Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, spoke to our school community this past Friday night. He was a riveting speaker whose talk has already generated huge amounts of discussion within the community (and not just because he’s the only speaker we’ve had who made no attempt to modulate his language in an effort to appear respectable).
During both of my classes with sophomores on Saturday morning, students made the observation that Diaz would like the way I teach physics, specifically because of my emphasis on making mistakes in order to learn. The subject of making mistakes came up while Diaz was talking about problems in our educational system. He made the distinction between accreditation and education. When the name of the school means everything, and the only goal is the next step of the process (getting into a big name high school, getting into a big name college, getting a job with a big name firm, making lots of money), then what is happening is accreditation, not education. So for our students, this means that getting a St. Andrew’s transcript with an appropriately high GPA could be viewed as the accreditation they need for the next step in their journey to… what?
Diaz differentiated accreditation and education several ways, but the difference that caught my students’ attention was that mistakes are fatal and debilitating during accreditation. “You make a mistake, and you’re f*****.” Diaz argued that mistakes are critical to learning, so if student are going to be educated, they need time and space to mess up, figure out how to fix it, and reflect on what they did. Mistakes are crucially important for education, but to avoided at all costs for accreditation.
Diaz admitted graduating high school without passing a single math or science class. When I hear stories like this, I think of all the times I’ve heard criticism of my standards-based grading system to the effect “There are no second chances in <fill in subject name>.” Diaz needed a second, third, fourth chance, but the system gave up on him too soon. When I see grades averaged across an entire semester, I wonder what is important–the average of where the student started and where she ended? Or is where the student ended up more important? For accreditation, the average of where the students started and where they finished is important, because the task is to rank students for the college selection process. Letting grades reflect only what the students know at the end of the course is education, because it helps the student to track what they learned and it reflects what they learned, not where they started. If college admission offices have a problem with this, I suggest they ask their professors how educated are the accredited students they admitted.
While I’ve been too busy with the start of school to post anything on this blog, I somehow found time yesterday to start reading Neal Stephenson’s new novel, REAMDE. Once I got started, it was hard to put down (although I’m in no danger of finishing this beast anytime soon). About 12% of the way into the book Stephenson describes a marketing scheme pursued by an MMPORG that appears to be one generation beyond World of Warcraft. The marketing scheme involves letting users program their own apps within the game in order to do actual real world work disguised as medieval warfare (with all the goblins, dwarves and elves you would expect in such a game). The apps thus developed take the most stultifying, boring and mindless work (think TSA agent watching a single exit for eight hours, scanning widgets for imperfections as they roll past on an assembly line, or sitting in a business meeting) and turn them into a game. In some scenarios, the players in the game actually help the worker.
Stephenson makes the case that boring and mind-numbing tasks result in a rewiring of the brain so that fewer neurons (and less energy) are spent on the task. Neurons are reallocated away from areas of the brain responsible for repetitive, boring tasks (thus increasing the probability of mistakes when that occasional “interesting” thing happens) and toward areas that are being used more. Gamification of the boring task brings attention and energy back to the boring task by making it more complex and interesting. Thus fewer mistakes are made and productivity increases.
So this got me thinking. Why would I gamify learning in my classroom? Do I really think that physics (or math) is so simplistic, boring and repetitive that the areas of the brain responsible for doing these tasks is atrophying? No way. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges in my classroom. Gamification is not required, because the job itself is interesting, connected, deep and engaging.
I spent three weeks this summer teaching chemistry to rising ninth graders in an academic program designed for students who are transitioning from public middle schools to independent high schools. Earlier this summer, when I was told that the program director wanted us to teach chemistry, I decided to look into the Chemistry Modeling materials and to read up on what kind of misconceptions high school students harbor about chemistry and atoms. The materials make a very convincing argument that students who lack a solid conception of atoms as building blocks are at a distinct disadvantage in high school chemistry. So I decided to focus the entire three weeks (really only two and a half weeks of class time) on a modified first unit of the Chemistry Modeling materials. This unit focuses on using atoms to describe chemical and physical changes.
I was prepared for the students to not have an atomic model useful for creating explanations. I saw that, indeed, while they all knew gases and liquids and solids are made up of connected atoms, they could not use this fact to describe chemical or physical changes very well. For instance, what is between the nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the room? (Typical answer: air.) I was ready for this.
What surprised me was that almost all of these students knew how to balance chemical equations. Yet they had no idea what any of it meant. They could also tell me that burning alcohol was alcohol reacting with oxygen and the result was water and carbon dioxide (some wanted to add intermediate “fire atoms,” though). While they had been taught to balance a combustion equation and even knew quite a lot about combustion, they nonetheless (to a student) had no idea what was going on.
Wait! If they know that alcohol and oxygen react, and the result is carbon dioxide and water, and they can even balance a chemical equation for the reaction, doesn’t that mean they know what’s going on? Well, using the modeling materials and letting the students talk and discuss and talk some more, you find out some very interesting things. First, the alcohol evaporates when it reacts with oxygen. The oxygen gets “used up” when it reacts with the alcohol. What does it mean “gets used up?” It apparently means that it is gone. Where did the carbon dioxide come from? It was in the air already. And the water? It’s around, too.
Thus, the atoms on the left hand side of the chemical reaction equation are totally different from the atoms on the right side of the equation in the middle school student’s mind. Why do we teach them to balance chemical equations in middle school? I wondered this when my daughter was in middle school, too. Note also, that all of these students were middle school over-achievers.
Also, I found out that molecules are not always seen as collections of atoms. They might even be containers. When sugar dissolves in water, the sugar molecules go inside the water molecules, which carry them around, like so many little kangaroos carrying their babies. Interesting stuff! In fact, if something starts off as a solid (like ground coffee) or a liquid (like perfume) and some of those molecules get into the air (we know because we can smell them), they could only get to our noses by hitching a ride on oxygen molecules. That is, these other molecules are incapable of flying around the room on their own, they have to be carried (always by oxygen, by the way, never by any other gas molecule!).
So the typical misconceptions about the atomic model go far deeper than I ever imagined. I was fascinated by this fact, and I pared back what I had planned and went even slower, giving the students more time to discuss and talk and describe. In the end, I’m not sure we got very far, but I’m pretty sure I gave them plenty to think about. I hope it helps them out in high school!
A recent thread in the Modeling listserv sought to tease out whether there are any innate differences in us that lead to more efficient learning in physics. In making the argument for some kind of “natural ability,” many of my colleagues use world-class performers as their examples. This kind of reasoning is, I believe, misleading to the application of the ideas of whether talent is in-born or grown. Yes, it is true that no amount of hard work is going to turn a 5’4″, 130 lbs. adult into an NFL lineman. And there are definitely certain physical characteristics that Michael Phelps possesses that help him in the pool (perhaps it is because I’m a swimming coach that others bring up Michael Phelps to me). It is equally true that Ryan Lochte possesses a different set of physical characteristics, but he manages to beat Michael Phelps on a regular basis.
But to take the conversation right to world-class, or even lower level championship-class, performances confuses the issue of whether there are substantial differences between students’ abilities to understand physics. I am not teaching high school physics only to create world-class physicists. If I were, I might want to work at a school that doesn’t demand so much of the students in the way of extensive writing or playing of afternoon sports. And I might want to prepare to be disillusioned a lot of the time. I am more interested in giving students who want to excel in science the foundation to do so, and to introduce students bound for careers as artists, lawyers or historians the skills to think rationally and scientifically. Can every one of my students achieve these lofty goals? I think so. The question comes down to whether they have the time to spend on becoming strong at physics.
The problem with citing world-class performances is that world-class performances are the result of many diverse factors. Some would argue that at least a few of these factors are innate, and we could have a good old time debating to what extent quickness, agility, reaction time, strength and a host of other factors are innate or developed. Likewise, we could debate the extent to which some kind of innate “smarts” are responsible for the work of Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein (both of whom famously denied any such advantage, citing the power of hard work). In the end, such debates have little to nothing to do with my students and me. I just don’t see enough difference in my students’ abilities to attribute it to anything other than differences in their backgrounds. Even if I’m wrong, I’m not too far wrong, and they can certainly get better at whatever they put their minds to improving.
One response to my warning the listserv conversation away from discussing world-class performances was to say that world-class performers make good examples for our students and athletes. They sure do–I would not deny that. We have our swimmers watch Michael Phelps’ butterfly stroke. We encourage our students to read about famous physicists. We bring outstanding scientists and historians and artists to our campus to talk to and meet our students. My uneasiness with discussing talent in terms of only the very best in each field does not mean I don’t want to study and learn from the best in each field.
I just signed up for Google+. Why? Because I can. That’s the best I can do for justification, beside thinking it might be something I find worthwhile later on. That and the fact my students have roundly ignored the HammondPhysics fan page I created on Facebook (but, then again, they warned me they would).
But the weird thing is, the only information Google+ insists that I present to the public in terms of “profile” is my gender. Why? I have no idea… I can’t fathom this single request for information about me. Oh wait… advertising? At any rate, I don’t think it’s the first thing I would tell a new acquaintance (“Hi, I’m Mark! I’m male!”).
Some take particular issue with gender being a required and public bit of information.
So I am suggesting that if you, like me, don’t particularly care for Google requiring you to enter your sex or gender (whatever they mean), then enter “Other.” If everyone who is unhappy about being required to indicate gender selects “Other,” someone will get the message. Yes, I know that in certain cases (such as picking personal pronouns in languages other than English) Google interprets “Other” as “Male.” This is weird, really. But the point is, if everyone selects the same classification, attempts to gender target advertising will be confused and pretty much worthless. So there.
Oh, in the meantime, you should also file feedback to Google (by clicking on the little gear in the upper righthand corner of Google+).
I was recently asked by a student what kind of fun (but serious) science-y play he could do over the summer. He is bored, stuck at home, his summer camp experience having been unexpectedly canceled. This is a student who repeatedly did that little bit extra in physics class all year (he even completed the first two chapters of “SpaceTime Physics” by Taylor and Wheeler) . He is signed up for second year (calculus-based) physics next year. Thus he is going to be learning VPython over the summer anyway. And he will be doing video analysis as part of his physics class next year. So take a look at what I suggested to him, and let me know if there is more that I could suggest.
- Read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (ok, I tell everyone this).
- Get your parents to use that cash they saved on summer camp to buy a student license for Mathematica and start playing with it (I know his parents can afford this and I know that he already has the math chops and curiosity to make it worthwhile).
- Get started early on VPython and then dig a little deeper into lists, loops and conditional statements in Python.
- Go to ProjectEuler.net and use Mathematica and/or Python to solve some problems.
- Buy an Arduino starter kit and start making your computer control something.
- Download Tracker and make it work with the sample files.
- Try to create a document using LaTeX.
“… 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.