Great Ideas in education
I am faced with a quandary in education: how can I make make my class about learning and NOT about grades? As a student, I have always found grades to be detrimental to learning because I always ended up playing the game of "how many points is this worth" in an effort to avoid the consequences of getting bad grades. Keep in mind that, while I always valued learning far more than grades, I also tended to earn good grades in school. I knew how to play the game well, but even for a student like me grades were never about reward, they were only about avoiding punishment. Think of all the kids out there who weren't born with the privileges or support that I had while growing up, kids who never learned to play the game well -- think of what grades and school means for those kids.
Contrast the demotivating nature of grades with the motivating nature of learning. Any kid who has ever enjoyed building something out of LEGOs, or any kid who has ever had fun playing with finger paint, or any kid who has ever asked "why is the sky blue?" knows that learning can be a joyful and awe-inspiring experience. I believe that every human being has the inherent desire and need to learn and grow. Imagine what school could mean for all kids if we believed in and focused on those inherent human qualities.
The conclusion I keep coming back to is that mastery-based learning is a better approach to education, where students learn because they want to understand and practice because they want to master. The difficulty with this is that the rest of the school system still uses carrot-and-stick motivation and it's hard to know how to hold kids accountable for their learning without the stick. This semester in my credential program at CSU San Marcos has provided me an opportunity to fine-tune my thinking on this issue.
One of my credential courses is a mastery-based class. When I attended the first class of the semester, I was pleased to hear from the two co-teachers that they were trying a different approach. I was pleased to hear that they wanted the class to be about learning and not about earning grades. Even better, they were going to be flexible with deadlines (something that I greatly appreciated as a self-directed learner and overwhelmed student-teacher). As the semester progressed, however, I found myself putting off the work for that class in order to make time for my other classes. I started to realize that, as much as I would have liked to focus on learning in my mastery-based class, I had all these other commitments that were less flexible and more imminent -- commitments for which I needed to play the game in order to get the grade before I could focus on my own learning. It seems that I was letting the urgent get in the way of the important.
As I've been reflecting on my experiences in my credential program this whole year, I've come to the realization that there are so many other pressures on students besides the requirements of a single class. If I were to use a mastery-based approach with my own students, I would have to be cognizant of the fact that they have other classes that still play the grade game. In my own schooling, I've experienced the stress of trying to jump through myriad hoops in order to graduate, while at the same time wondering when I will have time for genuine learning. I think it all comes down to Maslow's Hierarchy: students have a need for security, a need to know that they have a future. When that security is threatened, their self-actualizing learning experiences are drastically limited and the students focus on meeting the basic need of simply getting through school with as little pain as possible.
This year, I have been every kind of "bad student" I have ever known. After some personal tragedies at the end of my undergraduate career, I came into this program with zero motivation to play the game of school any longer. I have been wrestling with crises of faith and existence while crawling my way to the finish line for the last eleven months. I have experienced feelings of anger, frustration, fear, shame, pain, and apathy in relation to my performance in school. In spite of all this, I still have a calling to be a teacher and a desire to learn and grow. At some point this year, I made up my mind that if I was going to drop out of the program, it would be because they kicked me out and not because I gave up or stopped trying.
Take a student like me and put him in a mastery-based class and what do you get? You get a student who spends the semester trying to put out fires in his other classes -- the ones where grades count -- and puts off the one class where he has freedom from the game (at least in theory; at the end of the day, someone still has to turn in a grade). Even so, you get a student who understands that school could be about so much more -- that it could be about learning for learning's own sake. This particular class of mine has a theme, but as the co-teachers told us, the class is about so much more than the theme -- the class is about teaching. As a result of this class and other experiences in education, here is my vision for the way that I will teach next year:
The purpose of this vision is to teach kids how to be better thinkers and learners. By having them constantly return to the question of "how can I demonstrate my learning?" I will hopefully teach them to be self-directed and independent learners who are prepared for life after the game of school has ended. I am certain I will have to tweak these ideas many times before I find a way to help my students that works really well for them, but I think it will be worth the trial and error. I think that this kind of learning environment has so much more potential to help kids grow than the traditional, non-mastery-based approach.
As for my credential class, I still need to finish all the work that I've been putting off until now. I still have to jump through a few more hoops in order to earn my credential, but for a class that is really about teaching I think I have gained a lot more from this mastery-based experience than just a grade. Amidst the discouragement and struggles I've faced this year, having a class be about learning and not about grades has made all the difference to me.
Now watch me go make a difference for someone else.
I recently watched a Ted Talk given by Derek Muller, creator of one of my favorite YouTube channels, Veritasium. (If you've never heard of Veritasium, go check it out right now. You will not regret it!) In this presentation, Muller described his research on how to make a video that effectively teaches physics. He gave the students a pretest on a physics concept, showed them a video that explained the concept, and then retested the students after the video. What he found was that, contrary to conventional wisdom, videos that presented physics concepts in a clear, easily understood way did not improve student learning. In fact, watching videos that presented concepts in a clear, concise manner resulted students who were more confident but just as lacking in their understanding. As he put it, “A clear, expository summary is worse than no instruction at all.”
Muller found that when he instead presented each concept as a question and gradually revealed the answer through the process of a dialogue or in the context of an investigation, students said the videos were confusing… and their test scores doubled. When asked how much mental effort they exerted while watching the expository film and the dialogue film, students indicated that they exerted significantly more mental effort in watching the latter of the two films.
I interpret these results as evidence that cognitive dissonance is necessary for constructing knowledge. Students need to wrestle with a physics concept before they really understand it. The best examples of this are when a student is presented with a phenomenon that contradicts the student’s “gut feeling” or intuition: the lead weight falls just as quickly as the aluminum weight; the balloon inside the car leans forward, not backward when you accelerate; the spinning bicycle wheel stays upright even when hanging from a string attached to one side, etc. These kinds of puzzling cognitive experiences are what drive discovery in physics for doctorates and high school students alike. When faced with the bizarre reality of the natural world, human beings are forced to either justify it or look at it in a different way.
One challenge in presenting students with these kinds of dissonant cognitive experiences is that students can sometimes justify the phenomenon using a faulty conceptualization rather than reconstructing their knowledge. They reimagine the data to agree with their theory rather than reimagining their theory to agree with the data. One way to guide students along the path of sound scientific reasoning is to make use of what Harvard Physics Professor, Eric Mazur, calls “Peer Instruction.” Using this method, teachers give students the opportunity to explain their conceptualizations to one another and discuss their ideas, much in the same way that scientists discuss ideas with each other. More often than not, students end up at a sound, logical conclusion when they have the chance to bounce their ideas off of each other and engage in scientific discourse. Dialogue is crucial to constructing scientific knowledge.
Another challenge with teaching a physics class the way that Muller teaches through his YouTube channel is that cognitive dissonance takes time. It is a much slower approach to learning physics. That said, it is much more effective than simply throwing ideas at students from the front of the room and expecting the ideas to stick in students’ minds like cooked spaghetti to a wall. I think it might be worth it to have students learn physics at a slower pace in order for them to develop a deeper, more solid understanding. I want my kids to be enthralled with the beauty and wonder of the natural world – I want them to love physics for the inquisitive, existential journey that it is rather than memorize equations for a final exam. I don’t necessarily want to produce physicists; I want to produce people who can think like physicists.
I recently read one of Bill Ferriter's posts on how Interactive Whiteboards (also called "Smart Boards" in some circles -- here I will refer to them as "IW's" for short) are a waste of money. He made some interesting points about how IW's reinforce a teacher-centered model of education.
I had the opportunity to learn AND teach physics in a classroom that included an IW. In both experiences, I found that using an IW made sharing notes immensely easier -- students were able to easily access the notes online in the same format they had seen in class. That said, I'm not sure that having class notes posted online helps the students to learn better. For that matter, I'm not sure having the teacher give notes in the first place helps students to learn. It's certainly the way things have been done in the past -- it's the way I learned how to do physics, and here I am now with a bachelor's degree in my favorite subject -- but is it necessarily the best way to improve student comprehension? I'll have to revisit the topic of note taking at a later time...
In the meantime, I have to agree with Ferriter's argument that IW's take the traditional model of education and put it in a digital context. In other words, having the IW's doesn't really change the way we teach, it just changes the way we lecture and present. Excellent teaching, however, is a LOT more than just lecturing. In fact, the best teachers I've ever had were the ones that let us (the students) do most of the thinking. Based on my experiences with IW's, I must say that staying at the front of the room all the time makes it hard to give students opportunities to do most of the thinking. What else can a teacher do, though? I mean, with only so much time in the day and with so many things to "cover" in a class, surely we have to some amount of lecturing, right? Especially in physics, where students need to see how problems are solved before they can do it themselves, right?
I don't think we physics teachers have to lecture as much as we might expect. In fact, I think our kids could benefit a lot from using the old-fashioned whiteboards and giving us teachers a break from the front of the room. Take a look at some of the ideas that Kelly O'Shea has implemented, for example. She's got kids actively engaged in collaborative, evaluative, critical thinking activities where they are using mini-whiteboards as a way to visualize and share their thoughts. I've also used mini-whiteboards in my classes and found them to be an asset in formative assessments of my students' learning.
Interactive Whiteboards are a lot of fun to play with and can certainly do some amazing things, but I think the miniature, non-electronic versions do a lot more for my students' learning than the $2,000 variety.