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YBPT: You be the physics teacher

February 22, 2011
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A physics teacher today was asking me for some advice about a teaching situation. This teacher has been trying to incorporate more PBL into the the class, and came up with a great multi-day assignment to explore the physics of a fender bender where a car skidded out from traveling too quickly around a turn. Students had to work through a fairly real world problem that presented students an incomplete description of the scenario, and through their work, students had to decide what additional info they’d need, and how to measure it. Ultimately, this teacher even went on to procure two used car tires which the students cut up and used to measure the coefficient of friction between the road and the tire. It might be helpful to know that for most of the students in this class, this year is the first year they’ve been exposed to anything in science this open-ended and PBL-like.

The question came up about write up a student turned in, where the student complained about a lack of direction, and ultimately felt that much of the activity was a “waste of time,” and seemed to focus on all the various problems and uncertainties that come up when trying to make real world measurements.

So here’s where you get to be the physics teacher [YBPT*]. How would you handle this situation? How would you respond to the student?

I’ll put my own response in the comments, just to keep this an open invitation to share your ideas and suggestions.

*-Although I like the idea of starting up another blog series, I really don’t plan to turn this into an ongoing series.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 8:11 pm

    I get that often from students. They want cookie cutter, telling them exactly what to do next, tell them what the right answer is…They can act like they are “learning” because they are “doing” work. “Learning is messy” as one blogger writes

    • February 22, 2011 8:14 pm

      But what do you do when learning has never been messy for these kids before? What if until they get to your class, everything comes in neat little bite sized packages and students find great success and enjoyment from this process?

      • February 22, 2011 9:11 pm

        You’re growing up – this is how grown-ups solve problems. There are no algorithms, flow charts, or bedtime stories. Man (or woman) up! *say with smile

    • February 24, 2011 10:53 am

      The easiest thing to do is to NOT assign a grade or any assessment to the activity – then the students won’t focus on how difficult it was. Of course, the effect can also be that no grade = no effort, but it’s a Catch 22.

  2. February 22, 2011 8:37 pm

    I found this article helpful: Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction . Lots of concrete suggestion for dealing with these types of situations.

  3. February 22, 2011 9:02 pm

    I have a question: what do you use to cut up tires?

    • February 22, 2011 9:05 pm

      A metal shop bandsaw, I think. We have a robotics lab that has a plasma cutter, so if it can be cut, it will be cut. Luckily, it didn’t come to that with the car tire.

  4. February 22, 2011 10:04 pm

    I’ve used the line “if it were easy they’d call it chemistry” as a joke to get the jaws to drop, then after explaining I was kidding (especially since our chemistry teacher is a big, big man), taken a few minutes to explain that in the real world, no one pays you to solve a problem that’s already been solved before. If your boss knew the right procedure, he or she wouldn’t assign it to you, they’d just do it. The real skill comes in taking what’s put in front of you, devising a plan of attack, and learning from your mistakes as you slog your way through to both an answer and a better understanding of the problem.

  5. February 22, 2011 10:15 pm

    These are good points, but I do think we have some obligation to acknowledge where the student is coming from, no? I mean if your whole math existence was doing multiplication worksheets, and then you get thrown into Dan Meyer’s class, it can be a little discomforting, no?

    I think one way to show it isn’t a waste of time is to revisit on assessment. Here’s a knotty extension where I’m looking to see how you’ve grown in the skills you were learning during the PBL activity. Of course, these things are hard to write, and even harder to grade.

  6. Pete McNamara permalink
    February 23, 2011 2:20 am

    I love the project, but this is the kind of thing that can go downhill from student frustration pretty easily. This is the point where you hope everything is coming together for your students but they may have only a “worksheet” level of understanding.

    To tackle these projects, they need to be able to synthesize a lot of different elements. That makes them awesome, but some might need it structured a bit on the first or even second project. I’d try to talk the student through the free body diagram, or about what the tire is for, and hope some of the rest fell into place…?

  7. February 24, 2011 12:02 am

    Thanks for all these great suggestions. They are all very helpful.

  8. February 24, 2011 3:07 pm

    I had a student come up to me this year after about 3 months in class and say to me, “Other teachers in the school start by giving us all the information we need to do the work and then we do the work. You should try that method of teaching, you seem to do it backwards.” I thanked her kindly and told her this: I do not know about other subjects, but in physics there is tons of research about how people learn physics. All of it says that “teaching backwards” is the best way. I do not want you to pass a test, I want you to make physics a part of how you express yourself forever. Since the conversation she has been a positive force for good exploring the world in ways she never expected.

    Not sure if this helps, but the lesson for me was explain often why you teach the way you do. PBL is different and new for kids, and no one in the world does worse with different and new than kids, in spite of being grown up digital. But inquiry into physics will change how people view and interact with the world. You know this because you are a physics teacher. Someday may be she will ask one of her other teachers why they do not teach backwards too.

    • February 24, 2011 6:43 pm

      This is great. I do find that it is important to give kids room to question (appropriately) why we learn and teach the way we do. It can make a huge difference. Your anecdote is a powerful example of this.

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