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Spend Time, Dig Deep, Think Hard

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“… spend time, dig deep and think hard…” These are words I used in a response to Rick Fletcher’s comment to my last blog post. We had a little back and forth on when videos seemed to help propel student learning. Then it hit me. I have been asking questions about how and when my students engage in deep practice, and “spend time, dig deep and think hard” perfectly describes deep practice. Maybe all is not lost and I do have some tricks up my sleeve that promote deep practice with my students.

Deep practice in the swimming pool is a bit easier to arrange, and I think that this is what frustrates me. We get out the snorkels and devise drills to isolate head, hand and body position. We use the power rack, power tower and speed assist training to isolate explosive motions. We do lots of threshold work and maxVO2 work every week. And we kick, pull with paddles and swim with flippers, isolating specific sub-skills. We film the kids and post the individual videos (with commentary) that they can watch the very same evening they were videoed. The new swimmers get daily stroke work for most of the practice, with one coach totally dedicated to that lane.

I try to immerse my students in deep practice during class, first so that I can watch them (just like I watch my swimmers), second so that I can give feedback quickly, and third so that I can more carefully design exactly how the time is spent. This deep practice consists of doing experiments, solving large problems in small groups and verbally defending their ideas. Several years ago, homework was where I expected my students to put in all of their hardest practice. Now my students’ evenings are a mix of some necessary (but not too strenuous) skill-building and lots of (very strenuous)¬†self-directed practice and remediation. Evening self-directed practice is necessary because I use standards-based grading, and students are required to address missing learning objectives after our initial formative assessments. And it is this particular practice that worries me.

I suspect that my students’ self-directed practice might not reach the level of useful, deep practice for two reasons. First, I see very uneven results. The proof is in the pudding, right? If the kids aren’t getting better very quickly, then the practice is ineffective for some reason (too little time spent? wrong things being done?). Second, I don’t feel that I am giving them enough good ideas for how to engage in deep practice. I’ve just realized that the videos that I have made for my students are being used by at least a few of the students for deep practice, while my original goal was just to give them a little more help.

From my last post, remember that I make one type of video that isolates small, mechanistic skills. When I hear from a senior who has had vectors in math class for three years tell me that she watched my 4 minute “how to move a vector so that you can subtract vectors graphically” video more times than she could count (and subsequently finally understands what vectors are and how to manipulate them), I hear deep, repetitive practice of an isolated sub-skill.

I also make videos where I solve some big bear of a problem where I talk my way through my thought process, starting from models and fundamental principles. When I overhear two sophomores talking about how many times they had to watch that video before they found the one glitch in their thought process that was keeping them from truly understanding conservation of momentum, I am hearing a description of deep practice.

So here was my initial misconception about these videos: I thought that students would use these videos once and learn something. Yet I never hear any of my students say “I watched that video, now I understand.” They might get enough from one viewing to go back on their own, dig deep and think hard, so I don’t think a single viewing is necessarily worthless. Some of my students may only need this kind of small boost. But it is the students who spent time, dug deep and studied the videos who really got a lot out of the videos. And I really think this works because it is their teacher (someone they have a connection with, someone who is connecting their daily experience in the classroom to the subject of the video) who is making the video. A one-size fits all video from someone who has never attended my class probably wouldn’t inspire the same kind of hard work and time spent.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/06/20 at 09:29

What Salman Khan might be getting right

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Salman Khan created Khan Academy, a website where you can get short video lectures about math (and many other subjects now). He is being credited with “revolutionizing education,” a description with which some critics take issue. Rather, these critics say (if I may boldly paraphrase), these videos are just standard lectures packaged a different way, and therefore still suffer from the same problems of transmission that live lectures suffer.

Sal Khan has given a TED talk video entitled “Let’s use video to reinvent education” which is worth a listen. Yes, there has been hype about Khan Academy… the “reinvention of education” being credited to any one website or just to the “use of video” is a little much… but I think there are two lessons here that are worth considering.

First, there is “flipping the classroom,” with lectures being homework and practice problem-solving becoming classwork. Second, there is the idea of making sure you master each skill before moving on.

Flipping the Classroom

I was interested in seeing Khan’s video lectures when I first heard about them last summer because I have nieces and nephews who occasionally ask me for long distance tutoring (usually just short term “I can’t get this one thing” kind of help). I thought perhaps these videos could serve as a first line of help, as in “Watch so-and-so video, then let’s talk.” I was not overwhelmed by the videos, specifically because they seemed a pretty direct translation of whiteboard, classroom lecture to a computer screen. Also, the presentation was a bit messy, with what looks like a mouse being used to “write” … but maybe that’s just me being picky. And anyway, there’s just no reasonable way to make the video lecture interactive other than the fact students can rewind and pause, skip over parts that seem too obvious, etc. (which definitely makes video lectures better than traditional lecture, especially for the easily distracted like me).

I had also been experimenting with videoing short lectures for my own physics classes, with the hope of freeing up valuable classroom time with the students. I believe in making class time practice time (I think I’m stealing this phrase from Grant Wiggins, but I’m not sure). I do short mini-lectures occasionally, so I reasoned that if the kids could watch these lectures at night, we could get right down to practicing with new concepts, practicing new skills, and talking more about what we were doing. Currently this effort is not going so well in my own classroom, mainly because I haven’t created many lectures and the whole idea is still a novelty to my students. The result is many students figure they don’t have any “real” homework when a video lecture is assigned. It is short, it is a video, there’s nothing to turn in or show me the next day, so it falls to the bottom of their priority list.

Nonetheless, I still think that having students puzzle over lectures at night and do problems with each other (and with me) during the day is vastly preferable to the standard classroom. So I’m going to keep experimenting in the direction, and I hope to write about this topic in detail in the future.

Finally, if I can find someone who presents a topic more engagingly or more clearly than I do, I’d rather have my students watch that lecture over my lecture. I’ll add value the next day when the rubber meets the road in my classroom.

Mastery-based Progression

The other good idea in Khan’s video is that a student should master each concept or skill rather than moving on with incomplete or faulty knowledge. I have been using Standards Based Grading this year for the first time in an effort to track student mastery of learning objectives in a more rigorous and transparent (to the student and to me) way. The point that Mr. Khan makes when he asks what the student who made a 95 on a test missed, and whether that small misunderstanding or gap will hurt the student in the future is an excellent one. Using traditional grading techniques, the student with the 95 feels that he’s finished, rather than feeling like he still has 5% more to learn before he can say “I’m done.” The entire idea that you get one chance to learn a skill or concept before moving on is just totally odd to me. I have in fact heard teachers say “The students just get one chance in my class,” and I shudder thinking of all the holes I’ll have to fill next year with those students. The reason for “moving on” is often the quest for more coverage, but there is also a strand of thinking that those who get the concepts and skills quickly are just more talented and should be sorted for college admissions.

In the near future I hope to write more on Standards Based Grading, sorting students by grading (and grading philosophies in general) as well as the idea of innate talent.

Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/12 at 14:53

Posted in grades, SBG, talent