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OMG-Grant Wiggins comments on my blog…

September 27, 2011

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 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!

Grant Wiggins

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 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?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 8:49 pm

    I think it’s possible with the right ACTIVE activities and using software like Tracker to give kids the chance to collect and manipulate their own data. I think the real power of such a program would be to bring students working and struggling with the same issues together to help each other learn. Learning concepts is great, but without some sort of feedback and collaboration (the way real science is done) the program becomes nothing more than a content delivery system.

    I hate that term CDS. Isn’t that, by definition, the thing we are seeing as the primary flaw in Khan Academy?

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    September 27, 2011 11:45 pm

    I’ve taught several online physics courses and I plan to really go to the next level with them next summer. For me, the breakthrough is web conferencing software. If I can have students in a virtual room synchronously, and be able to put them in groups to work on problems, I think I can pull off a virtual learning environment. The nice thing about physics is that the experiments tend to be safer than, say, chemistry. With Audacity and a decent mic, you can do all sorts of kinematics experiments at home. The content can come through books, vids, websites, PLN’s, whatever. For me, the need to meet together to guide some of the learning is the key.

    Next summer I plan to teach an upper division Theoretical Mechanics course fully online. I’ll have several times through the week when we all meet together and I’m really excited about the possibilities.

  3. Jim Deane permalink
    September 28, 2011 8:48 am

    Try Easy Java Simulations.
    Flexible, free, extremely powerful.

    Also try Visual Python (VPython).
    Programming environment simple enough to introduce students to concepts of programming and computational physics, but powerful enough to do some really interesting things.

  4. September 28, 2011 10:42 am

    Hi, I’m the developer of and I’d be very interested in discussing this idea. We have developed content creation tools and an experience that could be useful there.

  5. September 28, 2011 12:28 pm

    Sounds like Mr. Wiggins and some others do believe that computer instruction suffices for teaching (and, more importantly, actually learning) physics. But without the sort of things John describes, it sounds pretty damned sterile to me. Ditto were the topic mathematics or pretty much anything else. Students need to get their ideas and conjectures out there bouncing off those of peers and with a knowledgeable instructor guiding and orchestrating. This bizarre notion that we can leave it all to computers, even with nice bells and whistles and really good software or java aps, seems still grounded in a passive, received knowledge poured into minds/brains model of education. What happened to the human and social elements?

  6. October 18, 2011 12:14 am

    It’s awesome that Mr. Wiggins visited and commented on your blog. 😀 I’ve been dabbling in UbD and went to a conference he spoke at in San Francisco last year. I’d love to “take a minute or two to chat”, but that was a pretty vague request. :\ Does he mean leave comments and have a discussion over blog comments, or literally voice chat, perhaps with the Global Physics Community on the online e-luminate thingy?

    Anyway, what I’d like to know about the situation is, what exactly is the large urban district looking for in an online course? Why an online course? Is it because they want a way to roll out a course they can put on autopilot, like some of the math/English intervention programs on the computer/web (our school uses a math intervention thing called ALEKS)? Is it that they just want to use technology for the sake of using technology?The answer to those questions would help determine whether we explore options like video conferencing (technically online, but not a very “autopilot” sort of program), or perhaps the ability for students to do activities and experiments at home (not very online, but students can do it remotely).

    Until then, I find it hard to take the conversation any further.

    So, John and/or Mr. Wiggins, how’s this conversation going to take place?


  1. OMG-Grant Wiggins comments on my blog… « Quantum Progress | My Blog

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