“Miyagi moments” : Getting students to see the big picture

Mr. Miyagi, undoubtedly one of the greatest Karate teachers of movie history.  What does he have to do with me (a physics teacher)!?  

One of my former physics students messaged me  a few months after graduation with his thoughts about the class.  This is after my second year of teaching and my first year of formally using modeling instruction.  During the year there was some student resistance to the discourse in our classroom and this student explains why he thought it was there.  He made an interesting analogy between learning in my class and the movie “The Karate Kid”.

See conversation below:

Student “The Physics Kid”: I occurred to me yesterday something that I think might help you solidify some of your teaching methods and bring it home to the students. I realized that it wasn’t WHAT you were teaching that was giving students problems or even HOW. It was a two part problem that throughout the entire year I don’t think anyone thought to address.

First and most important, the students that did poorly and complained about it are twisted. Not in a demented sense but academically they have been conditioned to want the grade and only CARE about the grade. The key to academia is caring about what you are learning and not about the grade. So we saw adjustments in your methods and attitudes and our attitudes but we never thought about caring (which is really hard to accomplish senior year because all seniors CARE about is leaving haha)

Me “Aspiring Miyagi”:  This is true and is a by-product of our education system. As a student it is easy to have tunnel-vision on that final letter assigned to you at the end of a course…the nature of our schools can actually promote this behavior!  Research on motivation has shown that “carrot and stick” rewards (which letter grades are sometimes treated as) can actually inhibit learning and creativity.  If you’re interested, check out Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” about motivation.

I am glad to hear that you are concerned with the learning.  This perspective will take you much farther than any list of letter grades on a piece of paper will.  It seems ironic that the less you focus on the grade and the more you focus on the actual learning, the more likely it is that you will receive a higher ‘grade’.

As a side note, I have been reflecting on grading practices since last year and plan to implement a different system this year, which I hope will do a better job of motivating learning.  In brief, I am no longer assigning POINTS, no longer grading homework, and giving students many more opportunities to show off what they know, in and outside of class.  They will get to apply for “out-of-class” assessments if they did not perform as well as they would have liked to earlier.

Physics Kid: I think the second problem was unity. What you taught was relevant and interesting in the underlying form of the thing. Physics is more than JUST physics. You weren’t so much teaching us how to make x-t graphs as teaching us how to make observations and think about them in a scientific manner. But to us, all we thought was “man I’m so sick of graphs” because we didn’t see the classic form beneath the ‘romantic’ appearance of graph making (which is not altogether so appealing)

Aspiring Miyagi: You are right on this.  One of the main goals of my class is to teach students “how to think scientifically”.  Pointing this out to students early on may help them see the bigger picture.  Students need to know why we are doing things the way we are.

Physics Kid: Now I thought of this as the PERFECT analogy of the class. Karate Kid. When Mr. Miyagi promises to teach the kid karate then puts him to work doing all those remedial chores (wax on, wax off), the kid didn’t know what the heck to think. He was just doing chores right? He finally gets pissed and confronts Miyagi and Miyagi goes crazy on him but the kid blocks every single punch with a motion that resembles the motions of those chores! THAT is what I think we were lacking. Perspective. Unity. You taught us all these things but you didn’t put enough emphasis on the end where you would tell us what we learned was good for, therefore we had little reason to care.Here’s the clip…

Aspiring Miyagi: I think this is a great analogy!  Students need more “Miyagi moments” during the year.  Some students may have these moments a few years down the road as they reflect back on their high school experience, but it can only help to have them in the midst of the learning experience itself.  I hope that students realize why we learned about what we did and why we approached learning like we did.  I need to help them with this realization early on.

Physics Kid: I really hope this helps give some new perspective to your class. I appreciate that you stuck with our class the entire year through thick and thin even if the other students didn’t. I think someday if you can master Zen and the Art of Teaching Physics, you will be a great teacher and everyone will be dying to take your class!

Aspiring Miyagi:  As for your own learning, you did very well.  Thank you for sticking with the process all year, helping your classmates, and focusing on the learning- it paid off.

This student had some very insightful ideas.  After reading his thoughts, I wished that I would have heard from him and other students earlier in the year.  It is obvious that students not only want to discuss WHAT they are learning, but HOW, and WHY they are learning it.  A few questions I’m wrestling with…

Shouldn’t I engage in discussing with students the WHAT, HOW, and WHY of the learning that takes place?

How can I promote student feedback on the WHAT, HOW, and WHY of the learning DURING the learning process?

When are the “Miyagi moments” in my classroom?  or When should I incorporate these?



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6 responses to ““Miyagi moments” : Getting students to see the big picture

  1. Oh my god, I LOVE the Karate Kid analogy. It is so perfect. I think we all need those kablowi moments when we are reminded of what we are doing this for.
    I like to create super powerful group assessments as my kablowi/mr. Miyagi moments. Something that puts students on the spot and requires them to use combinations of what they have learned. You could even set the stage to give it more of a sense of importance, like turn the lights low, or have the Karate Kid kablowi moment music in the background – something that says “yes, you are a warrior on the path to full comprehension and embodiment of physical reality!” (in the case of teaching Physics).
    And yes, I think you definitely should be talking about the what, how, and why. I think fairly regular, short impassioned speeches about why this thing you are doing is cool and how it fits in to the bigger picture works well. I also like creating “big picture” mind maps with students where we kind of free associate every thing we are doing in the class (content, assessments, activities, everything) to see where the links are. I think that just helps them cultivate an awareness and curiosity about the purpose of each task – they become more open in asking how it fits in too.
    I’ll stop rambling – I’m just so exciting by this new analogy and would love to keep discussing!

    • Sam

      I like your idea of dramatizing the miyagi moments. Students need a little of this sometimes to ‘pep them up’…and I’m sure it’s just plain fun.

      I’ve found that although I know students have learned a lot, they don’t feel like they have. I’m starting to see that part of my job is to help them unify and apply what they’ve learned. This is probably accomplished through exactly what you said “fairly regular” attempts from the teacher to point out what students have learned and how it is useful. I really think my move to SBG will help with this…changing the focus from ‘points’ to ‘goals’. Basically every task in the classroom then begs the question…”What learning goal does this relate to?” or “Which learning goals are you using to accomplish this task?” and not “How many points is this activity worth?”

      But seriously, how awesome did the Karate Kid feel when he totally denied Miyagi? What awesome activities can we have our students do where they have to synthesize their skills and really see what they have learned? One example I can think of from physics is a ‘deployment activity’ where students have to try to drop an egg from the bleachers onto a moving target (me).

  2. I think the quick, simple answer is the Miyagi moments need to be cultivated during the Model deployment phase. Think Frank Noschese’s Kobe Bryant part of the projectile motion lab (http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/kobe-karplus-and-inquiry/) or making a final project similar to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muVfidujxRg might help bring the ideas home

    • Sam

      Agreed Scott. This is the perfect time to synthesize what has been learned about a model in a given unit. I think one of the problems with how I’ve done these deployments in the past is that they are viewed as just another activity worth just another amount of points. I hope that a change in focus from ‘points’ to ‘standards’ will help students see exactly which and how the standards apply to the deployment task at hand. At some point during or after the deployment students should have to wrestle with questions such as “Which things that we learned were necessary to be successful in this task? How would this task have been more difficult if you had not learned about x,y, and z?” etc.

      These moments can help students see connections between ideas within a model. You could also help them see connections between different models. Like deploying a single model for an authentic task, you could also deploy multiple models for an authentic task and have a MEGA Miyagi moment at the end of 2-3 units. Students would have to deploy 2-3 models in order to accomplish something.

  3. Wow, what an insightful and considerate piece of feedback. This is really touching.

    This could be a useful framework on a daily or weekly basis too, and getting to practice the cycle more often might be constructive for the teacher.

    • Sam

      Couldn’t agree more. It’s fascinating to think that one of my students was thinking about the class at such a depth. I just wonder how I can bring out these ‘deep’ thoughts on a more consistent basis.

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