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Why I do what I do…

October 15, 2011

I’m slowly wading into the weekend of comment writing, which I’ve turned into a long process of carefully going through students’ self assessments, reading through their post-game analyses, and giving feedback on their daily work before I start writing anything about them. And of course, I can’t stop blogging. I just came across this piece of feedback when on a self assessment when I asked a student to write his/her own comment. This is why I do all that I do, and it’s why I’m not all that concerned when I realize the semester is half over and we are just getting to unit 3.

In physics, we are not learning to memorize equations or formulas. We are not learning how to freak out about something difficult or how to forget what we have done so far. Instead, we are learning physics with an approach and at angle that most teachers do not use. We are not focusing on grades because your only grade is what is given at the end of the grading period. We are striving to accept mistakes and learn from what we did not necessarily understand previously. I believe I have contributed to this atmosphere in a positive way. I feel as though I am a strong group member who wants all of these things for herself as well as other people. I would like to work to get things done and am willing to struggle, ask questions, and work extra hard to do so. I want to bring the best of my ability to class each day and want to learn. I am eager to know how to solve a problem but am also eager on becoming a confident masterer. I am willing to overcome bumps and obstacles along the way by maintaining a positive attitude and growth mindset. The knowledge I am gaining is on physics, but it is mainly also on life as a whole. I am learning the importance of things, how to succeed from failure, and how to become a better student who enjoys what they are doing. I have learned that I am a scientist even though I never thought I could be before. I am realizing qualities and characteristics about myself and the world while learning physics…who would have thought?

And I love, love, love the idea of being a confident masterer.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. akismet-457375c2686d2ce6aa9740f00ee2f8f4 permalink
    October 15, 2011 12:31 pm

    The willingness to engage in the intellectual struggle is part of what distinguishes those with what Polya termed “the inductive attitude,” from those I think of as mere students, playing the game in order to get a grade. To the extent that students can truly learn to become comfortable with uncertainty, doubt, ambiguity, etc., they have a real chance to succeed in intellectual inquiry, particularly in mathematics and science. To the extent that they become locked into playing the game, “What does the teacher want that, if I produce it sufficiently, s/he will give me the grade I want?”, all serious intellectual growth is hobbled, if not entirely curtailed.

    So given the thrust of several recent posts you’ve made on grades, I have to ask: “Why assign letter or number grades at all?”

    • October 15, 2011 12:39 pm

      I completely agree with you. However, I am obligated to give a number grade on Monday, and I think if I tried not to, I think I would have to find employment elsewhere. So I am trying to do the best I can.

    • October 17, 2011 10:10 pm

      I think it’s a bit Utopian (at best) and naive (at worst) to think that school is *only* about learning physics (or subject matter of any kind). It’s actually about learning the discipline of doing stuff ‘just because you darn well HAVE to’ – just like we all have to do in the real world! ‘Playing the game’ is a really important skill in the real world too, and its importance should not be underestimated. Also, I think part of a teachers job is most definitely to ‘judge’ and ‘rank’ the kids, since again, this is something that will happen in the real world as well. I get really uncomfortable when I hear people speak about teaching WITHOUT considering some of those (non-subject matter) intangibles. I am happy to concede there needs to be a balance, but it strikes me that a world without grades has the pendulum swung too far in the wrong (for me), direction.

  2. Dawn Pile permalink
    October 17, 2011 12:33 pm

    I want to send this post to the world of independent schools, John…well, really, to the world! The capacity and courage to not be driven by the curriculum calendar, to intuit and trust the intuition of how fast or slow to go, and to teach in a way that elicits this kind of comment from young woman captures the essence of what the school experience should be, regardless of age. I have shared it with my division (3 year olds to First Grade) and it was the prompt for a parent conversation with a small group this morning. For me, it also ties in with the post of a week or so ago about proctoring the PSATs.

    Thank you for sharing your insights and aha moments.

  3. October 17, 2011 3:21 pm

    ‘…and it’s why I’m not all that concerned when I realize the semester is half over and we are just getting to unit 3…..’

    Seems to me like you could be simply be swapping one problem for another, i.e. swapping a wide range of relatively shallow understanding (that *you* think its bad), for a super-narrow range of deep understanding (which *I* think is bad). I remain VERY skeptical of the idea of ‘mastery’ from two angles. One, do the kids REALLY ‘master’ anything at all (even at this slow speed), and two, what is the cost of them not being exposed to more physics? I’m not sure the ‘new’ idea of ‘mastery’ is the better option.

    • October 20, 2011 8:11 pm

      I use many metrics (including nationally used tests designed by physics education researchers) to measure the understanding of my students, and I’m fairly convinced that they can reach deep levels of understanding. Also, the current pace of my course, while not as fast as I might like in the abstract, matches up very well with the other physics classes. Each of us has different emphases, but I think we do get pretty close to the same place, content wise, by the end of the year.

  4. October 20, 2011 7:48 pm

    Thank you for sharing this student’s self-assessment. I think that it is very important to celebrate success – all types of success. I love that this student feels successful at physics, problem-solving, collaboration, and learning. It reminds me of the story of Jerry Sternin in Switch. “Knowledge does not change behavior.” I think your learners are “acting their way into a new way of thinking.”

    I am not concerned, at all, about whether this student is “playing the game” as has been suggested in some of the earlier comments. In fact, AS learns best by playing. Sometimes it is the only way to learn, to act your way into a new way of learning and thinking.

    I am particularly impressed with the quote:

    “I would like to work to get things done and am willing to struggle, ask questions, and work extra hard to do so. ”

    I am a big fan of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It is Grown. Have you read it? It is a great read with Carol Dweck’s Mindset.

    • October 20, 2011 8:09 pm

      Jill,
      Thanks—I agree with you. I enjoyed Switch immensely, and if I were to use Heath’s language, I’m trying to shape the path, or change the rules of the game, to encourage behavior that has demonstrated long term benefit for students, like growth mindset and many of the other metacognative skills we are working to learn. Nor do I think growth mindset is a buzzword. It is a well established scientific term that I taught students in my class (actually most of them were already well aware of it from 8th grade), and I specifically asked them about their mindset in one of the questions on their self reflection, so it’s little surprise that this student would think of that phrase.

      The talent code is excellent—colleagues of mine who teach physics make reading it the required summer homework for their class. I now have a few copies of it laying around my classroom and am always excited when a kid picks one up and starts reading it when waiting for others to finish a warm-up activity.

      • October 24, 2011 9:43 pm

        May be I missed another post, but could you share your reflective questions? Do you answer the same questions after each unit and share your answer with the students?

        • October 25, 2011 11:46 pm

          Jim,
          I may have posted this last year, but just in case, I uploaded the questions again to scribd and put them here

  5. October 27, 2011 10:24 pm

    Thanks. Here are mine.
    How has seven months of learning physics changed you? What did you think when we first started? How has your thinking changed?
    If you were to summarize this class to an underclassman, how would you describe it?
    How was this class organized differently than other classes you have taken? Other science classes? How has the organization helped or harmed your learning of the content?
    In light of the goal this year in physics, how has that shaped your study of physics?

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