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Action Research Complete!

For the past year, three other physics teachers and I have been investigating how explicitly teaching an expert-like approach in problem solving affects students in a modeling based physics classroom. We presented our findings Friday July 20th at Arizona State University and our report is, at last, complete!

We didn’t find anything groundbreaking. Unlike many larger/more popular educational innovations, our conclusions are conservative. Although we believe what we did has the potential to be beneficial to some students, we don’t claim it’s a silver bullet. In fact, we found that for students who didn’t build a strong conceptual understanding in physics, our explicit emphasis on problem solving was not beneficial.

Few people will likely be interested in reading our entire paper (it’s quite long!), but some may be interested in selected parts. I’ve posted our paper, Effects of Emphasizing Intentional Problems Solving here.

Here is our abstract:

Students begin their education in physics as novice problems solvers. Instead of carefully defining a problem, using qualitative models, and planning a method of solution, students often immediately attempt to find the answer to the problem. The result of this lack of methodical approach is that students are not only unable to solve problems, they are unsure of even the basic steps that lead toward solutions. Previous research has shown that intentionally teaching expert-like strategies increases students’ problem solving ability. Other studies have found that Modeling Instruction improves students’ expert-like problem solving ability. This study was initiated to evaluate the impact on students’ problem solving skills through teaching explicit problem solving strategies in addition to Modeling Instruction. There was no conclusive evidence that the gains from the two methods were additive; however, this approach was reported to be beneficial by study participants. There was substantial evidence that without a solid conceptual understanding, expert-like problem solving ability was limited.

Global Achievement Gap Part 3: Assessment

Wagner introduces several new kinds of assessments that schools should consider to better evaluate the kind of 21st century skills we want our students to have and the skills we want our teachers to have as well. Here are a sample of a few to consider. Even if teachers don’t administer this particular test, I think it could still be useful as a model for how to write our own tests. 

The CWRA test for college readiness: 

I like the real life task element of this test as well the use of multiple documents that students must synthesis.


The ETS iskills Test:

Focuses on technology skills students will need to use in a variety of daily tasks at most any job.



What other ways have you modified assessment to match the new skills/lessons you’ve incorporated into your 21st century classroom?

Standards Based Grading

I heard an interesting presentation/discussion from one of my classmates on standards based grading (SBG) today. I’ve heard people mention the term before, but I previously didn’t know what it meant in the classroom. The idea sounds fairly neat, although it also sounds like a lot of work. Essentially instead of grading students on points, students are assessed on targeted standards each unit. Unfortunately the devil is really in the details for SBG & it’s hard to explain those on a blog.

Right now, it doesn’t sounds like there are strong resources for modeling physics teachers and SBG. I think that will improve rapidly. For now though, I don’t think investing in SBG is time-effective.

How to Use Video Game Tactics in the Classroom

Science teacher Paul Anderson describes his attempt to make his classroom experience more like that of a video game, with constant feedback, self-directed learning, and failure that leads to discovery rather than disappointment.

The lessons he learns along the way, that kids inherently want to be social, and that they will tend to skim or skip reading big blocks of text, are important ones to consider as we prepare to go 1:1.

Check it out!

Blogging with Research

Here is a short blog/article written by a modeler about 21st century learning & the workplace. One of the things Carmela does that I think is super important is cite research. I think 21st century learning needs to be research and data driven.

Global Achievement Gap Part Two:Pros and Cons of Digital Age Learning

In chapter five of his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner outlines characteristics of students who have grown up using the web and how it effects the ways they relate to each other, how they are motivated, and the effect on their learning styles.  For each of these there are both positive and negative impacts which need to be considered.

  1. Multitasking

Watch students at work and you’ll see them navigate three browser windows while listening to music and building a prezi. This continuous partial attention can be viewed positively by focusing on the continuous attention  or negatively by focusing on the partial aspect. If they are not fully focused on any one thing, the quality of the work suffers. There is less time spent reflecting on decisions. Studies have also shown that multitasking  contributes to a more stressful lifestyle.

2. Constantly Connected

Students have a variety of tools to help them communicate with people all over the world. But interacting online has also led to cyberbullying.

3. Instant Gratification & Speed of Light

Living in a world where data can be transferred instantly means students learn faster response times, but it they also have become less patient and more demanding and less able to interact face to face.

4. Learning through multimedia

Students receive information now through more than just text on paper. Video, websites, databases—the options are endless. But just because students are surrounded by media doesn’t necessarily mean they are media literate. They still don’t know how to think critically about what they are consuming.

5. Learning as discovery

Engaging in a web search, clicking one link which leads to another which leads to another is the new nonlinear, more active way of discovering information. Students are more willing to try something and see where it goes and discover what works and what doesn’t by trial and error. But much like the multimedia learning above, evaluation of the information being received is not always a top priority. In addition, “the desire to constantly ‘do’ and interact often comes at the expense of contemplation and reflection—essential aspects of both learning and growth”(184).

6. Learning by creating

Students are no longer limited to just consuming knowledge that someone else gives them (aka lecture style) but can create and share their own knowledge with others. But quality is often compromised as students struggle to discern between what makes for good or bad creations.

But just because each of these new digital age characteristics have problems attached to them, doesn’t mean technology should be rejected. In the end, it is ultimately our role as teachers to help students practice more of the positive sides of each of these new digital age learning strategies and avoid the negative. As Wagner puts it,

“younger generations have enormous potential either to become lost in an endless web of fantasy and entertainment or to use their skills with these new technologies to make significant contributions to our society as learners, workers and citizens. What is needed to tip the balance to the positive is an older generation that better understands what drives the younger generation and has learned how best to harness and focus its energies” (187).

Global Achievement Gap, Part One

In Tony Wagner’s book Global Achievement Gap (2008), Wagner argues that there is a gap in American education between what the best schools are teaching and what students really need to learn in order to succeed in the 21st century. In chapter one, he outlines the seven survival skills employers look for in the 21st century that schools should be teaching. They are…

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

2. Collaboration

3. Agility and Adaptability

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

5. Effective Oral and Written Communication

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information

7. Curiousity and Imagination

As I was reading the descriptions of each of these traits, I couldn’t help but think of lots of examples I’ve seen or heard from my colleagues which I would classify as encouraging these traits. So rather than starting the discussion with the ways in which we are failing to teach these skills, (which I’m guessing is what the rest of the book focuses on) I thought it would be interesting to open the conversation online by asking people to submit the ways they teach these traits in their classrooms.  How do you foster an environment of creativity and independence? How do you get students to ask good questions and work together? 

information fluency: judging a book by its cover…a good thing?

Information fluency is the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information. Now that we are at the end of the year, I am not so surprised at my kindergartners abilities.

We were studying animals (of all habitats) and classified them by land, water, and or air animals. The question about jungle animals became popular and intriguing. My students wanted to know exactly which animals do live in a jungle. Some of them were surprised to know that there are zoo animals that come from the jungle! Before we were able to gather that information, the students had a research journey!

A boy remembered that we read a cool book on animals, so the class thought that this book would give all the answers to our questions about jungle animals. Once the kids looked over the book, they decided it wasn’t a good choice. They quickly commented on the cartoon-like pictures, which told them it may not be real information. Then, a girl remembered an app she used on the iPad. Once she checked out the iPad, she realized it had tons of animals and that it didn’t give information about jungle animals. After a few more books to check out, a child finally shouted, “Hey, let’s go on the internet!” This was the first time my students actually asked and needed my help, (I was impressed with the sense of solution fluency happening so far!) and so I helped them by typing on google while they watched on the SmartBoard. Since we had found so many cartoon-like pictures and books about all kinds of animals, they helped pick out the words we needed to use to search with. I displayed my best digital citizenship by making sure we had no inappropriate search results for these young eyes!

My kindergarteners quickly identified the best resources online by noticing “real” photographs of animals along with text about the jungle specifically. I found it very interesting that the process of elimination of our resources ended up being based how everything “looked”. Was it pretty? Was it cartoon-like? Once we started finding real information, they were able to call it the “real deal” because they could see actual photographs that were taken, and assumed the text with it was true also.

Information Fluency by definition involves a process, and I feel my students (without my direction) went through the process. They asked good questions and went through a fun series of resources to access and acquire information. Each resource found was analyzed by the students based on its “looks”…which, at 6 years old, is a good first step! They applied the information they got with each resource to help them find the next. We then assessed as a whole group the good information we found. I found it most interesting to see how they judged the resource and used their words to explain how useful or not the information would be. Such good learners I have! I think this is a very healthy and developmental stage of the learning process for this age. I was impressed with the initial demonstration of information fluency the kindergartners displayed.

Solution Fluency: The Cambridge Card Trick Challenge

“This is very stressful!” “We don’t have enough information!” “This is heartbreaking!” “This sucks; I wanna know so bad!”

These were the sounds that filled the classroom the day I introduced a lesson on solution fluency. The problem they were being asked to solve was to determine how I did a card trick. Before we began though, we brainstormed on the board examples of problems they had faced in the past and overcome(learning to tie my shoes, building a catapult in my backyard, passing my driving test, etc.) and what strategies they used to overcome said problem (got help from someone, kept trying and trying, studied and practiced). Armed with the successes of the past, I split them into pairs and gave each pair a deck of cards. They were given 20-25 minutes to solve the problem. While they worked (I informed them that I would not be giving them assistance), I walked around observing and recording. I noticed some roadblocks that prevented some students from preserving through problem solving:

1) Perceived predisposed weakness. When I told students that this card trick was taught to me by a Cambridge math professor, and that there was a math equation that showed how it worked, one girl said with dismay, “Oh, Math! I’m out!” She believed that because she wasn’t a “math person”, she wouldn’t be able to succeed. (yet interestingly enough, she was the first of all my students to solve the trick!).

2) Lack of creativity.  Since the first part of the trick involves flipping cards over face up, when I saw one student flipping cards over face down, I intervened and reminded him that the trick won’t work if he flips the cards over that way. He stopped and stared at me incredulously, arguing, “But how else can I flip them? There’s no other way!” The inability to see something in a new light prevented him from moving forward. This reminded me of how linked all the fluencies are (creativity fluency, where are you? We need you now!) Strategies attempted were very limited and mostly involved guessing the card at random over and over again and puzzling over why it wasn’t working. On the flip side though, I did hear a few choruses of “Let’s try it again and see”, while students tried one different strategy after another such as “thinking about the trick backward” “look on YouTube”or “find a pattern”.

3) Other people’s success. Often when one pair/student was successful at solving the problem, it led to a general decline in other students’ willingness to keep trying. Many pairs just quit completely at that point. One student wrote on the follow up survey to this experience that the most frustrating part of the whole thing was “not getting the answer when other people were”. Rather then seeing their peers’ success as an invigorating indicator that the task was indeed achievable, students tended to view it with a “game over” mentality, as in a video game where one player wins and ends the game for everyone else.

Overall, this experience reaffirmed what I already knew: students need more practice solving problems in an environment where it is okay to fail and try again. An environment where the teacher doesn’t rush in to “help” all the time but patiently let’s them squirm till they find their way out of an uncomfortable yet productive place of uncertainty and into a solution they found, rather than one we delivered to them.

Media Fluency: Schoolhouse Rock has Lied to Us!

This week we’ve been practicing our media fluency skills by spending two days watching documentaries and answering questions on a viewing guide before, during, and after viewing. I thought the lesson was over and was ready to move on to a grammar review I’ve done in the past using Schoolhouse Rock clips. Again, there was a viewing guide that went with it. For the first three clips I wasn’t asking them to challenge the information they were receiving. It was pretty much just information gathering which we would later apply to a part of speech exercise. But then I threw the a curve ball to see if the two previous days of media fluency emphasis had made a difference. I showed them the clip “Verb: That’s What’s Happening” (1974) but prefaced it with the following information on the viewing guide:

According to The Little Brown Handbook, “Verbals are special verb forms such as smoking or …to win that can function as nouns (smoking is dangerous) or as modifiers (the urge to win)” (245). In other words, if it is in the infinitive form (to____) or ends with an -ing, it is NOT functioning as the verb of the sentence but rather a noun or an adjective. With that in mind, note any errors you find in the following cartoon meant to teach children what a verb is. What is the cartoon actually teaching?

Having warned them beforehand that the following clip was going to be delivering them incorrect information, and after going through what verbals were with them, I was surprised at how many students still failed to pick up on the errors in the video (posted below for your nostalgic viewing pleasure).

Only 24 out of 64 students identified the errors in the clip (using infinitives and gerunds as verbs). And of those 24 students, only one student recognized that what was actually being taught was verbals, not verbs. If a three minute clip from the 70s featuring an animated superhero misleading children about verbs can still outweigh a warning from the teacher and a printout stating the correct information, how much more work must we do to get students to analyze what they are viewing and not take everything at face value? And what happens when there’s more at stake then a grammar mistake?