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Coaching update: my visit with Brian Frank

November 16, 2011

I’ve written about coaching in the past. When I first read Atul Gawande’s article, I was grateful that Brian Frank recently moved to Tennessee from Maine, and I got in touch right away to invite him to campus. If you haven’t heard of him, Brian Frank is an amazing Physics Professor and Physics Education Researcher at Middle Tennessee State—he’s one of the most thoughtful people I know on the issue of inquiry and teaching science. His blog contains the best writing I’ve seen anywhere on the topic of student learning of science—particularly in how you can engage student’s initial ideas (I’m avoiding calling them misconceptions) and use these as the building blocks to create a deep, connected understanding of science.

I also want to emphasize that 8 months ago, I had never heard of Brian. His blog, like most awesome things I discover, was pointed out to me by Frank Noschese, who I’ve known on the internet for slightly more than a year now. It felt pretty strange to me a few months ago to send to this stranger whom I’ve never met, or even seen his face, an invitation to come visit my school, observe my teaching and stay at my home. Of course, in hindsight, it really isn’t that strange at all. By that point in time, I already knew Brian; I’d read more 30 or more of his blog posts–at least a small book of his thinking. We had communicated back and forth via email and blog comments dozens of times. By the time I sent Brian an email inviting him to my school, he was most definitely not a stranger—-he was a trusted colleague. By the time he walked through my door on Thursday, I truly felt like I was reuniting with an old friend, and in many ways, had more to talk about with him than I do some of the old friends I have from high school and college that I no longer keep in touch with. This very same experience of meeting a person I knew only on twitter/blogging and after meeting him/her in real life, then suddenly feeling like he/she was an old frind has now been borne out more a dozen times, most especially at Physics Teacher Camp.

I belabor this point for two reasons: 1. to dispel the notion of the internet being filled with dangerous strangers or crazy people I must avoid. and 2. to show just how easy it is to forge a very strong connection with a stranger that leads to tremendous personal growth and friendship. If you’re thinking—”I don’t know anyone who could be a coach for me”, think again—I can now name an awesome blogger in nearly ever corner of the country (and many parts of the world), and I bet any one of them would be thrilled to get an email from someone nearby wanting to set up some sort of coaching relationsihp. Couple that with virtual coaching (blog post coming soon, with an update on my first coaching visit with Frank Noschese) and the possibilities are limitless.

Brian’s actual visit

Brian was nice enough to be willing to spend an entire day visiting our school. My department chair sent an email to the entire department saying that he would be willing to visit any science teacher’s classroom, purely for coaching purposes. We got tremendous response, and suddenly, Brian had a full day visiting five classes, only having a short break for lunch.

Brian started the day visiting my physics class, where we were starting a lab to introduce Newton’s 2nd law by pulling carts with springs. It was fun to have Brian in my class, because in the back of my mind I was thinking “this is going to be the moment where I show Brian how devoted I am into trying to help students develop their own questions and understandings.” And I started class by launching into a winding series of questions to set the stage for the lab that ended up taking the better part of 20 minutes. As the seconds passed, and I kept trying to build on student questions and lay out the structure for the lab, but really we weren’t doing anything, and a number of students were pretty disengaged. Pretty soon, I just said, “ok, time to experiment”, and sent students off to try to find a relationship between acceleration and force, and acceleration and mass, using carts and springs. The rest of my time was spent jumping from group to group to try to guide them a little bit closer to getting useable data from the equipment we are using a somewhat awkward space. All along, I found myself fighting the inner battle between getting kids to get to the point of taking the data that would allow our class to discover Newton’s Second law and encouraging them to pursue questions of their own that may bear no relation to our eventual goal. As I found myself bouncing around from group to group, I kept wanting just to linger around Brian as he was serenely interviewing one group.

Later when Brian and I debriefed, he described sensing the tension I was feeling, and offered an obvious but brilliant solution. Why not simply turn students loose of 5 minutes of free exploration? If I wanted, I could guide them with a question—”see if you can get use the spring to cause the cart to move with constant acceleration.” Then after five minutes, we could gather again as a class, share our discoveries, and students would be in a better place to help us design a lab together. Plus, they probably would have come up with lots of other interesting ideas worthy of exploration, like the group Brian was talking to, who were questioning whether it is possible to develop a formula equating the pull of a spring to a certain angle on a ramp—what a great moment for learning that I just missed from being caught up in the tension between open inquiry and where I wanted the class to go.

Later that morning, Brian came spoke to a small group of chemistry and physics teachers about the art of listening to student ideas. It was a great conversation, and at one moment, I jumped up and pressed record on my video camera to catch a 3 minute snippet you’ll want to listen to.

The key point Brian made is that we need to take our students’ ideas seriously and not simply treat them as naive misconceptions to replaced. Brian even went on to talk about how in his inquiry class, he sometimes delivers rather lengthy lectures summarizing the ideas developed by groups of his students (many of which may be incorrect), and does his best to link those ideas together.

More great ideas from Brian

Brian shared one tool he uses for frequently getting feedback from students on their ideas without taking large amounts of time. He often asks students to respond to the following 3 questions after completing a lab:

  • What did you do?
  • What did you find?
  • What are you thinking now?

A great demo lesson

Brian also mentioned this excellent demo lesson idea I thought I’d share that shows the balance of exploration/guided inquiry I mentioned earlier.

Walk into the class and say: “Measure the period of this pendulum.” Students should have in front of them a string and a mass (no need for stopwatches since they’ve all got phones these days). Tell them to write their data up on the board, and answer all questions as “do what you think is best.”

After 5 minutes, bring the class together and look at the board. You’ll see data is all over the map—people measured pendulums of different lengths, a myriad of different ways. Now you’re ready to talk about the need to develop a common question, and a protocol for measuring the period of the pendulum, and deep investigation can ensue.

Overall, Bringing Brian to my school counts as one of the highlights this year for my growth as a teacher, and I’m very much looking forward to trying to get him to come back for a longer visit.

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