Friday, July 24, 2015

Physics: It's Not All About the Math

Earlier in the year (or was it last year?), I had a conversation with someone (or was it a Twitter chat?) where the idea came up that when we test students in Physics, 80% (or was it 75%? or 90%?) of what we are actually testing them on is not their ability to do physics, but their ability to do math.

As you can tell, I don't remember the specifics of the conversation very well. But the idea stuck with me. How much physics am I actually asking my students to do on culminating tasks? Of course, there is a lot of applied math in Physics. But when I go back over my tests, sure enough, the majority of the time I am asking my students to perform correct algorithms, not explain the Physics behind the question.

A Lot of Math

Here's a typical question from a quiz last year:

I would hope, first and foremost, that students would read the question carefully, and figure out what they need to do and/or which equation to use, based on their knowledge of the subject matter and the information given in the problem.

But I'm not asking them to show this thinking. All I'm asking them to do is predict the height of the diving board. Showing me this, would get them full marks/Level 4+ : 

While I would give students credit for being "on the right track," even if mathematical errors prevent them from obtaining the correct answer, this, by and large, is a math question. A common major mistake on this type of question involves students not understanding either what they are given in the question or what they are being asked to do, and as a result, selecting the wrong formula to eventually apply. 

Students aren't showing me the reasoning behind choosing that formula/method, because I am not asking them to.

So now I'm re-thinking how I approach testing students on the physics. The math is still important - I don't want to get rid of that completely - but it shouldn't be the only way students can show their thinking for these types of questions. 

A New Type of Question

Here is what I would ideally like students to do:

1) DESCRIBE the procedure they would use to solve a question, 
2) ESTIMATE the solution to the question, and then...
3) PREDICT the solution the question.

Along these lines, perhaps, here is how I might rephrase the question next year: 

In part a), I'm hoping students give proper thought to how they attack the question. Will having them make their thinking visible help them choose the correct formula or recognize which algorithm to use? Do they understand that the gravitational potential energy of an object depends on three things: its mass, acceleration due to gravity, and height? And will practice communicating this reasoning help them better understand the concepts?

In part b), the multiple choice question might seem obvious, but it amazes me how many students will submit a wildly unfeasible solution (skiers accelerating downhill at 40m/s/s, a piece of metal being dropped in hot water only to end up with a lower temperature, etc.) because they are not thinking about what their answer means.

I'm hoping that a question like this will get the students thinking about what their answer is likely to be, and then recognize if their answer is wildly off. I anticipate that some students might skip over this and come back to it after they have predicted the end result (in order to get the "right" answer), but even this might help students realize if they are in the right ballpark; if their answer actually makes sense.

Part c) is basically the same as the original quiz question, asking the students to "do the math" to determine the height.

In the end, I want students to move away from blindly choosing an equation and then pushing through the math in an attempt to solve the question, thinking it is "all about the math." I also want them to make sure they know why they are choosing one method over the other, and not just because "the variables match." 

I'm hoping the focus on math will lessen over time, to be replaced with greater focus on understanding the actual physics behind the problems we solve together.

Do you teach Physics? How do you balance the physics with the math in your classes? How do you present test questions to your students? I'd love to see more ideas!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Genius Hour - Year 1

After reading Daniel Pink's Drive, and hearing about the success of passion projects from colleagues, this year I wanted to try doing Genius Hour with one of my classes. Here is how we did it!

Getting Started

Here is the document (and videos) we started with:

Topics: While a true passion project could be about any topic whatsoever, because I was trying this with a science class, I required that students choose a topic that had something to do with science. In the end, this only limited the students a tiny bit (they couldn't choose to learn how to knit, or how to play the guitar for example, UNLESS they could tie in some science).

Criteria: The only criteria we had for the "final project," was that the students had to share what they had learned throughout the semester. Throughout the project, students had to consider with whom they would be sharing (the class? the local community? the world?), and how they would be sharing
(a presentation to class?, on bristol board in the school foyer? a website to be pushed out to the world? a video to be shared with elementary schools?). The projects were not marked.

Time: We spent every Friday on our projects. Friday was our 90-minute period, so we would spend 70 minutes on research, and then 20 minutes on blogging.

Blogs: The student blogs were a chance for the students to document what they had learned during the week, pose questions and "wonders" to guide them the following week, as well as learn about what their classmates were discovering.

Then the Magic Happened

Here are the project blogs and links (where applicable) to how each student/group shared their learning:

It was great to see the students so intrinsically engaged with their projects. From reading about others' experiences, I had expected the students to be willing to put in the work (which they were), but I did not expect the change in noise level: instead of the excitement of working on whatever they wanted to elevating the overall noise level, the sheer focus of everyone in the room actually made Fridays the quietest day of the week!

As the students worked, there were a number of amazing highlights. Perhaps the most noteworthy events came because of the students' blogs:

Rough Spots

Due to job action, students were out of classes for a month in April and May. Because of this hiccough... 

  • The projects were abbreviated - some students didn't have enough time to explore their topic as deeply as they would have liked;
  • I didn't get a chance to bring in the mentors as I would have liked, providing an outside influence for the students;
  • It was tough to get back into the swing of things after the break. When one student asked if she HAD to work on her Genius Hour project, I replied "Don't you want to work on it?" She said she did, but that was months ago;
  • Several groups never completed the expectation of sharing the project, not showing up on the last day of classes to present to the group, or not getting their website finished.

The Take-Away? 

I have never seen a project foster intrinsic learning as much as this project did. Students were engaged, anxious to show me (and others) what they had learned, and more willing to try new things without teacher guidance. In one-on-one discussions with the students, I was also quite impressed with the amount of science vocabulary that snuck into the conversation! Talk about making your learning real. 

I am thankful for the ORION tablets this class received earlier in the year, as they allowed us to create and maintain our blogs as well as reach out to the world by creating websites and engaging in discussions with people outside the classroom. I am fortunate to have another grade 9 science class next year, and will certainly be doing Genius Hour with them again.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Reflections on ISTE2015

This past week, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Philadelphia and attend the annual ISTE conference for the first time. Now that I'm back, a lot of friends are asking me...

How was ISTE??

It was Huge

I am used to attending and presenting at board-wide PD days, provincial subject conferences (like STAO), and even national astronomy conferences (like CASCA). But none of that prepared me for the sheer size of ISTE. Depending who you ask, counts ranged from 14,000 to 20,000 attendees. Though I live in a rural area, I grew up in large cities so I don't often feel small-town. But here, I definitely did.

The convention centre itself was several city blocks and though I didn't have a fitbit, I imagine we were like the many participants who reported walking over 5 miles a day just back and forth through the conference.

ISTE Central in the Grand Hall:
registration, commons, the ISTE store and various booths

It took us two days to see everything in the The Expo Hall, it was so large. It was quite shocking to be wandering through the hall and then stumble upon an entire bus at one company's pavilion. And then a second entire bus further into the hall (upon reflection, the Expo Hall was on the second floor of the convention centre... how did the buses even get up there?!).

Keynote attendees lined up more than an hour in advance, and once inside the lecture hall (which was more like a giant television studio), were treated to a concert-like atmosphere, featuring ISTE's "house band" (which was the Big City All Stars from Winnipeg!). It was unlike any conference I had ever attended, and it was all very overwhelming.
Opening of the first keynote talk, with about 8,000 people in attendance

It was Humbling

With such large numbers of educators, it was a humbling experience to be a small fish in such a big pond. But it was also with whom I was attending the conference that made it a humbling experience overall. I was able to attend sessions by educational gurus such as Nicholas Provenzano (of @TheNerdyTeacher fame), Jeff Bradbury (of @TeacherCast fame), Rafranz Davis (@RafranzDavis), and Sam Patterson (@SamPatue & @WokkaPatue; unbeknownst to him, he was the first to introduce me to the power of student blogging) among others. 

My husband went to a session by, in his words, "some motivational guy" who turned out to be George Couros (!!). I passed by educators - such as @cybraryman1, @mssackstein, and @kitty_tripp - who populate my Twitter feed on a regular basis. I was more than a little starstruck (and perhaps even slightly fangirling), but it was very empowering to know that we were all at the same conference, all of us exploring and sharing the best use of technology to improve the educational experience for our students.

These are all teachers who make a big impact on my education world, and in a leadership sense, I would like to follow in their footsteps in my own way at some point. It was humbling to just be in the same room as many of them. In the end, I was too shy to go up and introduce myself, despite the encouragement received from my friends back home. Maybe next time.

So, the only "famous" person I had the courage to go say
hi to was Moby, the BrainPOP robot.

It was Comforting

Since starting this whole BYOD adventure, I've often felt like I've been the one reinventing the wheel. I know I'm not the only one trying this in my school or board, but I am one of the first to completely change my classes over to this no-lecture, all student-based style of learning on a large scale. Reaching out on Twitter, I've made many connections with Ontario teachers trying similar things, and those relationships have been invaluable.

So it was comforting to not only be surrounded by other teachers from around the world who are largely also trying new things in their school/board/district, but to also have the chance to meet with some of the educators whose journeys have crossed paths with mine, and from whom I've been able to seek feedback and encouragement over the past two years.

Meeting up with @misspollock and @rolat for the first time face-to-face.

Despite my relative anonymity moving through the conference, I did not come away from the experience feeling alone. I feel more connected, and more convinced that I am indeed moving in the right educational direction for me.

It was Inspiring

Several times throughout the conference, various speakers made reference to the fact that they were addressing very dedicated teachers - teachers that willingly give up part of their summer and spend not insignificant amounts of money to attend conferences like these in order to become better at what they do. I found it inspirational to see and hear how these other teachers were changing the game. There are a lot of people working toward bettering the education system, and it was so inspiring to be among them.

As a different source of inspiration, one particular session stood out. As "flipped gurus" Jon Bergmann (@jonbergmann) and Aaron Sams (@chemicalsams) led the audience through what they found worked when it came to flipping content, they also spoke about what they tried that didn't work. It was very motivational to hear how they dealt with their mistakes and moved on. Even these bigger names in education struggle with some of the same things I struggle with, and sometimes that alone provides me with the encouragement to keep going.

Aaron's & Jon's Flipped Classroom talk

It was Worth Repeating

It goes without saying that there was way more content at this conference than anyone could reasonably take in. There was always something to learn or someone to learn from, and I would jump at the chance to repeat the ISTE experience.

This year, I chose to focus on attending presentation sessions almost the whole time, taking meticulous notes so as to benefit the members of my TLLP team that couldn't attend. That meant, though, that I didn't get to experiment much with new tools and toys in any of the three playgrounds that were constantly on the go, hang out in the bloggers' café to take time to reflect, or visit with many of the poster sessions. While I absorbed a lot, I didn't make many personal connections, which any of these other activities would have led me to. I would definitely change that next time.

We also chose to stay further out from the conference to save on hotel costs, but if I was to attend again, I would prefer to be closer to the action in order to participate in some of the extra community activities, like the ISTE 5k run, or the Canadian ISTE gathering, or even just informal get-togethers with newly-met colleagues.

And even more so, I hope that some day I can go back as a presenter to share what I've struggled with and learned, and perhaps inspire others to try something new.

Monday, June 22, 2015

It's Not Working

Over the past couple of days in grade 9 science, as we condense the Chemistry unit to try and squeeze it in before the end of the school year, it has become clear that our current system of Learn It/Practice It/Know It is just not working. 

Students are just bashing and crashing through "what they have to do" - turning to the Internet or each other to just blatantly copy answers to tasks without even thinking about what they're doing. Only a few are making notes (or documenting their learning somehow); the majority are not even recalling the basics (difference between a proton and an electron) from one task to the next. 

Only a handful are even looking at (and considering/thinking about) the learning goals or using them to guide their learning. When students ask questions, and I respond with "what have you tried?" - the answer is becoming more and more a blank stare. While I don't mind when students work together to learn, there seems to be a LOT more occurrences of students GREATLY leaning on others to help them through.

This worries me. This unit builds through grade 10, and while all of this will be reviewed in the new school year, it would greatly beneficial to them to have a good understanding of atoms and elements, which many of them don't have.

(I should mention that some students are demonstrating an amazing mastery of the material - and it warms my heart to see it! - but they are definitely in the minority.)

Determining physical properties of unknown substances

Maybe it is because I haven't spent enough time emphasizing the learning process over the course of the semester. Or maybe it's because summer is just 3 more school days away, and they just want to get it over with. But when I get the chance to re-do this course again next year (and I will get that chance), I want to look at introducing new components to try and get away from what's currently happening... 

Determining physical properties of unknown substances

More big picture ideas? Fewer assignments? More one-on-one conversations to check learning? New self-assessments of the learning process? More self-guided choice of topics? I don't want to motivate with marks, but do I start assigning marks to "notes?" For most students right now, it's not working, and something is going to have to change.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Evolution of Giving Students Choice

Since starting out on this adventure to offer students choice in how they learn and proceed through a course, I've tried to adapt how the material is presented based on feedback from the students themselves. People taking an interest in BYOD have asked me how I format the "content lists" that I provide my students, so here is a summary of the evolution to date.

The Basic Outline

For the first year or so, in each course, I had a whole unit on one document. It was nice to have ALL the information for the unit on one page, but it was very clunky-looking, especially when accessed on phones.

I have all but abandoned this format, precisely because of the clunkiness, but I do miss having the "on-task" bar - this is a graphic I would move down the document as we progressed through the unit, indicating where the students should be time-wise. This bar really kept students on task, and helped them better manage their time.

Making it Prettier

When I started trying this with my Physics class last semester, I kept the same idea of Learn It/Practice It/Know It, but I put each learning goal on its own page. That allowed me to make it prettier overall, but also allowed me to distinguish between the different types of resources.

It wasn't as easy to see the whole unit at a glance, but I like the cleaner layout. Links to all the learning goals for the unit were found on a master page that the students had access to through the course website. I found this worked very well for my grade 11 students. 

Ideally, each learning goal (hence, each page like this) could be completed in one class, but of course that didn't always happen. Regardless of how quickly the learning goal was mastered, I found that students would tend to stop for the day when they got to the end of the page. With the previous layout, students would just roll from one learning goal to the next. Possibly because of this, I did find that the overall pace of progressing through the material slowed noticeably.

Senior Courses

For my grade 12 Data Management course, I wanted to give a little less direction when it came to looking at resources, so I changed the above format to the following:

It's a bit of a return to the original design, but I kept each learning goal on its own page. I also put what they had to hand in at the top of the page instead of at the bottom. The students would almost always start with my note to see what to focus on, and then move to other resources depending on their preference for learning, before starting the assignment or practice questions.

The Bigger Concepts

In grade 9 general science, I found it wasn't as easy to break the content down into stand-alone learning goals, so I sorted the learning goals into lessons, each designed to take more than one class to master. 

I provided MUCH more structure for the younger students, who tended to always jump right to "what-needs-to-be-handed-in" before even watching videos or reading up on the material. This class also struggled with documenting any of their learning, so more instructions were included on how to approach a new topic, take "notes," etc.

While I love the more visual layout the tables provide (that idea came from @MrHoggsClass), I dislike how cluttered the page is becoming again with the extra instructions and support. 

It doesn't help that this is a large class, and it feels like the best way to get information/instructions out to the students is to put everything on the page everyone will read. Or hopefully read. I think they tend to gloss over most of it, and they still try and jump right to the assignments.


As I'm turning my thoughts to a new school year, I'm looking to improve on what I've experimented with so far. 
What do you think? 
Which of these appeals to you? 
Which would appeal to your students? 
Is there another format I can consider? 
If you do something like this in your class, how do you set things up? 
I'd love to hear your feedback!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Saving Courses: Bringing eLearning to Life

Last spring, my school made the decision to not offer the grade 12 college-stream physics course for the 2014-2015 school year, due to lack of enrolment. We are a smaller school, and it is not unheard of that a handful of courses get cancelled every year.

It is becoming increasingly harder to offer a full spectrum of senior courses because of our shrinking size, particularly grade 12 courses. Many students already have to take the Calculus and Vectors course online or by correspondence, and many other grade 12 courses are only offered every other year. 

So I decided to try something new. I offered to run a university/college split senior physics class. The total number of students would still be below provincial class limits (30), and while my principal gave me one of those "you're crazy" looks when I suggested it, she allowed me to try.

While split classes are not new, at the secondary level, it is usually done when two courses have very similar curricula. The expectations and success criteria for each course can be adjusted, but in general, all students still learn the same content.

With Physics, however, the grade 12 college-stream class is an introduction to Physics, more akin to the grade 11 Physics class. The grade 12 university-stream class is the continuation of that grade 11 course. As a result, the two courses I offered to combine are nearly impossible to teach simultaneously (hence the "you're crazy" look from my principal!).

Banner for the SPH4U course

Enter blended learning

I decided to rely entirely on the Ministry of Education's resources, already provided in the provincial eLearning system. My students are, essentially, working as though they were eLearning students, but with one big exception: we are all working in the same room together.

With the content and assessment provided, students can work through the material at mostly their own pace, and I am free to move throughout the classroom, helping students from either course who need it. Students are also encouraged to work together if they like, to help master the material.

Logistically, from a teaching point of view, this is an ideal solution: the students get the course they need, and I am relieved from doing two sets of prep for the same period. There were, however, some issues that I didn't anticipate:

Given a choice, students would rather do simulated labs rather than real "hands-on" labs. I assumed students would be glad to get off the computer and interact with each other when given the chance, but instead they would often just run through the simulations and plunk the numbers into a data table without thinking. This class ended up being much less social than I anticipated. Some teachers might welcome a less social class, but things were too often too quiet. I would have liked to have seen more "buzz" in the classroom.

The assessment and evaluation is tricky. Not only am I dealing with two sets of curricula/assignments, but also some work being done digitally and some on paper. On top of that, the digital work was divided up between the dropbox, the discussion board and the quiz tool. I found it very hard to stay on top of it all. Having the students keep track of what they had handed in on a digital tracking board helped us better keep track of who-handed-what in, but I often fell WAY behind in my marking.

Discussion boards are rarely used. Since the students see and talk with each other in class, one of the main purposes of the discussion boards (to connect the students with each other and the teacher) is unnecessary. We occasionally used the boards instead as "bulletin boards," where the students could post examples of their work. 

Students are reluctant to do any work outside of the classroom. Even with access to the eLearning content 24/7, most students only signed in during class time, and several fell quite behind throughout the semester because they would not do any work at home. I don't know if there's a different mental approach to "paper" work vs. digital work, but the students' reluctance to work at home surprised me. As a result, timing of the course got thrown way off.

Banner for the SPH4C course

Plans for Next Year

I've been given the go-ahead to continue with this split class again next year, once again saving at least one of the senior physics courses from being cut. Based on my experiences this year, I'll be changing things up a bit.

I will replace many of the simulated labs with actual labs in an effort to get the students more involved physically, as well as stimulate more creativity and critical thinking (particularly when it comes to taking error into consideration).

I miss the very hands-on nature of the college-level course from previous years (launching rockets, building machines involving hydraulic systems, ripping apart electronics). I'm hoping to return to this style of class through the use of rich assessment tasks embedded in the eLearning curriculum.  

At the end of this semester, I started to use a Google Form to track student progress through informal conversations in class, and this is definitely something I'll be continuing next year. I found this to be an effective way for me to stay on top of where each student was in the course, as well as provide a record of a conversation for assessment. It also provided a source of motivation to the students because they knew that I was keeping on top of them and their progress. 

In order to allow students to assess themselves more easily throughout the unit (easing my formal marking load), I'd like to have more solution sets available at the end of quizzes, and answers on any computational problems ready in advance. I'm still torn on how best to track digital vs. handwritten work, but this will allow me to reduce the number of items being handed in overall.

Being able to offer a wide variety of courses - and offer the most pathways to the students - is only going to get harder over time as our school continues to shrink. By taking advantage of students' access to technology, I'm hoping to continue to make improvements in how multiple courses can be offered during one period of class time. I would love to hear other suggestions on how to best approach split courses!

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Role of the Teacher

This is something I've been mulling over for a couple of weeks now, but after reading Jonathan So's post Is Our Job as a Teacher Obsolete?, I wanted to try and get my thoughts down on virtual paper. My immediate answer to the title question was obvious, but it turns out I was more conflicted than I thought.

Let's start with a bit of an exercise: When you picture a teacher, what do you imagine? Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine it one step further: when you picture the ideal super teacher, what (or who) does that look like?

If you're like me (and I freely admit to this), I immediately picture students sitting quietly, pencils down as they *listen* to the super teacher engage them with a well-spun story linking various aspects of the curriculum. He or she is paused in the middle of a note, and explaining the connection between something tangible and something obscure, the discussion interspersed with both humour and little factoids that you know the students will take with them and share with friends and parents before the day is over.

The hour-long class just flies by because the students are genuinely interested in what the teacher is saying, engaged in the lesson, and inspired to solve the world's problems. Throughout, the students are in the palm of that teacher's hand not because they're forced to be, but because of their respect for the teacher and the (sometimes hard-won) love of the subject.

Taken from
For a long time, this was the teacher I aspired to be. If someone was to ask me how a class went, I would usually base it on how well the note went. And every now and then, when giving a note, things would fall into place just right, and I would feel a little like that super teacher. Super teacher equaled super content delivery system. It's not just me - I think a lot of people have the same idea when it comes to teaching, and teaching well.

In this lens, it troubles me, then, to think about what I've been doing lately. I've been trying really hard over the past two years to change the focus of learning in my classroom away from me and toward my students. In fact, this semester, I haven't given a single lecture-style note in any of my classes.

I am a firm believer in letting my students choose their own adventures, letting them dictate the pace of learning and having them struggle a bit before pointing toward the answer. My students are getting better at finding their own way through the material, discovering new ways of learning, and sharing what they know in innovative ways. They are learning less from me and more from the world around them. My stories are told one-on-one or in small groups, and I am no longer the centre of attention.

My students are becoming better "21st Century learners," and I feel I am becoming a better teacher overall. Yet I look nothing like the super teacher in my imagination. And that imaginary class I mentioned looks nothing like my noisy, scattered (some may say chaotic) grade 9 science class, where there are any of five different activities on the go and students literally all over the room.

Taken from
There's a stereotype that we, as a society (including myself), need to change. School is changing; we're making school different. The traditional role of the teacher is changing too. We are no longer just put in a classroom to deliver content. We facilitate, encourage, inquire, model, assist, guide, clarify, reflect, demonstrate and walk around, talking with students constantly.

The sage-on-the-stage may indeed be becoming obsolete (though one could easily argue that there is still a place for this in education), but the role of a teacher is certainly not. At least not the way I hope to move forward.