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Buggy lab day 2: first board meeting

August 20, 2011

On Friday, both of my physics classes continued their work on the buggy lab, and in the last half hour or so of class, we convened our first board meeting. The purpose of the board meeting is to bring all of the lab groups together to share their work and uncover the big ideas of the lab. This year, I’m introducing the idea of post game analysis, and asking students to stop periodically to suggest ideas that should be a part of the post game analysis or highlight reel.

If you’ve never tried them before, Board meetings can be very powerful. It is quite common for my students to uncover all of the main ideas of a unit in their discussions.

I tell my students that it is my goal not to say anything during the first 15 minutes of discussion. I want them to focus on engaging one another. This year, I also put together this 1 page handout. I seem to recall seeing something similar (and much better) on the modeling listserv, and if anyone can send me a link to it, I would be most appreciative.

View this document on Scribd

In the sprit of full disclosure and wanting to improve as a facilitator of these conversations, I thought I would post videos of my two Friday board meetings here. These discussions are the first discussions like this the students have ever had, if you watch them, you’ll see some rough spots. The first class didn’t have enough time to get to the main ideas. The second group had much more time to discuss, and made some pretty big breakthroughs at the end, but I think there are places where I’m a bit too heavy handed in the conversation, and not drawing in enough of the students to participate.

Also, and this is the point I really want to work on, a student came to me after the discussion saying that she was a bit confused, and hoped we’d have some time to explain these ideas further—and I assured her we would continue to discuss these for a while ,and we would probably even continue our board meeting on Monday. But I know there are students in my classes that would prefer that we skip board meetings like this, and that I simple lecture and explain the big ideas that they need to know. I’d love ideas on how to help these students see the benefit in working through this confusion with their peers. I think the post-game analysis work can be very helpful in creating a middle ground between some sort of lecture by me, and nothing but free form discussions with students.

My thought now is to spend another 20-25 minutes on monday doing a sort of final check to put together the idea of position vs time graphs for my students. I’d use Kelly’s idea and mark 6 different starting points and directions on the floor, and have students make a position vs time graph for their buggy, and then have them figure out which buggy would win in a 1m race, make predictions for the finish times of their buggy and then hold the race. Still, this seems like a big time investment for the first lab, and I’m sure there are many places where I could streamline things.

If you are so inclined, I’d love any thoughts you might have on these two videos.

First class, shorter discussion

Second class, longer discussion—students make a number of breakthroughs at the end

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2011 9:09 am

    Hey John, major props for de-privatizing your teaching like this. This takes a lot of courage. I’m going to toss out some questions:

    What “big ideas” are you hoping students to make contact with here? How will you know if the conversation is going productively in those directions or not? What would be a signal to you that they need some help moving the conversation in a different direction?

    What ideas come up that you see as potentially problematic, in terms of the physics? What ideas do you see as really valuable and aligned with your goals for the discussion? What ideas do you see as really valuable but possibly outside or beyond the goals you have for discussion (at least now)? What plans might you have for drawing those important things out of the conversation, or keeping track of those perhaps tangential ideas for later?

    You have given them this handout, but I don’t think a single statement made by any student follows the suggestions you gave. So, what positive contributions do you see here? Why are those productive? What kinds of contributions do you see as possibly less productive (not necessarily bad)? Why are those less productive? If the worksheet isn’t working, are there other ways to model how to be a productive contributor or to let them in on what is more or less productive?

    To me, there’s a little bit of a “show and tell” feel going on, especially in the first clip. This isn’t happening all the time, but it’s here and there, even in the second. How is “show and tell” different from what you want your students to be doing here? Are there things happening in the clip that help steer the discussion away from “show and tell”? Why do you think they had that effect?

    • August 22, 2011 12:35 am

      First, thanks for the incredible feedback. I’ll try to answer your questions. You’ve also convinced me to spend some time really digging into these videos and possibly even transcribe them (Maybe I can make that a student exercise—hmm).

      What I want my students to do is develop the verbal, graphical and algebraic expressions for constant velocity motion, and ultimately, I want them to be able to engage one another and compare results.

      My approach has always been to let the initial parts of these conversations go with as little comment from me as possible (altough I am taking careful notes in the background) and then once everyone has presented, I begin to ask follow up questions on ideas and comments that caught my ear.

      Some of the things I see that are good are the moments when students really engage each other with questions and slow down enough to show that they are confused. I saw that in the first video with the students asking the last group why their graph when down, and then how to get the equation of the line.

      One of the things that I find potentially problematic is the jumping to acceleration, but I’m trying to hold back and not simply tell them that we’re banning that word until unit 3, and instead, wanted to follow up with asking them how to do an experiment on the spot to see whether it is accelerating.

      My idea for keeping track of tangents would be to keep some sort of parking lot for these ideas, and I do that occasionally when I get involved (though I don’t actually write the idea down, and I should).

      I agree that the handout seemed to do almost nothing to help shape the discussion (the first group didn’t have it, since I wrote it between classes). I think it is hard for students to multitask in these discussions—so reading a handout, or taking notes presents a big challenge. This is why I think we need to stop more often and ask about ideas that should be a part of post game analysis.

      I definitely agree with you that there is a lot of show and tell (and I like that term). I think this is to be expected, since this is first time many students have been in a discussion like this, but I think going back to this video and really digging into it can be helpful. I’m thinking I might even have students go back to it near the end of the unit and identify the parts of the discussion that were ard were not on target.

  2. August 21, 2011 10:36 am

    I like this process. What is the age range of your students? I’d like to give try but I’m afraid 36+ freshman will have a hard time learning the process. Perhaps they could do board meetings in smaller groups and record their thoughts since I wouldn’t be able to listen in on all the conversations.

    With regard to the students who just want a lecture, assign them a boring Khan Academy video to memorize and then have them decide what they like better…!

    I love the phrase you put at the end of your document. I googled it to see where it came from (quotes without an author are a pet peeve of mine) only to find the oldest reference of the phrase on the Internet was in a blog comment from you tweaking a quote from a Marine recruiting poster. Well played…

  3. Becca permalink
    August 22, 2011 3:47 am

    This isn’t really about the discussion, but one thing I noticed in the second video is that when the students draw best fit lines on their graphs, none of them draw the line all the way back to t = 0. I think that’s interesting, because if they think about it, not only do they have a data point there, it should be the one they’re most confident in, because there’s no timing error yet. Maybe I’m being too nit-picky, but I think it would be an interesting thing to point out to them.

    As for the “show and tell” feeling versus the times when the students admitted to being confused, I think problem is that at the beginnging of the discussion, the students aren’t really driven by any question, so they just present their results to each other. A lot of their results graphs looked pretty much the same, so the class ends up just accepting what the speaker is saying without much question. Once they get into the post-game analysis, they realize where they haven’t been precise-enough in their vocabulary/the conclusions they’re drawing, and then the quesitons start coming out. So I think you’re right to try to push them to start doing post-game analysis earlier. It seems like before the discussion even started each group probably had some post-game analysis ideas in heads. What if you had them start the discussion by stating those ideas first, then presenting their data only as a way to support their claims. Then you could skip the show-and-tell part, and get straight to the real discussion part, where the students are debating what the post-game analysis should be.

    • August 22, 2011 11:11 pm

      Thanks for that observation. I noticed it after you pointed it out and brought it up with my students—they have a tendency to draw lines with arrows on both ends from math class, and it’s a sign to me that they are thinking as deeply as they could about the meaning of the graph. I also tried to drive the discussion today a bit more by seeding question. I think it’s going to take some time for them to develop the skills to be able to critique one another’s work in our discussions. I like your idea of flipping PGA highlights with presenting their results. I might try that next time.

    • August 22, 2011 11:13 pm

      These are some great thoughts—I’m totally with you that some students would prefer KA because it’s cleaner and they don’t want messiness or uncertainty and are still very afraid of making mistakes. The burden to change this rests largely on my shoulders, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot and will be writing more about in the future.

  4. August 22, 2011 12:39 pm

    @ Mark — I have to start by saying that I was one of those students who’d have been more comfortable with the “boring Khan video” and would have been depending on my teacher to be able to deliver on the promise of not leaving me in a state of uncomfortable confusion. I would also have depended on my teacher to understand that different kinds of students bring different strengths and worries to the table and that anxiety is counterproductive to learning. When asked to say which process I liked better, I’d have said (if I’d felt free enough to reveal my true feelings) that I liked the predictability of memorising Khan my because it made me feel secure to know what was expected of me and be able to give that the best way I knew how. I would also have said that depending on my peers for the learning was haphazard at best and seemed largely a matter of whether I was lucky enough to be in the second group (on the videos) or in the first one. What would you have done to help me — a student who only wanted to please and do well — feel reassured that at the end of this I’d be well prepared in terms of content, but also would have stretched my skills as a learner so that I could increase my tolerance for little confusion, a little messiness, and a little open endedness and learn to love the soul of science?

    @John — I also would have been the student who was reluctant to speak out or put her ideas on the line for fear of not being able to find the right answer or explain myself on the spot or have a comeback for the challenging questions that can come up in such a discussion. I was deathly afraid of revealing my shortcomings in front of other students and also of not grasping the content I needed to keep my top marks. I was under a lot of pressure from home to be a perfectionist and that was much easier in the listen/read/view & memorise kind of class than it was in one that was more open ended.

    I’d have needed to see my teacher delivering on the promise I felt was inherent in the teacher/student relationship of ensuring that I would leave with all the understandings I needed to feel secure in my own learning. It also might have helped for me to know from the outset that this classroom was a learning space and that there were many kinds of learning going to take place– but that they’d build into a cohesive and dependable body of knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking. If I’d been in the first class, I’d have needed to experience the next day some sort of resolution to my confusion. I’d have liked the opportunity to see that I was not the only person who was uncomfortable with the process and perhaps have had an example/story from the teacher’s past of a similar experience and how he learned to deal with the fears associated with being on uncertain ground. I’d have hoped the teacher would pick up the threads of the previous day’s work, clarify his expectations for that activity, help us see where we’d been meeting some of those with our discussion, and then ask us some guiding questions to help us to positive sense of closure and mission accomplished.

    As the term progressed, I’d also be encouraged if it was pointed out to me how my inquiry skills were evolving in the right direction. A little walk down memory lane would have been appreciated — “Remember that first Board Room and how you were so uncomfortable and and and and .. ? Do you see how far you’ve come in your ability to …..? Where before you would have ….., now you can …… . Do you have a sense of what you need to work on to get even better at this in the future? (I used to call this ‘looking back and looking forward’ when I did it with students — it worked best as a quiet aside on a one-to-one basis.)

    Finally, I’ve found this collection of videos to be really helpful at getting me to see ways to dovetail learning experiences of different kinds — I especially like the last one (Optics) as it shows the teacher/student interaction over time and the development of the kids in their ability to grow in all different kinds of learning activities.

  5. September 5, 2011 8:49 pm


    I finally got some time to watch these…Thank you so much for posting them. My board meetings go about the same way after this lab. I had a smile on my face when the students started to ‘get it’. I can tell you were excited as well. I think that is when you started asking scaffolding questions to get to the points you wanted them to have. In the past I have found myself in a sort of question mania to get my students to where they want to be. It is hard not to because of time constraints and wanting to push them to the breakthrough moments. I noticed that students were making comments and questions while you were raising your own questions. Some of these may have contained a misconception or gem of an idea that could be worth flushing out.

    It is a hard balance. I would love to just sit back and let the conversation continue organically without interjecting, or just asking a question once in a while to move things in a certain direction. I have found that when I step back a little the discussion will actually get to a point where I would have wanted it to be all along, all without my question mania. On the other hand, without some sort of question mania factors such as time and student restlessness kick in.

    It is truly an artful skill at facilitating discussions in modeling. When to interject? what question to ask? is that student’s question worth pursuing? what misconception is it? etc. These are all done on the fly, and this balance is something I personally am trying to master.

    Quick question…When did you introduce the term position and distance? It seems from the videos that the students had a grasp of the difference already.

    Thank you again for sharing this…AWESOME!

    • September 6, 2011 12:13 am

      Thanks for the great feedback. The difference between position and distance was something I brought up specifically, after realizing that we set off to do the experiment for the relationship between distance and time, and I really wanted them to explore the relationship between position and time. So I threw together a short 5 minute mini lesson preceding this board meeting, I think.


  1. Let them think! | Dispersive Teaching

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