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Collaborative Fluency: Lab Practica

Application: Lab Practica

In order to compliment our written tests, I’ve been experimenting with a lab test or lab practica. In many ways, the lab practica is an opposite to the written test. Where the written test is solitary, the practica depends on a team effort (students earn team grades). Where the written test rewards theoretical knowledge, the lab practica is as much an engineering challenge as a theoretical one. In the practica, strong laboratory skills, construction aptitude, common sense and interpersonal skills are critical to success. Surprisingly, the students who do the best on the written tests often have the most trouble with the practicas.

One simple example of a lab practica I have used pits students against two different battery powered cars. Students must predict where the cars will collide starting from arbitrary starting positions. Each group is able to use an array of tools to come up with any of many ways to predict where the cars collide. However they can’t manipulate both cars at once. When they are ready to test, they roll a dice to determine where each car will start and then have three minuets to use their solution method to predict the collision point and run the test.

Lab practicas are always intense class periods. With a significant portion of the lab practica grade relying solely on the accuracy of the predicted result for the single test, everyone usually gathers around the group who is about to test. Many groups will accurately predict results within 3% or less. Others are wildly off. Many times the smallest detail is responsible for huge errors – not unlike the NASA rocket that blew up because engineers forgot to convert English units to SI units.

Although students sometimes stress over practicas (uncertainty is inherent), I think they are very powerful. I rarely see students more focused then during a practica. All those soft skills suddenly become important – and students know it. Working together on something that matters to everyone is a huge team builder for physics groups.

The Big Picture

Although the lab practica format is specific to science, the larger idea of creating a real world performance based group test is applicable anywhere. I think there is hesitation about grading based on performance (outside of established performance-based subjects like the arts, speech, & foreign language) Additionally, having students earn grades as a group instead of individuals presents some obstacles. With care, I think both of these concerns can be managed to a reasonable level. And ultimately, adults are almost exclusively evaluated on performance instead of knowledge. Additionally, and especially in the future, team performance is often just as important as individual performance. It’s not perfectly fair, but then no one said it would be.

Out of Our Minds: Standards & Creativity

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.