Two local teachers in Colorado (Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams)  just put together a wonderful little video about how they completely transformed their high school chemistry classrooms, so that students would actually master the material.  In the video, two dynamic presenters show and talk about how they used video podcasts to make better use of lecture time by taking the non-interactive part (lecturing) out of class time and putting the stuff that kids were struggling with (homework and problem solving) into class, to improve their mastery. I didn’t think I’d want to watch a 20 minute video but I was utterly charmed by these two teachers, and their explanation of their journey along this transformation is very compelling. Their website has more on their approach to using vodcasting in the classroom.

Watch the video



Here is a long description in text of what they’re doing in case you don’t have time to watch the video (but you should watch it, you’ll get it much more, and they’re fun folks).

Peer into Jonathan Bergmann or Aaron Sams’s classes and you will see something exciting happening.  What you will observe are students taking responsibility for their own learning.  Students conduct experiments, watch video podcasts, work on assignments, interact with the class Moodle site, have one-on-one discussions with their teacher, and get tutored by their peers and cadet teachers.  This is mastery learning at work.  Students work at their own pace through science curriculum.  When they complete a unit they must demonstrate that they have learned the content by taking an exit assessment that includes both a lab and a written component.  If students score less than 85% on these exit assessments, they must go back and re-learn those concepts they missed and retake the exam.  Grades are no longer determined by a percentage but rather how much content they have mastered.

What Caused Us to Change?
We discovered software that would capture our lessons and simplify distribution over the internet.  Then we began to record our lessons and post them for students who missed class.  This was very successful in our rural school where students frequently miss class for sporting events and other school activities.  Then we realized what students really need from their teachers is not to hear us talk and “do the sage-on-the-stage thing,” but rather, to get help when they get stuck.  This prompted us to dramatically change the way we teach.  In the 2007-2008 school year we began to have students watch video podcasts at home and then use class time to do directed problem solving, more experiments, and generally get the help that they needed.  This was highly successful and the scores of students made dramatic increases.
Then it struck us.  Now that we had a library of instructional podcasts, students no longer have to all receive the same instruction on the same day.  So, in the 2008-2009 school year we implemented a mastery teaching method.  In this method students have a check-list of things to master in each unit of study.  The list includes the required video podcasts, experiments, one-on-one demonstrations with the teacher, and appropriate Chemistry problems to solve.  When students have completed ALL of the assignments and labs, they must pass the exit exam with a minimum of 85%.  If students do not score 85% or better they retake the exam as many times as needed to pass.

Implementation of Mastery
Our classrooms now resemble three-ring circuses.  Students are in various places in the content on any given day.  Lab stations around the room are set up so students can complete the experiment that is next on their check-list.  This poses some safety issues in a Chemistry class, however, with the proper training, the students have quickly adapted to this method of experimentation.  Before each lab we spend time with a much smaller group of kids and discuss the main points of the lab and safety considerations.  This makes for a more intimate learning experience for each student, giving each student far more one-on-one time with their teacher.

All Students are Successful
A huge benefit of this teaching paradigm is that ALL students are leaning.  This is the ultimate method of differentiation.  Slower students are given the extra help that they need to master the content.  Advanced students are allowed to learn on their own, which ultimately helps them to become more independent learners.

Learning Outcomes from Podcasting
In the 2006-2007 year, we gave common assessments. We agreed to use the same tests in 2007-2008 as we did in 2006-2007 and compared scores after every unit.  In addition, the math pre-requisite for chemistry was lowered from Algebra II to Geometry, thus our students came to us with lower math skills.  In addition, enrollment in the course increased by 80%.  The average scores of the students on identical science tests given before and after implementation of the podcasting model were nearly the same, showing that the podcasting model gave equivalent results with students of a lower mathematical ability.

Proof of Success with Mastery
Now, in the 2008-2009 school year, under the master model, every student is now required to master the content before progressing, and ALL students are learning.  This has been magical!  Students of all ability levels are really learning!  As much as we were excited about the 2007-2008 results, mastery learning has been an even more positive experience for our students.  Now, EVERY Chemistry student demonstrates proficiency on EVERY topic in the class, which far surpasses the level of understanding of prior student success.

I just posted a new episode of Science Teaching Tips — Running Hot and Cold.  Thomas Humphrey is one of the smartest people I know (he’s a staff physicist at the Exploratorium, and studied under Richard Feynman at CalTech).  Here, he talks about what temperature and color have to do with one another, and how this helps us figure out things about the world.  I must say, the first time I heard him explain this was one of the first times I really got what blackbody radiation was all about, and what that T^4 term in those big ol’ equations really meant.