Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pouring Knowledge?

      Two teams of students from our school went to a regional Physics Competition (in 2013).*   More than seventy teams and over 300 participants vying for a full 4 year scholarships were present.  Some of the best schools (including private schools with tuition over $30,000 a year) and best students in the four state region were present.  Our two teams went on to win BOTH first and second place among all teams formed by high schools throughout the region.  Such a victory is rare given the immense competitive nature of the event.
      A witness to the victory and colleague congratulated me with a statement that still rings "Congratulations dude!  OK.  Tell me how do you do it?  Do you, like, pour physics knowledge out of your head?"   The colleague and witness to this amazing victory was aware that I had coached winning teams and individuals from 3 different schools (public and private) at this competition numerous times over the previous 22 years.  He articulated a learning model widely accepted.  In this "liquid knowledge" model my expertise in physics is transferred from me to my students by "tilting my head" to let the knowledge pour out.  There are other colleagues there who know more Physics than me (and have Ph.D.s in physics) and yet they have never had a team win at this competition.   So it would seem this model is not sufficient to explain the win.
        I am always surprised when the success of a program is thought to be due to a "textbook".  One of the first questions asked by a teachers, who find out about the success of my students in Advanced Placement Physics (students with the highest SAT scores find this exam challenging), is "What textbook do you use?"   The question about the textbook always surprises me because long ago I recognized from experience how little the textbook matters.  Despite large scale studies that reveal textbook and teaching materials** have little to do with the learning of Physics there are those who think the textbook is like a key geyser that spews forth knowledge and skills (and some geysers spew more than others?)  In fact I have been at meetings where Physics teachers are quite animated about the value of one textbook over another and lively exchanges are evidence with great passion.  The now emerging internet physics instructional content with multiple media and formats have clearly made the textbook even less meaningful than it was prior to internet availability (which is when I began to see how little the textbook could mean).
       Recently a colleague, interested in our program's success, wanted to know "What version of modeling physics worksheets do your students use?"  I place this type of inquiry in the same category as the text book inquiry.   The version of the worksheets may help if the goal of the worksheet is to spark student discussion and reasoning.  If only the correct answers to the worksheets are shared then students will "learn the answers" and why bother with thinking?  Once the answers are known there is little possibility that conjecture, tested speculation or reasoning will took place and there is no reason for discussion.  That means no discourse and nurturing of intellectual ability.
       Some recognize the importance of laboratory experiences and will ask me "What labs do you do?" or "Do you use the textbook lab manual?"  Sometimes learning and instruction are viewed as a type of  "factory" which turns out "gizmos" in the form of useful skills and knowledge that are the result of a particular sequence of activities and actions.  My answer is (if I did use the same labs or lab manual) that the lab questions and blank tables really mean very little in terms of learning. The skill acquired in the lab (like calibrating a force sensor) is almost irrelevant to how important the pre-lab and post-lab discussions are (which is where the student thinking is most needed for genuine learning).
      Central office administrators have asked that I generate a "Curriculum Map" and "Lesson Plans" that could allow someone else to duplicate what happens in my classroom.  It is hard for me to remain composed when I hear such statements because I know it is an impossible task.  Can someone unpracticed, untrained and without mastery of content replicate the experiences of students in my class based on lesson plans and curriculum maps?  The answer seems so obvious to me but it may not be to others.  It would be like reading a book about basketball and then running on to the court to play among professionals.  It would be like reading about orthoscopic heart surgery and then using orthoscopic equipment available to repair a heart in a living patient.  Spending hours and hours over years of time on devices I know that have little to do with effective science teaching is hard for me.  I do what I am asked because it has been asked of me by those in authority.  I do it all as well as I can.  I do it because it helps me to reflect on what is happening in my class and is useful to me in developing a coherent course.
       I have dealt with observers in may class who are stunned at all the noise and activity.  "How can your students learn with so much noise and activity going on?"  A spin off of "instructional material" as source of knowledge is the firm belief that student demeanor (being quiet, seated and taking notes) is what maximizes the "reception of knowledge".  Once again this model of learning can lead to the absence of reasoning and encourage students bypass the very thinking that leads to genuine intellectual development.  Some think it is the quiet, orderly classrooms with high quality instructional materials that is the key to learning.  While these factors can be helpful they can also be quite insufficient.  Worse they could cause an educator to conclude that "My students can not learn this material" because they are well behaved, they have the best textbook and they do the labs required in the manual.  If they miss out on taking part in productive conversation then they miss out on thinking and the intellectual development that thinking fosters.

       It is amazing to see how so many assumptions about learning persist.  I have seen content discipline experts who cling to the idea that their own content mastery is due to amazing memory or mathematical fluency. When these experts are then empowered to teach others the results are often disappointing but you can be assured that it is not because the teacher lacked expertise or that the student lacked ability.  It is most likely that the wrong model was guiding the learning experience.
      One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome is ourselves.  I have seen this repeatedly as students cling tightly to incorrect physical models in the classroom despite obvious evidence to the contrary (eg You can see in a room with no light once your eyes adjust).  I have seen it among my colleagues who, despite amazing content mastery in science, cling to mistaken notions about teaching and learning.  I have even seen it in myself when I have an inappropriate explanation for an investment return but hold on to my mistaken and uninformed notion hoping for the big turnaround.  There is good reason we are not quick to change ideas about what we are invested in.  There is also good reason for allowing observation and data to change our views.  Honesty and reasoning are what nurture good science and science teaching too. 

     So what is the right model to guide our teaching and learning?  No model provides a perfect analogy but I have found that "farming" is the most useful model.  Crops require soil preparation, planting seeds in the right soil in the right way at the right time.  Nurturing the plants requires patience and the right amounts of sun and water and attention and time.  Ongoing weeding, tilling and care are paramount.  Every farmer knows that luck plays into the yield as well.
      What if we are in a rush and want to increase yield?  Many bad ideas can come into use with disastrous results.  Is it possible to force a plant to grow up and yield early through use of a fire-hose watering?  Can we, in a desire to maximize yield, "over fertilize" and then "burn" a crop?  In our rush to bring about the maximum yield can we, with good intentions, hurt the yield by moving too fast?  I realize that humans are not plants and intellectual skills are not fruit.  Still the analogy can be used to guide those who want the most bountiful harvest.

     So there is no single technique to implement or button to push.  I do, for example use a variety of media and technology (like videos, music, clickers, simulations, sensors and computer quizzes) but all of these are a vehicle for having productive discussions with my students.  Learning how to have productive discourse in the science class takes significant effort, time and practices.  Effective teaching of a discipline that requires a high level intellectual skill is not like a buying a gizmo at the local big department store.  Effective teaching of high level intellectual skills require patient and guided practice and shared reflection.

     A farmer can learn by himself but that is the long road to high yields.  The best way to learn how to farm is to interact and learn from those who have farmed in similar conditions.  That is why I am such a big proponent of "Modeling".  I was trained in "Modeling  Physics" by the best and most effective of teachers and I am much better for it.  I highly encourage any science teacher to attend extended "Modeling Workshops"*** to obtain, through guided practice, the skills of those who know how to foster productive scientific discourse and increased scientific reasoning.

* The competition in 2013 is written about at:

In all the material above it is important to remember that the views expressed by me here, on any website or in any publication do not  represent the views of  
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, 
Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.