OMG-Grant Wiggins comments on my blog…
I remember being a young, know-nothing teacher talking to one of my best friends T, a Religious Studies teacher, describing how I was constantly frustrated by feeling like I’d taught something perfectly, only to see in homework that students didn’t really understand it all that well, and then feeling like I’d need to re-adjust my expectations in designing the test so that students would see more success. T told me, “it sounds like you’re in the classic Wiggins trap, and you really need to think about planning backward.”
At this moment, T introduced me to Grant Wiggins and Understanding by Design. The basic idea is that you start with the end in mind. What are the enduring understandings you want your student to learn and keep with them for the rest of their lives, and most importantly, how do you want to test that. For my friend, T who taught 10th grade Religious Studies, it was “how does the portrayal of God and his relationship with the Jews change from the Old Testament to the New Testament.” This was the Big Question, it was the lion’s share of the final exam, and T gave it to his students on the very first day. T had designed his syllabus so that nearly every lesson focused on teaching this understanding by asking essential questions. It seemed like a brilliant strategy to me, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to work up my own big enduring understanding, which I think is what it means to make a model.
By the way, T has started an amazing blog chronicling his sabbatical in Israel studying how Israeli and Palestinian children are taught about religion in school. His wife, Hilary also has a wonderful blog with a more personal focus about living in Israel for a year.
Anyway, I’ve heard Grant Wiggins speak in person way back in 2001 when I attended the Klingenstein Summer Institute, and I was deeply impressed by his passion for education, and I’ve recently discovered his new blog, which is filled with thought-provoking posts.
And today, Grant Wiggins commented on my blog, leaving me feel deeply honored. Here’s what he said:
Grant Wiggins here (author of Understanding by Design). Love the blog. Timely that I found you. I have a client – large urban district – that wants to develop cutting-edge online courses. I proposed starting with Physics, using the Gizmos from Explorelearning.com as a proof of concept, and working with vendors – roller coaster sims, Angry Birds developers – to build out a purely problem-based course as a prototype. Would you – and your readers here! – be so kind as to take a minute or two to chat with me and/or send me any ideas/links/resources? Much appreciated!
Ok, because it’s Grant Wiggins, I’m going to suppress my first response which is to say you can’t teach physics by sitting at a computer, you have to go out into the real world and do experiments. This response was made all the more powerful by Dan Meyer’s awesome insight on Sal Khan’s metaphor of learning to ride a bike via lecture—just ride the bike. After all, as I’m fond of saying, physicists invented the internet. If there’s one thing you should be able to learn from it, it must be physics.
So how would you do this? I’ve seen the Gizmos at Explorelearning.com a long time ago, and while they’ve improved a lot, and are pretty neat, I don’t think they could be the basis of my ideal online physics course. One reason I think this is they’re based on outdated technology, Adobe Shockwave (even after 10 minutes of futzing I couldn’t get them to work on my new mac), but more importantly, I think they aren’t open ended enough. In my classroom, when students start an experiment, they have freedom to approach it multiple ways, to choose what to measure, how to measure it and how to best represent their work graphically, with a digram, algebraically, and with words. Even the awesome PheTs, which I think are wonderful from a teaching perspective, and they are designed by physics educators with a deep understanding of physics pedagogy and physics education research don’t really offer the kind of flexibility I’m looking for.
Here’s what might—a blog network. I can imagine a posting a question on a blog network—”Use Tracker Video Analysis to compare the motion of the angry birds to the motion of a basketball free throw. Write up your results on your blog.” That’s it. The instructors could provide interesting questions and minimal initial guidance, and then the entire community of physics learners on the blogging network could provide feedback as students write up their results. Instructors are there to offer little bits of guidance here and there—”have you considered this?” “Where will you go next?” “How do you justify that conclusion?” Of course, this is wildly impractical, but what I’m describing is basically what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned when he wanted to create a way to for physicsists to share linked documents online, which he called the World Wide Web.
So here’s how I think I would say an online education effort has been a success in teaching physics—does it allow a student to show what he/she has learned in a new, personal way? If it’s simply assessing with multiple choice tests and pre built skill trees, the answer is no.
What do you think, dear readers? Is it possible to create a meaningful online physics education curriculum?