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Global Physics Department update: video coaching

December 15, 2011

The Global Physics Department is now 10 months old, and has logged more than 40 meetings. This must be very repetitive to regular readers of this blog, but this collaboration has been a monumental form of professional development for me during the past year. A few years ago, I don’t think I could have named more than a half dozen physics teachers, and no college professors. Now, I gather with more than 20 physics teachers (usually split pretty evenly between high school and college) every week—and I’ve now put in 40 hours—a full week’s worth of time-collaborating with these incredible teachers from around the world to hear from eminent scientists, textbook authors, leading physics education researchers and much more. If you’ve got some time over the break, I encourage you to go back and check out some of the incredible archives—you’ll be amazed with the gold that you can find in there.

Recently, the Global Physics Department is pushing the boundary of what is possible even more by tackling the subject of coaching. During a recent brainstorming session, we came up with the idea to have members voluntarily record 5 “interesting” minutes of their class, and the submit it to the GPD to discuss at a later meeting.

Let me pause for a moment here and ask you this question—when was the last time you sat in on another physics class? How many physics teachers across the nation do you think get to observe another physics class even once a semester for as little as 5 minutes? Given that a large proportion of physics teachers are the only physics teacher at their school, and how infrequently teachers in general visit other classes, I’m willing to bet the number is less than 10%. Now, here’s the real test. How many high school teachers have visited a college physics class in the past year, or how many college professors have visited a high school class? I’m willing to bet this number is tiny—probably less than 0.1% of physics teachers.

Shouldn’t this be happening all the time? Doesn’t it help me as a high school teacher to know how physics is being taught in college today? Wouldn’t it help college professors to have some sense of what’s going on in high school physics classroom? Before the Global Physics Department, I would have thought that this is a noble goal, but would have also deemed it impossible. We are all just too busy—a year ago I would have said professors are too inapproachable, and I couldn’t imagine them ever wanting to take time to see my classroom, nor would I really to open myself up to their critique.

This is where the GPD has totally changed the game. Weekly meetings, to say nothing of all the blogging and tweeting we do, has created an very strong community of physics teachers with a tremendous sense of community, and so 8 teachers (5 college and 3 high school) were willing to film 5 minutes of their class and share it privately with the GPD community.

When I sat down to watch the videos today, I tweeted that it was like getting to visit my physics superheros and see them in their secret lairs. It was great fun to see the personalities of people I’d only known through twitter and the GPD illuminate their classrooms. In each video, I picked up a useful tip or teacher move that I plan to try out in my class, and overall, I came away with a strong sense of comfort—so many of the things we are doing in high school—whiteboarding, focusing on arguments, peer instruction, these are important elements of the college physics classes I saw. Of course, this is a very biased group, but nonetheless, I was deeply comforted by the many similarities I saw between my classroom and the 7 others I observed today.

We recorded the discussion of the videos, so you can see how the actual debriefing went. We had about 7 minutes to discuss each video, and I think everyone that submitted video got useful feedback. In fact, one professor tweeted:

Global Physics Department = more prof development/feedback than I’ve gotten in my whole teaching career.

We did find some challenges. Without a lot of context, it can be hard to get much from 5 minutes of video, and certainly 7 minutes for discussion often left us having to cut off conversation to talk about the next video. Still, as a group, I think the ability to quickly peek into 7 classrooms different from our own and see similarities and ideas for improvement was an incredible experience, especially when you consider that it was free, and involved absolutely no travel.

We’ve decided to now make this a regular part of the Global Physics Department, devoting the last meeting of every month to taking an more in-depth look a videos submitted by two teachers, which should give us much more time to look at longer videos and have deeper discussions.

All in all, I’m excited. I think the Global Physics Department has, at least for those who regularly attend, established itself as an hour of invested time that pays tremendous dividends. If you are a physics teacher reading this, I hope you will consider joining us when we restart on January 4. If you aren’t a physics teacher, you’re always welcome to hang out with us, but I also hope this post helps you to see how easy it could be to start your own global department. Now, Google Plus makes this incredibly easy, with more sharing space and virtual whiteboard than you can imagine. What would happen if you filmed 5 minutes of your class, uploaded it to youtube, and then invited a handful of teachers you respect to give you feedback on the video? You might be amazed.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2011 11:54 am

    Stipulating that GPD and visiting classes are awesome, the devil’s advocate inside me had a thought. In my experience, college physics classes aren’t typically bastions of good pedagogy. Still a valuable visit? Probably, but not likely in the “college = better, so I should go learn from the big-leaguers that know what they’re doing” assumption that many non-teachers have about teaching. Maybe college teaching’s different than it was when I was in school.

    • December 15, 2011 12:35 pm

      I would say that was totally my experience from physics as an undergrad, but watching these classes was pretty different. Of course, that’s because the GPD draws a self-selected group of folks who are interested in pedagogy, education research and reformed teaching. But even if it were the case that every college physics class is still very traditional, I think there’s still lots of benefit to be found in observing college classes. Surely more dialogue will lead to more sharing and transference of ideas, right?

  2. December 16, 2011 3:57 am

    This is a great idea John! Putting teachers in touch with one another through video sharing. Letting them watch each other teach and sharing observations of what they learn. I look forward to following the experiment in your future posts.


  3. Jessie permalink
    December 19, 2011 6:39 pm

    You won’t slam the newbies too hard, will you? Haha. I really want to make this one of my priorities. Hope to be able to join you guys. Thanks for posting.

    • December 19, 2011 7:20 pm

      We’d love to have you join us. I find the GPD to be the most open and welcoming group of teachers I’ve worked with in a long time. And the more I watch other classrooms, the more I realize I have to learn from seeing how others approach their class.

  4. Chad Hodgkins permalink
    December 19, 2011 7:32 pm

    John, I’m interested, where do I go to do this?

    • December 22, 2011 10:44 pm

      We’re going to make this a regular feature of the Global Physics Department. So for starters, just join us for our regular Wednesday night meetings at 9:30pm EST (we’re on hiatus until Jan 4. For the last meeting of each month, we’re going to try having two teachers share a longer recording of their class (20-30 minutes), which we will watch beforehand, and discuss during the Wednesday meeting. Here’s the direct link to weekly chat.

  5. rwistar permalink
    January 13, 2012 10:53 am

    Hey John, great post as always. Your comment about branching out for those of us who are singletons at our schools reminds me of course of CS faculty. I wonder if I could start something like that for CS teachers. How did you manage to get started? What are the first steps to make something like this happen?

    • January 13, 2012 11:00 am

      The Global Physics Dept really got started after we’d had a pretty active group of physics teachers collaborating on Twitter, and were wanting to develop a slightly more specialized and flexible alternative to the (no mostly defunct) #scichat Tuesday night chats. Andy Rudquist, a professor at Hamline University, offered to host us in his elluminate conference space, and we’ve been going fairly strong ever since (~45 meetings weekly meetings thus far).

      I think you definitely could put something together for CS. I know of a couple of CS teacher blogs (I’d love to find more) and a former colleague at Sidwell who was outstanding. If I were to start an organization like this up again from scratch, I’d probably do it in Google+, since it can now do basically everything elluminate can, for free.

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