Favorite quotes on education

Here are some of my favorite education-related quotes.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” -John Dewey

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” -W.B. Yeats

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Trust that the natural world is far more interesting that anything you can toss up on a whiteboard, and then step back.” -Michael Doyle (@BHS_doyle)

“The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage.” – Howard Gardner

What are your favorite ed-quotes? Share them in the comments.

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Weekly Physics Journals

This year I’m asking my physics students to write a weekly journal response for our class.  Here are the questions they are answering.

1. What did I learn?
2. How did I learn it?
3. What questions am I wondering about?
4. If I were the teacher, what questions would I ask students to see if they understood the most important ideas of the week?

I was amazed at some of the things students said in their first journal prompt.  I can tell that many students (not all though) were thoughtfully reflecting on what they’d experienced during the week and took time to articulate and summarize their ideas.  Reading and responding to these using Edmodo took some time on my part, but I am convinced it was worthwhile after reading these this week.  Hopefully, they will continue to be useful as we move throughout the year. Below I’ve highlighted some of the more enlightening things students said.

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“I found the few days we spent on discussing intelligence, knowledge, and learning to be very interesting- I was previously very rigid in my belief that intelligence is constant and an inherent trait, but now I believe otherwise.”

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“Throughout the past week, I have gone from slightly confused to totally understanding the type of Physics class that I have taken participation. At the inception of the week, my thoughts were that the class was being taught about the behavior of pendulums. However, advancing through the week, I found that through actually observing the concept of the pendulum was to gain insight to the concept of models and experiments. By gathering data and depicting it on the graph through a single experiment (model), Mr. Evans was actually teaching us how to graph and plot data points, linearize a set of data and describe the difference between a model and an experiment. Genius I say!”

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“This week I learned what a scientific model is, and how we can go about developing one. I learned this by doing an experiment and coming up with a set of rules with my group. I think it’s very helpful that we did everything ourselves because it was easier for me to remember what we came up with. If we were told to copy notes on the same subject, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have remembered it nearly as well as I did.”

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“1. I learned that there are three types of uncertainty and that there are steps you can take to reduce them. Also, how to properly graph data with uncertainty ranges and what a model is. I learned that sometimes I need to think about concepts in general terms regarding their relationship to each other instead of always thinking about a problem numerically. 
2. I learned these things by doing the pendulum experiment and by using logger pro. I think that I understood concepts better when we talked about them as a group in our board meetings than I did by just looking at the experiment data so I will keep that in mind moving forward. 
3. Since there is no exact measurement for anything due to uncertainty I am wondering how people know how accurate they need to be when building something (a bridge or a space shuttle for example). 
4. If I were a teacher I would ask students why it is important to reduce uncertainty and the ways to do it. Also, I would ask them to graph data from an experiment and see if they could alter the axis to make it linear.”

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What is Modeling Instruction?

I’ve been struggling with this question for years!  My first three years of teaching looked very different from each other, even though I’d thought I was prescribing to Modeling Instruction (MI).  I’ve realized that simply reading an article (or even this blog post) about Modeling Instruction aren’t enough to paint the entire picture, just like reading about Karate won’t help you fully appreciate it until you’ve tried all of the moves.  A fresh explanation might be of some help to people though.  So here’s an attempt at answering the title question of this post…

What does Modeling Instruction look like?


Instead of conventional ‘units’ the course is divided up into the study of different scientific ‘models’.  A model is basically a ‘set of rules’ that exists conceptually in our heads that we can use to explain the things we observe.  The ‘set of rules’ can be represented with graphs, diagrams, words, equations, charts, etc. The whiteboard at the right was a summary created by students of a model called the ‘Constant Velocity Particle Model’.  We used it to explain how certain objects moved.

Each model takes approximately 2-3 weeks to study.  The study of each model includes two phases: development and deployment.  The things that typically occur in each phase are outlined below.

Development phase (takes ~2-5 days)

  • Students are introduced to a common physical phenomenon (car moving at constant velocity, ball rolling down a ramp, two objects crashing into each other, etc.)
  • After noting their observations, they decide which variables they could change that may affect the phenomenon, then choose which they’d like to investigate further by collecting data with available equipment.
  • Students work in groups to collect data about the phenomena.  If possible, they organize their data with tables, graphs, and equations.
  • Students then collaboratively consolidate their data and findings to share with the class.  They discuss everyone’s data to come to a consensus on a working model for the phenomena studied.
  • At this point, the teacher may introduce terminology and/or representations (force diagrams, energy bar charts, etc.) that can be used to represent the model, such that students are using scientifically consistent language and diagrams to communicate their ideas.
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    Below is a short comic strip I drew up to highlight some important parts of this process.  There’s more to the development than this, but this might give you an idea of what I mean.

Deployment phase (takes ~1 week)

  • The students then begin using the model to predict how other similar physical situations may unfold.  This most often takes place through hypothetical scenarios ( ‘problems’ or ‘questions’) posed by the teacher on a series of worksheets or through an actual practicum, where students must predict how reality will behave.
  • In the process, they gain fluency in the use of multiple representations (graphs, diagrams, equations, words) for the model, which solidifies their understanding of the nuances of the model and how it applies to various contexts.
  • At different points in this process students may find that they need to refine or change the model (EX. Adding a new energy storage mechanism) to account for a new situation or refine/add a layer to their arsenal of representations (EX. Adding v-t graphs after initial use of x-t graphs, and then defining the area of v-t graph)

How does it all fit together?

MI gives students the opportunity to create and then use what they have created to understand their universe.  By doing this over and over again throughout the year, students eventually begin to think and act like real scientists! Each model becomes the backbone for the unit.  The teacher and students should always “keep one eye on the model” constantly looking back and forth between the model and reality to understand to what extent they can be superimposed on one another.  It is integral that the students understand this process and are engaged in all aspects of it.  The teacher facilitates the cycle carefully, armed with content specific knowledge and experience dealing with common student misunderstandings.  The teacher never tells the students what to think (if this is even possible), but rather invites them to evaluate their thinking, becoming a sort of metacognitive coach.  By doing so, the teacher helps give students the ability and confidence to think for themselves and to experience the thrill of a deep understanding of nature.

The entire curriculum is carefully woven into a coherent storyline, with one model picking up where the last one left off.  The failure of a model to explain a new situation motivates the development and deployment of another model.  This helps students understand science more clearly as a modeling process, where each model has its limits.  Ideally this helps dispel the common idea among students that science is a ‘body of facts’.  There aren’t ‘truths’ in science, only tentative models with limitations.  How is a student to understand this about science unless they experience it for themselves?

Why does this work so well in promoting lasting conceptual understanding?

While I’m no neuroscientist, I do have a few ideas about why MI is so effective. Throughout the modeling cycle, students are constantly shifting and affirming relationships amongst concepts in their minds. This process of shifting ideas around and adding to them takes careful and frequent thought with powerful representational tools.  It also takes time.  Both phases of the cycle give students the time and means (via observation, data collection, discussion, representational tools, etc.) they need to process these ideas and integrate them into their belief structure.  Throughout the cycle, students are constantly comparing their developed ideas (the model) to reality.  In this way, students come to believe in the model (or not, if it doesn’t work) and accept (or deny) it as part of their belief structure about the world.  Over time, the new model replaces their former notions about the world, but only if they come to realize that it fits reality better than their old ideas.  While it varies from student to student, coming to this realization typically takes most of the time and messiness noted above.  Students cannot simply be told what they’re supposed to realize about the world.  If science ideas are introduced didactically, most students are left in the dust and miss out on an important opportunity for authentic learning.

What makes modeling stand out from other “inquiry-based” approaches?

While I’m not entirely familiar with all of the flavors of “inquiry” type instruction out there, I do know that there are many different ideas and opinions amongst educators about what “inquiry” instruction is.  Often, in talking with others about modeling instruction, I can tell that they tend to attach my words about modeling to their existing ideas about inquiry, and rightfully so.  People learn by comparing and contrasting new ideas with what they already think. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to simply explain what modeling instruction is, since it usually gets lumped together with other inquiry or ‘discovery’ approaches.  Often, my descriptions of modeling instruction are interpreted in the context of how single lessons are facilitated. This is part of MI, but is not the entire picture.  MI is more so a philosophy behind teaching science than it is a particular way of facilitating lab activities.  MI’s focus on the collaborative development and deployment of foundational scientific models is what sets it apart from other inquiry-based lesson-specific teaching techniques. Students “do science” like real scientists, not just during one ‘inquiry-type’ lab, but for nearly all of the course.  The design of the curriculum and the modeling cycle promote continuous scientific thinking and doing!  Other inquiry based approaches I’ve heard of do not take curriculum design to this level, or emphasize the building and using of models as a primary objective for teaching science.  In the modeling curriculum students repeatedly create models and then use them.  They don’t discover models.  Discovery has more to do with observing something new.  Model creation is different.  It is the intentional making of a conceptual “set of rules”(represented with graphs, diagrams, words, etc.) to describe or explain what was observed (ie. the ‘discovery’).  The heart of Modeling Instruction is all in the name.  MI is about making and using scientific models!

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My evolving model of what it means to ‘model’

My third year of teaching physics using modeling instruction is coming to a close and it’s fun to think back on how I’ve evolved as a teacher and what effect this has had on the students I’ve worked with.

Below is a bar chart of pre and post test data for my students on a physics test called the Force Concept Inventory.  The FCI is the most widely used diagnostic test in physics.  I’ve used it for the past three years to assess the extent to which my students’ ideas about forces and motion have changed as a result of my instruction.  While I believe that single scores are never the whole story and cannot define the complexity that lies within a student’s mind, this test has been shown to be a good predictor of performance on other ‘measures’ of physics ability.  The test is generally accepted in the physics education community as a well-designed and useful assessment tool.  It basically assesses whether a student can reliably choose between Newtonian physics explanations and other common ideas people develop about these concepts before taking a formal physics course.  In other words, it’s a good test and is informative for a physics teacher.  The specific percentages probably won’t mean much to you unless you teach physics, but you can probably notice that students’ understanding has improved…but why?

Below is a table outlining some of the main aspects of my instruction from my first three years.  These certainly aren’t the only aspects that have affected my students’ growth, but I’ve listed some of the things I think may have played a role in students’ understanding.  I’m happy that my students have improved over the years, but I know I have a long way to go as a teacher.  Since this reflection is only in regards to the teaching of Newtonian mechanics, I still have questions about how my teaching will change and improve in other ways and in other domains.  I am excited about where I’m going and am extremely grateful to those who’ve helped me along the way.  Here’s to another year!

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Unit Sequence Traditional modeling physics curriculum sequence. Traditional modeling physics curriculum sequence. Scientific modeling, CVPM, BFPM, CAPM, UBFPM, 2D Motion, briefly UCM, COEM
Major classroom discourse Students sitting in desks facing front, Whiteboard presentations – groups walk to front to ‘present’ ideas to group.  Teacher asks most questions. Students sitting in groups of 3-4 facing each other and front. Whiteboard presentations – groups walk to front to ‘present’ ideas to group.  Teacher asks most questions.  Occasional circle board meeting. Students sitting in groups of 3 facing each other and front.  Board meetings – Nearly all class discussions are teacher facilitated circle whiteboard meetings.  We move the chairs and sit in a circle. Better discussion facilitation, questioning, and prompting for ideas from many students on my part.  Students responding and asking more questions.
Assessment/grading
structure
Traditional points and %’s, few opportunities for ‘retakes’.  Grade based on homework, quizzes, tests. Traditional points and %’s, few opportunities for ‘retakes’. Grade based on homework, quizzes, tests. Standards based grading, reassessment opportunities once per week. Grade based on mastery of learning goals.
Homework 3-4 nights/week. Checked for ‘completion’ & included in grade. 2-3 nights/week.Checked for ‘completion’ & included in grade. Rarely. Never ‘graded’.
Other -No formal modeling training.Was a student teacher under modeling teachers and used modeling curricular materials.-Force diagrams main representation for forces.

-Mix of graphs/equations used to represent motion.  Focus on deriving equations from graphs and using an ‘equation sheet’ to solve problems.

-This is after taking a modeling physics workshop the summer before.-Had students record all notes from labs/discussion in composition notebooks that I checked and graded with ‘points’.

-Force diagrams main representation for forces.

-Mix of graphs/equations used to represent motion.  Focus on deriving equations from graphs and using an ‘equation sheet’ to solve problems.

-Heavier focus in classroom language on developing and using ‘models’ instead of traditional studying of ‘units’.-Board meetings centered around messier conceptual questions instead of computational questions.

-No formal composition notebooks.  Used packets of ‘practices’ for each model with some better cognitive tasks.

-Goalless problems!

-Model summary boards for each model.

-Concept maps for links between models.

-Use of more representations for forces (system schema, force diagrams,  force vector addition diagram, net force diagrams).  Little use of trig for angled forces. Mostly tip-to-tail vector addition.

-Graphs only approach to motion. No deriving of equations.  No ‘equation sheets’.  Use graphs to solve problems.

-More kinesthetic experiences – crashing cars for N3L lab. Pulling carts with springs for N2L lab, instead of modified Atwood.

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EDTalks: Ideas to make school better

There are so many great education related talks and videos out there.  Here are the ones that have stuck with me recently.  I find myself watching them over and over again, listening, and thinking…

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Chris Lehman on creating the schools we need:

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Dr. Tae on learning in school vs. learning in skateboarding:

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Shawn Cornally on schedules, grading, and ‘pointlessness’:

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Sir Ken Robinson discusses creativity:

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Alan Lishness compares our schools to Finland’s:

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Dan Pink on motivation with implications for schools:

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Leave a comment if you’d like to talk about any of these…I’d enjoy discussing.

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Are all goals created equal?

Below are two report cards for a wide receivers from a football team.  The reports include skills/goals that will help the players in becoming successful wide receivers.

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Player A:

YES  I am aware of the quarterback and start my route on the snap of the ball.

NO  I can run an ‘out’ route to the right or left.

YES  I can run a ‘flag’ route.

YES  I can run 40 yards in under 5.5 seconds.

YES  I can bench press 1.5 times my weight.

YES  I show up for practice on time.

YES  I can recite all of the team’s offensive plays from memory.

YES   I can catch a pass thrown to me while I’m running.

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Player B:

YES  I am aware of the quarterback and start my route on the snap of the ball.

YES  I can run an ‘out’ route to the right or left.

YES  I can run a ‘flag’ route.

YES  I can run 40 yards in under 5.5 seconds.

YES  I can bench press 1.5 times my weight.

YES  I show up for practice on time.

YES  I can recite all of the team’s offensive plays from memory.

NO   I can catch a pass thrown to me while I’m running.

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Should both players be rated equally as wide receivers?  Should they both get the same ‘grade’?

What does this have to do with teaching physics?  Well, some of my students have beef with the idea of mastering all of the learning goals except one CORE goal and not receiving a high grade in physics.  If you check out my grading policy…a CORE goal is a goal that is a little more important than the rest.

If we’re forced to truncate tons of information about what a student knows into a single alphabetic letter to indicate to that student/parent/college/whoever how well they understand physics…then all goals can’t be treated equal.  Understanding can’t be turned into a percentage.  Some goals are and should be treated as more important than others.  So when it comes to determining letter grades (if we must…) then even missing out on one CORE goal is a big deal. Can you guess which player above is missing a CORE goal?

Which hopefully has us asking…

Why should we even transform this information into a letter grade in the first place? What if we paired the report card above with some actual evidence that indicated the report was accurate?  Channeling some Shawn Cornally (watch his TED talk, please)…How is that not good enough!?

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Developing the Balanced Torque Model

Here’s how students in AP physics developed the idea of ‘turning effect’ (eventually named ‘torque’) using a bike tire, brooms (push-o-meters), meter sticks, and spring scales (pull-o-meters).

1.  Observe the following scenarios, record any observations. (more details on these here)

2. In a small group, establish a ‘set of rules’ to describe your observations.  Make your rules simple and applicable to as many of the scenarios as possible.

3. Since ‘turning effect’ depends on the location of the force (radius) and the amount/direction of the force (must be perpendicular to the radius), investigate the relationship between ‘radius’ and ‘perpendicular force’ for a simple object.  Hey, how about a meter stick?… it’s already got the radii markings on it!  Hang a mass on one side, then use a ‘pull-o-meter’ to measure the force at different radii.

4. Graph F vs. r.  (gives inverse relationship)  Linearize by graphing F vs. 1/r.  Write an equation.  Example equation: F= (0.5 Nm) 1/r.  Groups will end up with different slopes.

Compare graphs with other groups.  Realize that slope was due to the ‘turning effect’ caused by the location and size of the hanging mass chosen.  Rearrange equation to yield: F*r = 0.5 Nm . Define the quantity F*r = Torque!

Formalize by including the sine of the angle between F and r.

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