Prologue: I have been doing a lot of thinking this year about what I’ve learned so far about teaching physics (and about teaching high school students in general) both as general reflection and as part of solidifying my thoughts in preparation to look for a new physics teaching position for next school year. Occasional conversations with a new math teacher here this year have also helped me pull some of my thoughts together. I am starting to try to pull some of the big ideas into (what I hope will be) a series of posts that will serve as a set of snapshots of my current “rules” for teaching. (Rules or guidelines for myself, not rules I would impose on others.)
Beware The Right Thing, Said Once.
This idea is one that I’ve found I need to cycle back to again and again as I work on my teaching. It can sneak into a class via several conduits.
- When the teacher is giving information to the class. Enough has been written on how and why clear explanations do not result in changed understandings (though they feel really good and can be really fun at the time). Here’s a link to the Veritasium video on learning physics by watching videos, just in case.
- When the teacher is working through something with the class’s help, calling on students to fill in the gaps. Before Modeling Instruction, this activity was my most common go-to way of spending class time. I knew that I didn’t want to just tell students things, but I didn’t yet have a way of coaching them to construct their own ideas, so I basically just told them things via fill-in-the-blank “lectures”, AKA “guess what the teacher’s thinking” (at least, that’s how many students saw it). Luckily, I had some pretty amazing students who were willing to tell me what was what. One of the hugest moments in that first year of physics-teaching was when one student told me, “Listen. Ms. O’Shea. Just because one of us has happened to say the right answer to a question, that doesn’t mean that we all understand it.” Whoa. And also, thank you, Donald. Seriously. I wasn’t ready to do much better, yet, but I was starting to shape my understanding of how my classes needed to look different (and what was going wrong with them so far).
- When students are presenting information, results, or solutions to problems (as in whiteboarding). And here’s where it starts to get even trickier. In this case, I’m not lecturing. I’m trying to guide students to develop their own ideas. The class looks a lot better. Students are doing almost all of the talking. They are using whiteboards. How can it go wrong? And yet—one of the biggest mistakes I made in my first years of Modeling Instruction was making sure students were presenting correct answers. I knew the students presenting the problem usually understood what they were doing. They weren’t just getting their information from me. It took a while to realize that the presentations weren’t doing much more for the other students than my fill-in-the-blank presentations had been doing during my first year. If the whiteboards were approved by me, then it was really me transmitting information (it was just being read by someone else). You could tell that I was the authority, not the presenters, because when students asked questions, everyone turned to look at me (even the ones up at the board). Even though The Right Thing was being said by students instead of the teacher, it was still always The Right Thing, and it was still being Said Once. Oops. The big turning point and realization moment on this front came from watching a class (that had grown bored with whiteboarding) spring to life and to action when a group went up with an incorrect board. Suddenly there was work to be done. The Wrong Things were said, and so were The Right Things. They were all said multiple times, by multiple people, and in multiple ways. Eventually, Right triumphed. Hey, now.
And even when I think I’ve understood and conquered these ideas, they are always ready to sneak back into my class under the guise of picking up the pace. In the moment, it feels like I am moving faster when we hit the correct answers and move forward, but my experience has been that these practices actually tend to slow me down.
The messier process of letting mistakes and confusions surface, of entertaining those wrong paths and ideas, of then battling through them—that all certainly makes any individual problem take more time to finish in class. But it speeds up every problem that comes after, and not just the ones that look similar to the problem at hand, either. The more my students practice working through errors, the better they are at working through their own errors and uncertainty in future, unrelated problems. They look to me less frequently for check-ins and guidance. They start pushing me away, seeing the value of holding onto their confusion for longer. None of these changes are immediate, but they start to build and gather momentum as the days, weeks, and months move forward through the year.
Some Reminders to Myself
Give a student courage to speak up when she disagrees, and normalize that willingness to question and check by letting it be a necessary part of the process of the class (checking other groups’ whiteboards during presentations). Instead of being shamed by their wrong ideas, or not even knowing that their ideas are different from what is being said in class, they are constantly listening for places where they disagree with any explanation, answer, or solution. (Those moments of, “I know I am going to disagree, but I haven’t found what I disagree with yet” that pop up during Mistake Game whiteboarding sessions are actually pretty amazing—no meekness there.)
Shake the complacent, diligently note-taking student out of just listening and writing down notes. Make sure he is thinking through and checking everything before he writes it down for himself.
Disrupt the nervous, tentative student from erasing all of her answers and replacing them with what her classmates present. If there is a large chance that the answers being presented aren’t quite right, you can’t immediately assume that yours are wrong.
Don’t let answers be the goal. Don’t let there be mysterious “secret words” that suddenly cause everyone to scream and move on to the next topic (leaving everyone, maybe including the utterer, bewildered).
When you let The Right Thing be Said Once, it reinforces every student’s idea that everyone else gets it while they simply don’t.
When you know that a group has totally nailed the understanding of a problem, make sure you assign a different group to whiteboard it. That way, you know that there will be an excellent section of question-askers to chase down the errors on the board, and you also avoid short-circuiting the discussion by having the leaders of the conversation underestimate everyone else’s confidence in the answer.
When you are up front, don’t acknowledge answers immediately. Don’t acknowledge right answers differently from wrong answers. Let there be time, redirect students to talk to each other (instead of to you), and see if you can wait out a consensus.
While you do that, be sure to go meta every once in a while and explain why you’re doing that (or you’ll drown in “I said that!”s). While you’re at it, tell them about Clever Hans. Acknowledge that it has probably been a successful strategy for them in school in the past (they will agree wholeheartedly), and also tell them why you are going to try to cut that strategy off from them. They will appreciate the big picture idea, there, even though it is making things more difficult for them than they are used to in the short run.
Any truly new idea has to come from students, be discussed by students, and be agreed upon together (or they won’t ever truly believe it, even if they can repeat it). You set the stage and put them into a situation where they can start building the idea, and you coach them on the process, but you don’t verify along the way. Any “new” information that you are presenting to them can’t really be new. It has to be something they could arrive at using old ideas. You can have them walk you there by only asking questions they have definite ways of answering (and often sitting back or getting out of the way while they work together to answer those questions before you can all move on toward the next step).
Be even more patient. Let things take time. Let them know that it is okay for things to take time.
I am sure that my ideas here will keep developing and evolving in the coming months and years. This, of course, is just where I am now (and how I got here).