Some Failures

I’m proud of my successes as a STEM teacher working toward equity, but I’ve also had failures. In order to get better, I need to understand, and correct for, those times when I’ve made mistakes. Here are some examples I’m thinking about now.

Irina

I met Irina when she was in 10th grade because she was doing a project in physics and wanted to talk with the school’s physics teacher about it. I knew that she was interested in technology and science in such a way that engineering would be a great career for her. Nevertheless, she was very reluctant about taking physics. On course selection night, she told me repeatedly that she felt she wasn’t intelligent enough. I tried to allay her fears, and I guess I was successful enough that she enrolled in my physics course.

Over the first semester, she did okay — Bs and Cs, mostly. We talked again about her career plans at the end of the term, and she told me she’d decided she wasn’t intelligent enough for engineering, and that her middling grades were evidence of this. Although we talked many times after this, I was never able to change her mind.

Irina needed some extra help in the first semester, to master some essential math and physics skills and build her self-efficacy, but I didn’t see that. In the future, I’m going to be more careful and more supportive with new students who have low self-belief and fixed mindset-style attitudes. This is especially relevant for girls and minority students, for whom self-efficacy already tends to be quite low.

Robotics Club

In an after-school robotics club, one student was explaining to two others his idea for using tank treads for the robot. He wasn’t doing a great job of explaining his idea, so I asked him to try again; he did, although with a bit of an exasperated tone. When he finished, I turned to the two students and asked them, “Did that make sense to you?” “Yes, I know what a tank is,” replied one.

The two listeners went off to work on something else. Later, they told me that many of the other students weren’t taking their ideas seriously. They interpreted my question (and their peer’s explanation) as condescension, and that was sort of the last straw. I apologized and tried to explain, but by that point the damage had been done: I restored their trust in me, but not in the robotics club. They came to the next meeting, but interacted with almost no-one, and didn’t return after that.

My microaggression against these two students happened because I briefly stopped focusing on their affective experience. For students in STEM, there are so many threats: my job as a teacher is to remove these and make a safe learning environment. Going forward, I’m trying to be more sensitive to the environment and careful about my own actions.

Joe

A student in my math class, Joe’s academic record was weak. His academic language skills were particularly poor because, as our program coordinator explained it, he’d never developed a first language. Instead, he spoke French early in his life, then German with his mother and friends, and then English when he moved and found a new school and a new social circle.

With Joe, I was insufficiently proactive. I didn’t insist on extra help after school, I didn’t establish strong communication with his mother early in the year, and I didn’t differentiate my instruction or get him alternative resources. By the time his weak grades started to pile up, he was too far behind to properly catch up and he had decided he couldn’t succeed in the course.

Epilogue

These students all went to university, at least for one year. They’re pursuing their dreams and doing alright. I’m pursuing my dreams too: being a better teacher for my next class of students.

Advertisements

Open-Ended Exam Tasks

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about open-ended tasks for assessment. This style of physics “problem” gives the student the opportunity to use a variety of different approaches to demonstrate their understanding in a semi-authentic context.

Below are the open-ended tasks from the Scottish Qualifications Authority physics exams 2014-2017 (ie: from the N5, Higher, and Advanced Higher exams). My primary purpose in posting these here is to provide a resource for students studying toward their SQA qualifications.*  I think that answering this type of problem effectively requires careful practice, and I hope this collection is useful for that!

First, here’s the detailed rubric. Each open-ended task is scored between 0 and 3 marks.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.08.45 PM

And here are the prompts. A few have been excluded because they are built into the context of a longer problem. A bunch more are here.

Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.00.49 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.01.03 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.01.32 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.02.19 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.02.33 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.03.13 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.03.25 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.04.08 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.04.53 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.05.02 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.05.51 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.06.10 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.06.42 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.06.52 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.07.39 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-07 at 9.07.51 PM

* I think this falls within the stated allowed use, but please write me if that is not the case!

30 Actual Teachers

Forbes published their “30 under 30” list for education. It’s a list notably lacking actual teachers. This is frustrating because, as exciting as it may be for these young people to create a start-up designed to help their communities, we already have a group of highly-trained, preposterously-dedicated people for whom teaching is a vocation.

So, I’d like to present an alternative “30 under 30”: educators who are genuinely changing the world, and not getting the salary or respect they damned well deserve.
(And I don’t care about their ages).

Kristine Atrens – A top-notch kindergarten teacher who epitomizes dedication and caring.

Peter Bohacek – One of the people behind Direct Measurement Videos and Pivot Interactives, both of which are really effective because of Peter’s ability to draw on his teaching experience to understand what active learning really requires.

Stephen Collins – An expert on the Socratic method and standards-based grading, and a modeling instruction leader.

Oyuntsetseg Durvuljin – The founder and spiritual leader of ‘Hobby’ School, a project that lifted hundreds of students into the upper-middle class through education and providing opportunities.

Cristina and John Julius Fajardo – This teaching couple are the most enthusiastic, energetic, teachers I have ever met. They care about the students so much that the students can’t help but care about learning.

Erdenetsetseg Gombojav – Such a great teacher that she becomes an extra parent and gets the best out of her students by caring for them and maintaining the highest standards.

Chris Hamper – A lifelong physics teacher, textbook author, online resource provider, and workshop leader. The best of IB Physics comes from him.

Megan Hayes-Golding – A superb physics and STEM educator with a passion for helping students take on challenges. Bonus points for bow ties.

Richard Hechter – A scholar and educator who focuses on cultural aspects of science education, especially the intersection between Western and Canadian Aboriginal ways of knowing.

Meghan Hennick – An innovative, creative, and passionate elementary school teacher on the international circuit.

Scott Hovan – Probably the expert on how to get students talking honestly, thoughtfully, and considerately in high school physics.

Sarah Johnson – An educator at Simon Fraser at the forefront of getting girls into physics, and changing the discipline to make it more accessible.

Michael Lerner – A deeply passionate educator who puts his students first, and invests the time and energy needed to create an exceptional learning environment for them.

Joe McIntyre – An educator and policy scholar with strong passion and a deep commitment to education as a tool for social empowerment.

Zanda Medne – An English and German teacher and university lecturer who inspires love from her students by being passionate about their success.

Dan Meyer – Former high school maths teacher, currently developing great tools at Desmos.

Derek Muller – Best known as Veritasium, his Youtube channel is an outgrowth of his doctoral research into how students learn via videos.

Kelly O’Shea – Proof that educational change happens best when it comes from working teachers. Her numerous ideas, shared through the blog, have helped hundreds of teachers move toward more active teaching methods.

L Ozola – An excellent maths teacher and PhD student, she connects with students through humour and inspires them to do exceptional things.

Moses Rifkin – A deeply wise and conscientious man at the forefront of social justice in high school physics education.

Marianna Ruggerio – An enthusiastic and creative physics teacher who has recently started sharing her experiences via Twitter.

Andy Rundquist – A physics professor with a commitment to faculty development, collaboration, and learning communities.

Patrick Savage – A drama and French teacher whose compassion and patience for his students have always inspired them to become better citizens.

Sloane Schubert – A thoughtful, original, caring educator with a broad range of experience and mastery.

Leigh and Scott Simon – A teaching couple whose passion for their students is exceeded only by their willingness to do whatever it takes to provide meaningful, exciting, and effective learning experiences.

Ieva Smits – A dedicated teacher with a strong commitment to education as a way to improve communities, especially through service.

Rebecca Vieyra – The K-12 program manager at the AAPT, she is responsible for many great programs to support teachers and teaching of physics

Evan Weinberg – Evidence, in case any is needed, that great teachers can build the tools they need to conduct great teaching.

(There’s a whole bunch of other people I wanted to include, but randomly didn’t because of the limit of 30)

 

Urination and Physics

The Times Education Supplement [TES] is known as a fairly conservative British publication, focusing on policy news, endorsements of the teaching profession, and op-eds by teachers. So it was surprising to see a click-bait headline relating to physics education research: “Taking the pee out of physics: How boys are getting a leg-up“. Unlike many submitted posts, this one is not identified as being written by a blogger, and comments are disabled — we are intended to treat this as real research news.

The crux of the argument is this: we have a gender gap in physics scores on standardized assessments. That gap seems to be most pronounced on tasks involving 2-dimensional motion. One explanation for the discrepancy is that boys have more experience with balls, rockets, cannons, and so forth because of the social conditioning they experience as children. However, the authors note that female students in the “ultra-masculine environment” of a military school show the same gender gap. Thus, they conclude that ball sports and play-acting war isn’t the factor. Instead, they propose that boys playfully urinate, and thus have experience with projectile motion in a way that girls don’t.

There is a lot about the article that is objectionable.

1. This article isn’t based on published scientific work, it doesn’t refer to a submitted manuscript, and the authors don’t have any related publications in the literature. This isn’t an idea that has been vetted by peer review. More importantly, it isn’t a mature scientific idea: the authors have proposed a hypothesis, but haven’t actually carried out the experiment.

It would be easy to test: survey men about their childhood urination habits, and about their proficiency with physics. Maybe throw a tricky physics problem at them, too. But the authors didn’t do this, preferring to write about the idea as if it were too obvious to need verification. This sort of speculative science is problematic, and popularizing ideas that haven’t been vetted empirically has been problematic in physics in recent years. It is particularly bad in the field of physics education research, which is struggling to be recognized as proper science by a dubious physics community.

2. Since the authors didn’t conduct a study, I did. I asked 25 people (THANK YOU!!) to answer four questions: were they sports fans as children, did they playfully urinate as children, and were they good at physics in school? I also asked them which angle would optimize the range of a projectile in the real-world case where air friction cannot be neglected — someone familiar with projectile motion either experimentally or theoretically should know that slightly decreasing the angle from 45 degrees (the theoretical optimum) will increase the range when air friction is considered.

The results of the survey show that neither urination nor sports were strong predictors for physics ability. The strongest relationship was between sports and success on the physics problem, but this did not reach an adequate level of confidence*. In short, had the authors actually tested their hypothesis, they would have found it incorrect.

3. The language used in the article makes it clear that this is click-bait rather than a serious attempt to introduce a new idea. Consider the following lines: “those sparkling arcs of urine”, “pee-based-game-playing”, and “…despite the surface layer of toilet humour, and the implication that physics may be little more than a pissing contest, we’re making a serious point.”

Unfortunately, with phrasing like that, the authors are not.

4. Another point is made by Brett Hall: projectile motion isn’t a topic that occurs at the start of the curriculum, yet the gender gap is apparent from early in the physics course. Likewise, the authors suggest focusing on energy conservation first, rather than projectile motion, but this is something that is already done in many classrooms.

5. Research by Zahra Hazari and others points to socio-cultural factors (identity,  home and school support) being the most relevant to explain why girls opt out of physics. I wouldn’t argue that the gender gap is an understood problem, but the authors present it as wholly-unsolved (perhaps to increase the audience’s willingness to accept their unorthodox idea) when it isn’t.

6. [addition 18 September] On further reflection, it is more clear to me that the phrasing and positioning of this idea to be damaging and troublesome, in addition to being incorrect and click-bait. A phrase like “why don’t young women perform as well in physics?” presupposes that the cause is a deficiency in the women, rather than the sexist culture in which they are raised and on whose assessments they are being found wanting. I hope no teenage girl hears of this incorrect hypothesis, reads this article, or absorbs the various ripples it is making in the news media.

Lastly, a note about ad hominem rebuttals. I think that most men would look at this idea and disagree because of their personal experience. I’ve seen some rejection of this hypothesis because the primary and secondary authors are female. However, there is value in the perspective of an outsider: we do a lot of things unconsciously, and only an external viewer would be able to make connections we might otherwise miss. Dismissing this work about male urination because the authors are female is incorrect.

I think that’s about all I want to say about this idea. Hopefully we can forget it now.

* The n=24 study I did was enough to show that the urination=physics ability hypothesis cannot be the primary explanation for the gender gap. However, it is possible that there is still a small correlation. As pointed out by Steve Zagieboylo, however, this pathway likely goes boy-sports-physics rather than boy-urination-physics, given the strong social differentiation that boys face. The results from my study suggest this but, since the effect is smaller, I cannot claim to have discovered anything with the small sample I used.

Grouped, Practical Assessments

I’ve been working through some ideas about assessment in high school physics. The goal is to assess students in a way that is more meaningful, more engaging, more effective at analyzing a student’s ability to do real physics tasks, and more likely to result in useful learning experiences. At the same time, with my IB classes, I cannot take my eye off the inevitability of high-stakes standardized exams and the concomitant need to prepare students for these.

I’ve been curious about authentic assessment for a while, but this specific work is inspired by Joss Ives‘s work on two-stage collaborative exams and by conversations and collaboration with Kelly O’Shea, with whom I will be presenting a workshop on the topic this summer.

In this post, I will outline and analyze one assessment I have attempted.

First, the students worked in groups to build background by creating some review notes about double-slit interference, which was the topic of this assessment. I encouraged them to “use their resources”, which in most cases meant their notes and the textbook, although a couple also used the internet for translations and definitions. Below is the prompt and a typical response.

Next, I regrouped the students (always groups of 3) and gave them their tools: a laser, a double-slit slide, a ruler, and a tape measure. I told them that their task was to determine the wavelength of the laser. Here, there was a couple minutes of uncertainty: one group launched into a debate about whether the laser was emitting light, another forgot about their notes from a minute before and tried thinking of ways to measure the laser’s frequency (planning to use the wave equation). Without nudges or hints, however, all the groups converged on the same idea: shine the laser through the double slits onto a distant wall, and measure the various distances. Below is a typical example of their work.

 

Finally, I asked the students to reflect on their experience. The first question aims to get them to think about their role in the group. Most of the answers here were descriptive (“I held the laser”), and few tackled the second part meaningfully. The second question aims to get them to reflect on their experimental design. The majority discussed something related to random error and the need for repeated trials.

The third question is inspired by something inspired by Ilana Horn and aped from Kelly: different ways of “being smart” or “doing science” in our class. Here are the results:

I like the diversity of approaches that were used, and that are sought. Working systematically seems to have been viewed by most of the students as key in this assessment, which is something I agree with.

Finally, is the question of whether the students preferred this type of assessment to a traditional test. Overwhelmingly, they preferred this grouped, practical approach. Even the disadvantages they suggested were quite positive. Here are some of the responses:

The educational idea of authentic assessments dates back at least to the 1990s, and of course the theory-vs-practical debate in science education predates the work of the Committee of Ten who laid the foundation for public education in the USA back in the 1890s. For me, the challenge is finding a way to do meaningful, practical assessment in a way that upholds the rigor of our contemporary courses while also being more engaging and meaningful for students.

If this is of interest to you, then please check out Kelly’s blog post and stay tuned for our workshop this summer. I’d also appreciate hearing about any ideas, feedback, or experience if you have a story to tell.

Studying StudyIB

The wonderful Chris Hamper has been working on a new educational idea over the last year. Housed on StudyIB, the Virtual Tutor is an attempt to recreate the experience of working one-on-one with a tutor as you go through a multi-step physics problem. There is a network that draws in resources and reminders for students, depending on their progress. It’s a good idea and, with the current web technologies available, just about due. Here is a video where Chris explains how the Virtual Tutor works.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 2.37.39 PM

I introduced the Virtual Tutor to my students as a way to study for their IBDP Physics exams. The response was generally along the lines of “this is interesting”. However, it wasn’t clear whether or not this approach was effective, so my students and I devised a small study to try to answer that question.

First, the students wrote a pre-test on a particular topic. Second, they worked through one of the learning networks on the Virtual Tutor (we did Forces 3). Third, they wrote a post-test on the same topic (but with slightly different questions). The pre- and post-tests have three questions.

The first question is about something we have practiced extensively, and that they should know how to do: drawing a free-body diagram. The average pre-test score was 2.45 (out of 3), and the post-test score was an increase by 0.27 points. This corresponds to a small number of students forgetting or misdrawing one of their force vectors. It seems that the Virtual Tutor was an adequate reminder. Below is a sample or pre- and post-test work that shows this.

20170312_140229-800x450 20170312_140237-800x450

The second question is about something we have not practiced very much: drawing force diagrams, where the forces are drawn at the place where they originate, rather than applied to a hypothetical center of mass. Here, the Virtual Tutor helped some students (as shown in the pre/post examples below), while two students had a lower score on the post-test for this question. The overall effect was an increase of 0.46 points to 1.37 (out of 3).

20170312_140208-800x450 20170312_140215-800x450

The third pre/post question is something more akin to what the students saw on the Virtual Tutor: a standard physics problem where students need to move through several steps, doing mathematics, in order to find a numerical answer. This is the type of question the Virtual Tutor was designed for, and here it was most effective: the average student score increased from 1.00 (out of 4) to 2.82. The below work is typical: a student was able to start the problem, but got “stuck”: the Virtual Tutor reminded or taught him the necessary steps for this type of problem, and he was able to transfer that knowledge and finish the problem.

20170312_140128-800x450 20170312_140141-800x450

I will follow-up with my students after their mock exams next week, to see if and to what extent they found the Virtual Tutor useful. From this small study, however, a few conclusions emerge:

  1. The Virtual Tutor probably does about as well as any sort of studying for reminding students about fundamentals that they already know.
  2. The Virtual Tutor isn’t particularly effective as an expository tool. If students need to learn some new ideas or facts, their textbooks, videos, or classroom learning experiences are better (I should add that the rest of the StudyIB site is quite good for this).
  3. The Virtual Tutor is effective at reminding students of the difficult, complicated processes involved in solving multi-step problems. As seen on the third question of this study, one session with the virtual tutor was sufficient to get about half the students in this study from a low score to a high score on the problem.

I’m pretty impressed with the Virtual Tutors. If you’re a physics student reviewing for exams, consider giving it a try.

Here’s the (averaged) data:

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 2.44.02 PM

Enculturation and Acculturation

I’ve been writing my M.A. thesis over the past couple months, and have been thinking a lot about the role of culture in how students learn, how teachers teach, and how we prepare students for the world.

Aikenhead distinguishes between Assimilation, Enculturation, and Autonomous Acculturation. These three approaches toward education, with a focus on cultures, need to be distinguished and understood.

Assimilation is forcing a new a culture onto a student whose worldview diverges from that of the culture. This is what was being done at Canada’s residential schools.

Enculturation is an attempt to bring students into a new divergent culture. This is what universities do for science students.

Autonomous Acculturation is finding ways for students to adopt a new culture under their own power. This would be like lending a student a popular science book.

Softer approaches are labeled “anthropological”, and are akin to taking a trip to the zoo. The teacher might say, “this is how scientists work”, and the students learn about scientific culture, rather than being turned into scientists.

The chess videos of Ben Finegold are a great example of enculturation. GM Finegold identifies heroes (Morphy, Carlsen), trades in quips (“never play G3”, “put it in H”), establishes values for the community (high ELO ratings, clever play), and relates the mythology of the field. The people who attend the lectures, or watch online, are submitting themselves to the enculturation provided by GM Finegold, and thus adopting the culture of chess as their own. There is little doubt that the children who attend his class (like the ubiquitous Arjen) see themselves as chess players, idolize chess grandmasters, and trade in the culture of chess.

What I am seeking to understand is how society should bring children into the culture of science. In the former Soviet Union, children went to schools that placed great emphasis on maths and the sciences: students who did well won prizes, and could be assured of successful careers within the Soviet technocratic apparatus. This is enculturation, as part of mainstream education, starting from young ages.

In the West, students who develop a love of science generally do it outside of their classes — through extracurricular activities, through popular science books and websites, or because of teachers who inspired them to continue thinking about science outside of school. This view helps to explain some of the continued disproportional representation of students from poor school districts, in spite of efforts to ensure high-quality classes for these students. These students, because of their socio-economic situations, and because of a lack of extracurricular programmes through which they can autonomously acculturate themselves to science, are less likely to adopt the culture of science as their own before the critical point of applying to university.

My question, then, is what role schools should play in connecting students with the culture(s) of science (and other cultures, like the humanities, arts, and trades). I think schools should teach using an anthropological approach, and provide plentiful opportunities for students to autonomously acculturate themselves during the course of their education. It is too much to ask that students jump wholeheartedly into a new culture every 45 minutes, but visiting new exhibits in a cultural zoo, followed by some time for students to deeply acculturate themselves via projects, and under the supervision of a cultural transmitter like Ben Finegold — now, that would be great.