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The power of video

September 5, 2010

The boarding school Phillips Exeter teaches all of its classes in the harkness method, which his basically 12 students and a teacher gathered around a very large round table, where student really lead discussion. Having seen this in action, I can say it’s incredible. Students in math classes walk right in, put homework problems up on the boards around the room and begin to workshop problems talking to each other, even when the teacher is late in arriving. In an astronomy class, I watched the students spend an entire period trying to puzzle out what they were seeing in a astronomy picture of the day—never did they say anything like “I give up,” or “why don’t you just tell me what it is?”

After seeing this, I wondered how I could inculcate similar habits in my students. Exeter has an incredible culture that engrains this in every student (see how the seniors explain to new freshmen what harkness is all about with an evening seminar and example discussion). Since I don’t have all these resources at my school, it’s going to be up to me to teach them these habits.

Here’s what I’ve sort of done so far. I began our first lab discussion by showing them this rubric. I explained that the best discussions are going to be ones where they decide on the important questions, and follow up carefully on each other’s comments. That’s seemed to work pretty well. The two discussions we’ve had in honors physics thus far went for between 20-30 minutes before I had to say anything, and then I was only refocusing them on a few points they might have missed. Still, I think these students may not fully approach these discussions with the right mindset; I think they see them as fun, and helpful, but they don’t yet realize they really are central to the course, and that even more importantly, they are something that they can improve at with practice and forethought.

Now that I’m filming them and the sound is working (a dead mic cost me footage of the first discussion), I’ve decided that to teach them to reflect a bit more deeply on their individual progress, as well as a progress of the group in uncovering scientific ideas, I’m going to have them watch and reflect on the video in webassign. Some questions that come to mind:

  • What were the big ideas that were uncovered in the discussion?
  • Write down all the things you said in discussion. (I think this might help some of the students who either over or under participate). Explain how these comments contributed to uncovering the big ideas?
  • Identify a moment where a student question to another student really helped the class as a whole to learn. Explain why this moment was so effective.
  • After observing your behavior, how much do you think you behavior (not necessairly your comments) contributed to the progress of the group as a whole?
    • it actually worked counter to the group’s progress
    • it did not help nor hurt the group’s progress
    • it marginally benefitted the group’s progress
    • it greatly helped the group’s progress

  • Now name specific things you can do to improve our next discussion. Write these items down. I will ask you to bring them to our next discussion.

  • I doubt most of my students have ever seen themselves filmed in a 30 minute discussion where they were on their own for most of the time, so I’m very interested to see their reactions.

In addition to filming the whole group discussion, I gave the camera to one individual group and asked them to film themselves, because I was interested in seeing how their thinking evolved in the lab. This turned out to be a great exercise on a number of fronts, despite the fact that the students were trying to constantly annoy one another with the camera. Starting with the positive, I got to see how many great ideas come up in their discussion that they just overlook in tossing out ideas. One student literally said “every time I pull the air puck with the string, the string is tight at first and then loosens up,” which was followed by another student saying “so you were exerting a constant force.” I need to find ways to help them communicate more with each other and figure out the meaning of their observations. The other thing I got to observe is just how much “uhh…what are we supposed to be doing” time there is, and while this is typical of freshmen who are used to cookbook labs, I think the comment in the video (made by a student) “note to self: fast forward to 23 minutes to see us actually doing something” is troubling, since they really don’t yet have strategies for how to get themselves going. Finally, I noticed a number of incidents of poor interactions between group members, and in particular, one boy making a series of low level harassing comments to another. Thanks to easy editing on imovie, I’m able to cut and splice all those together into a little 5 minute “what a jerk you were” video that I think will take this student by complete surprise, and help him to take drastic action to change this course. And if he doesn’t, I’ve got the film that will be the first step in more serious action.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what camera I use, it’s the Kodak Zi-8, which is awesome (~$150). It films in 1080p (if you want to suck away all your HD space for a single movie), and 16 gb SD card holds 4 HOURS of WXGA video which is fine for these purposes. The battery lasts at least 2 hours, and it can run off of a powersupply, accept an external mic (though the internal mic is actually better than the external room mic I tried to use for the first discussion). No post-processing is needed to upload straight to vimeo (unfortunately, this isn’t the case with imovie—it takes about 20 minutes to import 1 hour of footage on my MBP). I’ve also used my new iphone (works great, mic isn’t the best) and an old 1g flip camera (works great, mic isn’t perfect for large discussions); as it recall, it also seemed to take more post processing to get the flip movie format to upload to vimeo, or be viewable on my computer.

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