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Moving toward project based learning—part 2: the end goal—Be like Rhett

June 27, 2012

In my last post, I detailed the frustration I felt this year with feeling that I was teaching my students to be expert problem solvers and not much more. In particular, I want my students to move beyond solving the problems I give them and instead find their own questions and problems, develop their own ways of solving them, and then develop ways of evaluating their solutions.

In short, I want my students to be like Rhett. I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who reads this blog and doesn’t know Rhett Allain, the godfather of physics blogging, but let me explain why Rhett is the perfect intellectual role model for my students.

I think you can see these are some pretty amazing skills for students to learn. Really, these are just the traits of a good scientist, but they will serve my students well wether or not they choose to pursue a career as a professional scientist.

I know what you’re thinking—Rhett is a tenured professor of physics who has been studying physics for more than two decades. Is it really reasonable to expect my students to do all the awesome things he does? No, of course not. And my guess is that if Rhett’s physics education is anything like a typical physics student’s education, his early physics course may have been setting him up for just the same “physics as problem solving worldview” that my students learned. But somehow, Rhett transcended this view, and I want to help my students to do the same.

I do think my students can also be like Rhett in a scaled down way. A great example of this is his analysis of whether expensive batteries are worth the cost. This is a beautifully simple experiment that my students could easily perform themselves, and I’m sure at least one of my students has asked this question the question when standing in line at the drug store trying to decide which battery to buy. I think my challenge is to get my students to do more than just wonder, and instead make them feel compelled to do something to find the answer.

So how do I teach my students to be like Rhett? First, I hope that’s something Rhett will weigh in on when he reads this post. I’ve got a few ideas for how to do this myself, and I’ll put those in the next post in this series.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 7:20 am

    I’ve done some significant work on this (including meeting with English teachers), but I’m not ready to write about it yet.

  2. Theron Cross (@torquedu) permalink
    June 27, 2012 11:33 am

    Why do I always feel like I’m two weeks behind you on the learning curve!? More specifically, I feel like I’m the second goose in the formation, coasting on your hard work.

    I think you’ve already hit on one part of getting the kids moving in that direction – let Rhett model the kind of analysis you want. I’ll be subscribing my advanced class to Rhett’s blog and using his analyses as guideposts. The kids can write their own standards based on what they see him doing, then I can tailor my feedback to support developing those abilities.

    • June 27, 2012 11:55 pm

      Theron, I like the idea of having students regularly read Rhett. Actually, what I like even more is having students find a collection of resources and thinkers that they follow, like Planet Money for economics, or Backstory for history, and begin to build an personal intellectual gallery that they can follow, and later interact with. It took me years of following Dan and Rhett and many others to ever build up the courage to comment on their blogs, but I think with proper coaching we can help students to shorten that gap. I don’t really know how to fit this into a traditional physics class, but it’s a big component of some sort of “how to make a difference in the world” course that I’d love to teach someday.

  3. June 27, 2012 7:23 pm

    John, you just blew my mind. One of the problems that I have had with the PBL I have seen (e.g., or even Minnesota’s context-rich problems is that, despite great effort, the situations are still far too artificial for a student to really picture themselves in that situation. But re-framing these activities as “satiate your curiosity” activities or debunking activities completely changes the authenticity of the tasks. Rhett didn’t make the battery measurements because he had an internship at a battery making company and was trying to optimize their batteries…he did it because he wanted to figure out how best to financially support his children’s Skylanders addiction.

    I really like how you summed it up with: “I think my challenge is to get my students to do more than just wonder, and instead make them feel compelled to do something to find the answer.”

    • June 27, 2012 11:50 pm

      thanks Joss. I think you are right. I’ve given context-rich problems before, and students like them fine, but they aren’t particularly more motivated to solve them than regular old problems. I think the key really is to get them finding their own problems, and hopefully those problems are so significant that they can’t live without knowing the answer.

  4. rhettallain permalink
    June 28, 2012 10:38 am


    You asked me to weigh in, so I will. I thought about this for a little while, but these are still mostly \”off the top of my head\” responses. I think there are two ways to think about this problem.

    1) How did any of us get to where we are? When we were in high school and saw something like the apple dropping on the google home page, did we have the motivation to try and analyze this to see if it was constant acceleration? Honestly, I can’t remember that far back. I suspect that I wouldn’t have done this. I suspect that I was just a plain old student doing physics homework. I sort of enjoyed the problems and challenges, but probably didn’t create my own problem.

    Obviously, now I do different things (as do many of us). What is different? I think the big thing is experience. We have a very solid understanding of the basic physics ideas and this lets us try and use them in interesting ways. I guess it would be like a mountain climber. After a while, experienced climbers can try climbing other things – like a building.

    2) How do you get students to this point? What if we look at something different? What about art? How do you get a student to be an artist? It seems the standard curriculum is like what is described in Lockhart’s Lament – where students learn art by doing “paint by numbers”. I think we have learned to move beyond this. Perhaps you can make an artist by showing them different styles and letting them practice different methods. Eventually, they will be a master and create their own art and their own methods.

    I am not sure if I have answered the question. At this point, my aim has been to help through inspiration. Of course this isn’t actually true. Really, my point is to answer cool questions because I think they are cool. If others are inspired, that is a bonus.

  5. rhettallain permalink
    June 29, 2012 7:54 pm

    “Rhett makes mistakes”

    I have been thinking about my reply, and I think it is wrong. I wasn’t happy with my reply, so I would like another try.

    Kids. How do you get kids to eat vegetables? Perhaps the best way is to offer them lots of different types of veggies to choose from. Expose them to squash (which is actually a fruit), cucumber (also a fruit), green beans (fruit) and spinach (that one is a vegetable). Eventually, they are going to find something they love. The other method would be to force them to try everything. This might work too, but the kids won’t be happy about it.

    Ok. Now take a look at this post:

    Bryan offers a problem (an interesting problem) and works on it because the students want to solve it. BOOM. Kids eating veggies.

    • July 9, 2012 12:08 am

      I very much think you’re on to something here. When I’ve used some of Dan Meyer’s 3 acts problems in class, like the boat in the river escalator problem, kids have been completely hooked. Where I think I’ve failed is taking this interest and pushing it deeper, or in many cases in sparking students to find their own moments of fascination to pursue.

      I guess I’m saying I’ve got a few decent vegetable dishes, but I’m interested in getting my students not just to be satisfied with my recipes, but instead, learn to grow their own vegetables and develop their own recipes.

    • July 19, 2012 6:32 pm

      no, the key to getting kids to eat vegetables is obviously ranch dressing. 😉
      but for reals, I agree with you.

  6. July 1, 2012 5:20 pm

    I’ve been thinking over your post for a few days because something about what you wrote has been rattling around in my head. Of course, you sorta addressed it in your “I know what you’re thinking…”

    I think that students are uniquely bad at finding real problems they can solve because they don’t know how to differentiate a really simple problem (after you make a few simple assumptions) and a really complex problem (where similar-looking assumptions are dangerous).

    Do you see similarities between Rhett’s work and Dan Meyer’s 3 Acts problems?

    Can’t wait to see how you suggest easing students into problem-finding.

    • July 9, 2012 12:13 am

      I think you’re right. One problem that comes to mind instantly is Dan’s ceiling fan problems, where many of us physics and math teachers grossly oversimplified the problem and came up with very wrong answers. But there’s no real harm in this is there? If as a teacher I’m able to help them see that they’ve simplified the problem too far, we can then have some pretty productive conversations about how to add some complexity back in. Also, I think if somehow they’re learning tools like computational thinking, they’ll find that the right tool can make even the hardest problems manageable.

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