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.
Application: AP Physics Wiki
I must admit I that I probably wouldn’t have tried this Wiki project if I weren’t a member of this committee. Although I’m not convinced AP scores are the best way to measure progress, it’s undeniable that they have practical importance. I already expect a great deal from my AP students and was hesitant to add on an “extra.” Especially since I didn’t see an obvious connection between the Wiki and the AP test.
After some unsuccessful brainstorming/browsing I decided use the Wiki project despite my reservations. Since the AP physics curriculum is so broad, I thought it best to use the Wiki as a review tool where each student would write an article on one of our major topics in first semester. I “stole” this idea from one of my graduate classes over the summer where we wrote a Wiki (I created most of the pages on “State of Classical Science in 1900!”)
I was pleasantly surprised by the outcomes from the Wiki project. Where I had expected students would complain when I announced the assignment, several students actually said they liked the idea (in hindsight: I think it was a nice change of pace-we don’t do a lot of writing in AP physics). Since other people could read their work it felt more real to them. They also said that summarizing/explaining major ideas helped them solidify their understanding of the challenging material that we had moved through at whirlwind speed. What had started as an “extra” had become a sustentative activity that very well might help them on the AP test.
As you can see if you check out our Wiki (please do!), the site itself is nothing fancy. Based on this unexpected success though, it’s a work in progress.
The Big Picture
When I first learned of Wiki’s in my grad school class I was impressed by the technology. However, I was more impressed by my professor. He knew what the technology was capable of and had an idea for it’s use, but he didn’t have any clue of how to edit/create pages or accomplish other technical tasks in Wikispaces. It was up to us to figure out (it is surprisingly easy to learn). Talk about really jumping into something.
Wiki’s are great because they can be written for any subject or topic. A small Wiki like we created doesn’t require any big commitments. For those interested, there is potential to create a huge interconnected web of ideas through Wiki’s.
Second semester I’m going to add a Wiki component to my freshmen physics class too. I’m planning on leaving it wide open: students will be able to write articles and add pages & physics content relevant to anything we learn. Students will have the whole semester and I will make a general rubric for assessment (you can see which members edited which pages). Finally, I’m tossing around the idea of having new physics classes build/improve/revise one constantly evolving freshmen physics Wiki. I think it will either be really successful or a complete failure. Either way it should be interesting and I will let you know how it goes (:
Media Fluency Definition
According to the 21st century fluencies blog media fluency is:
“Firstly, the ability to look analytically at any communication media to interpret the real message, how the chosen media is being used to shape thinking, and evaluate the efficacy of the message. Secondly, to create and publish original digital products”
In my own words, I think of media fluency as the natural extension of rhetoric and composition into the digital age. We need to be able to communicate electronically just as clearly, efficiently, and elegantly as we do verbally or on paper. Just as important, we must be able to see beyond the surface to evaluate the purpose, strategy, and effectiveness of other digital communications.
I just finished reading Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. The book definitely lived up to my expectations. As I was reading I’ve been putting post-its when something jumped out at me. I’ve got about 40 post-it’s on everything from creativity, 21st century learning, world history, & economics. His specific, but meandering style makes it hard to summarize his complex tapestry into a “nut shell.”
One of his threads that I was most interested in was how we use standards in education. In an era where NCLB can make or break schools, and students & parents are willing to pay thousands of dollars for ACT prep classes I don’t think many would disagree with how important tests/standards have become. Oftentimes policy makers and even educational leaders can be very shallow. I cringe when I hear leaders promote ‘raising standards.’ Robinson seems to agree:
“standards should be high….There is not much point in lowering them.” -p. #50
As Robinson points out, the more difficult questions are how do we chose good standards, what policies & teaching methods will actually help students reach them and how do we know when students meet standards? Instead of approaching standards as some sort of mythical silver bullet, Robinson takes a more objective approach. While standards will certainly be a component of 21st century learning, their current negative effects almost outweigh their value.
As science person, I obviously value the sort of reasoning, logic, & objective knowledge that standards and testing tend to emphasize. As a teacher though, the “so-called ‘soft skills’…[including] being able to understand and express personal feelings; being able to get along with other people, to communicate clearly and with empathy for the listener” (p. #175) are no less important to me. The unintentional damage standards have done to the arts & extra curricular actives is well known. I don’t believe education is a zero sum game. For students to understand physics doesn’t require they give up theater.
As Robinson points out, there’s no more reason we can’t be building interpersonal skills and creatively in physics as mathematical reasoning in art. Unfortunately, physics has this reputation for being a rule-book laden algorithmic nightmare. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even when there is only one correct answer to a question in physics (which is often not the case) there are always at least 5 unique ways to reach it. One of the standards I hope my students reach is seeing physics not as an equation list, but as an elegant puzzle.