Laura Lawrence- Asheville School Science Instructor and Director of Professional Development
What am I missing? This was the nagging question I asked myself a few years ago during the exam review week in my introductory physics course when my students asked me to fully explain and show how a team wins a tug-of-war contest (something I was asked to do every year during this time). I was discouraged because they had been exposed to and tested on their knowledge of the physics responsible for this concept more than seven times throughout the year. Yet, when preparing for the exam, they could not construct an answer for it. Reflecting on our course, it appeared as though all the pieces were in place. I was satisfied that my students succeeded on the assessments, engaged in labs and discussions, and connected the concepts to their world. I was happy that the students didn’t have to ask, “Why are we learning this?” because the course was designed with relevance in mind. Our classroom was flipped; the kids wrote blogs and made videos, produced their own review sheets, and collaborated on some engineering projects. My administrative observations and student feedback were overwhelmingly positive. Based on these measures I considered the course successful, yet I felt I was missing something, and I wondered if there was something deeper that we should be doing together.
It was at this moment that I decided to re-evaluate what I hoped my students would be able to do by the end of the year. I wanted them to develop the skills of a scientist: to analyze data, to build models they could use to solve problems and draw conclusions. I hoped that they would develop curiosity about the world around them, and have the tools and skills to demonstrate and explain natural phenomena. I envisioned that they would develop the habits of mind to approach difficult problems and then justify their solutions with evidence. Ultimately, I hoped that our time together would provide a transformative learning experience that challenged their mental models of their world and would change the way they thought, felt, acted (Bain, 2004). By doing this, they would be able to transfer what they learned beyond our classroom, in terms of content understanding, inquiry, and self-directed learning skills. If these were my measures of success, I realized that my current course fell short in meeting them. Sure they could memorize an answer for a test but when asked to transfer this understanding to a similar problem, they didn’t have to tools to accomplish the task. As I dug a little deeper I realized the tug-of-war experience was simply the first of many concepts the students couldn’t transfer.
As I started looking for a different direction, I found that the goals of the American Modeling Teachers Association’s science curriculum more closely aligned with the ones that I had identified as priorities for my students. I decided to give it a try and thought it was going to be a fairly easy switch. I was already doing many of the labs and leading student discussions. We started collecting data on day one, and the students got to analyze data, find patterns, and talk like scientists every day. The whiteboard discussions were engaging and I loved getting to know the kids better because I got to listen more because I was talking less.
The switch was much more difficult than I anticipated. It required halving the content we covered, archiving the flipped videos, and scrapping the engineering projects. I found that helping students learn to demonstrate that they can transfer their understanding fluidly between multiple scenarios was a much tougher task than asking them to answer questions I had taught them to answer. I had to learn to be able ask probing questions that helped students realize and learn from their own misconceptions, and that the feedback I gave had to be focused on the overarching themes rather than how to answer a specific problem. For example, when reviewing a student solution, I had to learn to ask them if their models (diagrammatic, mathematical, graphical, etc) all told the same story, or if they could justify their conclusion based on laws, models, or lab evidence. Even the purpose of homework had to be changed. Each homework assignment became opportunity for the students to practice and get feedback on learning how to learn, and I had to carefully scaffold the assignments so that the students didn’t give up and leave answers blank. I was not prepared for how difficult these self-directed learning skills would be for students to learn and put into practice. I was caught off guard by seeing more students struggling in my course than I was accustomed to – so much so that I felt a strong tug in the opposite direction we were moving and almost abandoned the endeavor.
Before moving in the direction of this tug, I returned to my new goals and measured progress toward them. I noted that 80% of the students were able transfer their understanding and solve new problems on assessments rather than being able to only answer ones they had seen and practiced before. Perhaps most strikingly, this group could produce an explanation for the very tug-of-war question that had haunted me in previous years; almost every kid (even the struggling ones) was able to support their solution with an accurate model. I was amazed that every kid who had earned above a B on the test for constant acceleration was able to make accurate predictions about the motion of an object that was thrown straight up. I used to spend over two weeks showing the students step by step how to do this, and here I was looking at almost every fall exam with correct solutions for these problems I hadn’t shown them how to do once. In each of these situations I observed that the kids could transfer and apply their understanding to new scenarios, and that they had the tools and skills to approach new challenges. I also noticed that I was able to differentiate instruction in ways I had not before. The accelerated students could use opt out of review assignments to solve bonus challenges, try out AP Physics questions, or build computational models of motion and interactions. Others could spend time reviewing to fill in the gaps in their understanding. These insights pulled me back to my commitment to stick with the change.
Throughout the second semester as we got better at learning at a deeper more transferable level and celebrating the process rather than achievement, more of the kids were successful on the lab and written assessments. We continued to work to shift from focusing on knowledge of concepts to instead using the tools we were learning to analyze and solve problems. We got better at asking good probing questions in our discussions and lab analysis, and we got comfortable with making our thinking visible as we struggled with challenging problems together.
The exam preparation that year was much different than in previous years. The review packet was difficult in that each solution required several steps and multiple models. I was worried that it might be too difficult and they would be frustrated. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The questions were just hard enough to stretch them and build their confidence for the final exam, and I wasn’t asked to show them how to build a model for any scenario. In fact, the kids approached me with alternate approaches to the problems. The circle was now complete. I went from spending a week re-teaching material so they could memorize it for the exam, to seeing students getting to use models to solve interesting problems, justify their conclusions with data, and engage in a sophisticated dialogue with me and each other. In a final reflection, a student who had been struggling for three quarters of the year only to end by earning an A on a challenging final exam, wrote:
“Physics has always been difficult for me that is at least until I changed my outlook on learning. For me, problem solving use to be a thing I dreaded, however now I feel that it is something one should be excited about. Problem solving is taking risks and applying new methods of learning so that you can ultimately grow as an individual. My skills have developed more as a problem solver in this class than any other I’ve ever taken. I went form a confused, skeptical student to one that was eager to take risks and apply myself, even if my answer was not always right. I went from allowing myself to struggle through the class to coming in after classes or during spring break to make sure I fully grasped the concepts. Not only did I open my outlook on learning but I saw a part of myself become extremely curious and motivated to learn physics and I deeply wanted to understand the concepts, a shift from my original thinking.”
This student’s mindset about learning dramatically changed through her physics experience. She moved from using strategies that most likely would have worked in my old course, to developing new skills, including a growth mindset, the ability to learn from feedback, and an eagerness to learn more.
When reflecting on the year, there was a clear winner in my own internal tug-of-war battle. I realized that my old course had a case of “about-itis” and was a nice museum course. We would go to different exhibits, play around the with materials, and learn about the underlying principles that guided each scenario. Then we would go on to a new exhibit which loosely connected previous one. Most people love visiting museums just as most kids liked my old course. However, it was easy for a kid to hide their misconceptions and be able to get a good grade without learning physics on a transferable level. I realized that the main learning strategy a student needed in my old course to be successful was a sophisticated way of memorizing that looked like it worked better than it did because the students could answer the questions on my tests. Now, memorization became simply the first step in understanding how the tools we were learning worked so that they could use them to represent scenarios and solve problems. This is what I was missing. I needed to help the students learn to be the curators of the museum rather than engaged participants. My measure of success needed to switch from analyzing what the kids are doing and learning about, to one that assesses their growth, mastery, and ability to transfer their understanding on authentic assessments.
This experience makes me wonder about the value of this deep level of learning. Had I not taken the risk to measure my student’s success based on different criteria and then actually looked at my course through that lens, my students and I would most likely be playing the same game: I tell them something, they tell it back to me and thus pass the test with questions I taught them how to answer, and we all agree that they learned physics. Our teachers get a lot of confirming evidence that this game of school is a viable model. How are our students’ mindset, inquiry, and critical-thinking skills changing after engaging in transformative learning experiences, and what is the value of this growth? How do we measure the value of students revealing their misconceptions and allowing themselves to actively construct their understanding of the content at a deeper and more sophisticated level? What are the effects of our students developing more internalized and independent inquiry and questioning skills that can be used in a myriad of ways beyond our courses? How can teachers who are facilitating these kind of learning experiences collectively measure student growth and mastery through transfer? How do we ultimately use this information to help teachers, schools, and districts identify what might be missing?