heat transfer to talk about why you would want to work with metal in very small bits rather than one large cylinder. Afterward, we had a discussion of the strengths and flaws of each experiment, and students were able to carefully refine their design until they came away with an experiment that was very similar to the experiment I was intending to have them do, but was so much better because they had figured out the rationale for each design decision and had a far better grasp of how each decision they would make would affect the overall quality of their measurement.
And of course, their engagement in this task was higher than almost any previous experiment we’ve done. It was a complete turnaround.
Here’s the puzzling thing to me. This idea that students are ready to design their own experiments is something I’ve known for years. We build it into our curriculum many times, and even started the intro class with designing their own experiments to measure the energy content of peanuts and batteries. So why do we later turn to offering more scaffolding and as Eugenia described it “giving them a cookbook lab via discussion?” I’m not completely sure—I think it has something to do with feeling that when we are doing an experiment that is more than just exploration, they need to follow some sort of proper procedure that I’ve designed and given to them. I now see the error of my ways.
Wrap up time
One thing I’ve always done with my classes is tried to maximize the amount of time students are working and thinking about physics. This means that I often just have students working right up until the end of class, when I’ll then shout a quick reminder of the work I’d like them to do that evening.
Eugenia re-emphasized to me the importance of having students go back and reflect on what they learned that day, and offered a number of questions one could ask to help prompt this reflection:
- What did you learn today?
- How did you learn it?
- Why is it important?
Eugenia reminded me of research into human learning that having students try to summarize what they learned is a powerful tool for understanding and helps to form much stronger connections in their brains. So I’ve been setting my phone to remind me when there are 3 minutes left in class, and I take that opportunity to ask the class to try to summarize our learning.
Overall, it was fabulous day that reminded me of the need to constantly seek out new and honest feedback on our teaching. Eugenia is a gifted teacher who had a major impact on my teaching with just a few questions.
This also reminds me of the virtual coaching project from a few years back. Maybe it’s time to get this idea going…