tt_icon_170Despite my better judgment, I invite TI staff educator Eric Muller to do one more set of activities on my Teaching Tips podcast —several things you can do with soda straws.  Listen to the episode – The Last Straw.

Holding Charge activity (PDF)
More of Eric Muller’s activities

Hey guess what!  Science Teaching Tips was just highlighted in the Websights section of The Physics Teacher.   Woo hoo!

I’ve got a new episode of  the podcast posted — The drama of the immune system. This is one of the favorites of our group at the Teacher Institute, and teachers are always asking Tory to do this little bit of theater.  In this classroom activity, staff educator Tory Brady shows you how to make the immune system into a bit of drama.  This is especially good for K-8 students, to help them understand the roles that each of the main characters in the immune system (macrophages, white blood cells) play.  Heck, I found it helpful to make all that vocabulary into a little story.  Much more memorable.  Enjoy!

“A Time for Telling” is the title of one of my favorite papers of Dan Schwartz (Professor of Education at Stanford). In it, he argues that lecture isn’t all bad. We complain that lecture (or “direct instruction” in ed-speak) doesn’t result in a lot of learning for our students. This has been shown again and again, in a lot of studies. But it’s pretty hard to completely eradicate lecture from our universities (or high schools, etc.) — it’s a pretty efficient way of communicating information. But if students first struggle with the ideas and concepts, then they’re prepared to learn from it. This is called Preparation for Future Learning.

For example, you could imagine (and it’s been shown) that students who first invent the idea of density (by being given the task of coming up with a way to describe how many clowns there are per square foot at a circus) will be better able to answer a question about the density of water than, say, a student who was just given the formula for density and shown a worked problem using gold. And a recent study by Schwartz shows just that, that those students who first invented the solution were better able to transfer the idea to a new situation. He writes:

Direct instruction is important, because it delivers the explanations and efficient solutions invented by experts. To gain this benefit without undermining transfer, direct instruction can happen after students have engaged the deep structure, per the Invent condition. [The students who invented the solution on their own] performed just as well on a subsequent test of word problems about density and speed. Direct instruction becomes problematic when it shortcuts the appreciation of deep structure. Across conditions, students who encoded the deep structure of the clown problems were twice as likely to transfer. It is just that fewer students in the Tell-and-Practice condition encoded the deep structure, because they had received direct instruction too soon.

Similarly, he later cites a study that found:

For example, college students learn more from lectures and readings when they first work with relevant data compared to when they write a summary of a chapter that explains the same data .

In some instances, he says, it is useful to just receive direct instruction because the goal is to build rote, routine skills. But in math and science, this isn’t the case:

In math and science, instruction cannot exhaust all possible situations. Transfer and adaptation are important. Although automaticity is important for some facts such as “2 x 3 = 6,” real situations rarely come with formulas attached, so students need to learn to recognize the relevant deep structures. Moreover, the cumulative curricula of math and science mean that students should build a base of knowledge on deep structures from which future learning can grow and adapt.

But teaching this way brings up the problem of assessment:

In the current milieu of high-stakes testing, standardized assessments largely measure routine expertise; namely, efficient recapitulation. If educators want students to become adaptive, innovative citizens who keep learning through changing times, current assessments do not fit. A better fit would map students’ trajectory towards adaptive expertise. Ideally, assessments would examine students’ ability to transfer, particularly for new learning. Such assessments would include resources for learning during the test (for example, a simulation that students can freely manipulate).

There’s always a lot to learn when you start teaching.  But this new teacher’s story was particularly striking to me.  When she just started teaching, she was fresh out of the Peace Corps in West Africa, and this left her little prepared to teach chemistry in a portable classroom with, among other things, no proper way to store lab chemicals.  Listen to this new teacher’s story (“Huh?”) in the latest episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast.

I didn’t come up with that title.  That’s the title of a lab report turned in by a disgruntled physics major after the obligatory upper-division laboratory.  It’s kinda famous in the physics circuit.  Read it.  It’s funny.

Quotable quote:

Check this shit out (Fig. 1). That’s bonafide, 100%-real data, my friends. I took it myself over the course of two weeks. And this was not a leisurely two weeks, either; I busted my ass day and night in order to provide you with nothing but the best data possible. Now, let’s look a bit more closely at this data, remembering that it is absolutely first-rate. Do you see the exponential dependence? I sure don’t. I see a bunch of crap.
Christ, this was such a waste of my time.

I just sent this link to some of my colleagues who are starting to discuss upper-division labs at the university.  What do we want students to get out of them?  What are our goals?  I love the above lab report (have you not read it yet?  Go read it!  It’s short) in part because it seems to sing the truth of what’s broken in a lot of these labs.  We give students shoddy equipment and ask them to go and confirm something that we’ve known to be true for over 100 years.  They write it up.  It’s just as cookbook as when we ask elementary students to measure the temperature of boiling water.  But don’t we expect more from students at this level?  Shouldn’t they be able to apply critical thinking skills and do true inquiry science by the time they’ve undergone hundreds of hours of instruction in physics (or any science)?  Shouldn’t they have a working thermos?

We remember these great teachers who have taught us so much about the world. But did they really? Some educators firmly believe that you can’t teach someone anything — rather, they have to learn it for themselves. A great teacher is someone who helps make that happen. A great teacher is a facilitator of learning more than an explainer. I’ve often wondered about this, since I certainly remember the great explainers from my past. Did they really teach me nothing? Are great explainers like televisions of education — entertaining and interesting but we don’t actually retain what they try to channel into our brains? I do think this might be the case. When I’ve actively struggled with something already, and just can’t put two ideas together in the right way, a great explainer can help me make the connection that I’ve failed to make. But if I haven’t already struggled with that material, then the explanation is cool and beautiful, but quickly slips through my grasp. In EducationLand, this is called Preparation for Future Learning, or PFL. In PFL we make students struggle with an idea so that they’re prepared to listen to a lecture or to learn whatever material we want them to learn.

I just posted a new episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast in which longtime educator Modesto Tamez shares some thoughts about how he helps students make ideas their own, so that students learn for themselves. It’s called, you guessed it, Nobody’s Ever Taught You Anything.

The Exploratorium has done a lot of fun stuff with the physics of baseball, including a whole website devoted to the science of baseball (where’s the sweet spot on the bat? What are baseballs made of?). One of our senior artists, Dave Barker, has also created the Bat Marimba (photo above). I’ve just posted a new episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast about the physics of baseball (listen to it here: Hey, batter batter!) with a beautiful performance of the bat marimba. Below is a YouTube video of Dave talking about the physics of baseball and of the amazing Walter Kitundu playing the marimba.