Category Archives: Reflections

Be The Nudge

A student hands in a paper a week late, and the next few moments could define the rest of their life. The teacher turns to the student and says

Senario 1

“I knew you could do it! I’m proud of you for getting this done. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can and we’ll look at revisions to make it even better. As you know, the next paper is due at the end of next week; how are you doing on that one? Let’s work together this week to make sure you can get that one done on time.”

Senario 2

“This was due a week ago, I can’t accept it now,” and turns back to their computer.

Senario 3

*rolls eyes* “You have quite the nerve to turn this in this late; I’ll accept this one, but no more. Why can’t you ever get anything in on time?”

Which of these situations is most likely to help the student move forward? In which case do you think they are most likely to turn in future papers on time?

I’m currently working with some students in a math course designed to help them be ready for the next course despite prior failings. I had a conversation with a student and his family yesterday where I was able to convince them that 1) I cared that they succeeded in the course, 2) that I want them to actually learn the material to be ready for the future, to ensure that more opportunities are opened for them as they progress in education and life, and 3) that I would support them in their progress. That student went on to complete two formative and two summative assessments within a few hours after that conversation, after completing only one during the rest of distance learning. They emailed me 10-15 times and watched a number of clarifying videos I sent.

This was a student who needed to be shown support.

Students not completing work is frustrating, and having stacks of makeup work can be seriously overwhelming; I have seen no evidence, however, that zero-tolerance late work policies actually help students improve. Instead of doing better next time they simply lose hope.

One of the primary functions of our job is to inspire hope.

It is my hope that this hard time of pandemic shows us all that the support we are willing to extend because of calamity should be extended each and every day; that we should be supporting students, not shaming them; that we as educators can be the nudge that pushes them forward rather than the scoff that holds them back.

How else can we be the nudge rather than the scoff?

Making Homework Work for My Students

Homework seems to be a perpetually debated topic in education circles. I’ve written about homework before, (and that post contains links at the end to some great reads on the subject), and this is really the “Where are they now” post a couple of years later. After thinking through how homework can work better for students and teachers, I got the chance to implement a new policy alongside a course I started last year, AP Physics C. I’ll now be expanding it to another course for next year, a college-at-my-school course similar to AP Physics 1.

So here’s the gist; @LCCTA tweeted last year about an interesting homework policy and I modified it for my purposes. I wrote this description that I passed around twitter for feedback, then I implemented it during the 16-17 school year. In summary, the policy goes something like this;

  • student does something to try to improve learning of physics outside of class (and there’s some choice built into those somethings)
  • student documents that something
  • student submits documentation and gives themselves a homework score

My primary reason for this policy is to extend an emphasis on learning (rather than answers) from my classroom to homework, and I think that was moderately successful.

Students responded well to the policy, based on the end of year survey;

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The comments indicated the students appreciated the flexibility and choice.

All that said, there were a couple of things I’d like to improve on. First, allowing students to submit a variety of media as evidence, including videos showing the work they had done, proved too cumbersome for me. A student flipping through pages in their notebook is difficult for me to actually look at, as it turns out (who’d of thought?). The new policy will ask them all to simply submit a Google Doc template including pictures of their work (all our students have Macbooks so this is not really an equity issue for our school).

Then there were a few students who just watched videos; I’ve made it more clear in version 2.0 that problem solving must be at least part of each check.

I’ve added a table for students to actually keep track of when they work and what they do; valuable information for all of us. Along with this I added a requirement to space out the work they do; cramming for 5 hours the night it’s do is anti-the point.

Finally, I’ve made a reflection portion that’s more specific, asking students what helped them, what they still have to work on, and what questions they have.

I’ve shared a draft of the Google doc template here, which includes all of the above changes alongside some things that have stayed the same from version 1.0.

I’m still conflicted to some extent about grading. I’m fairly certain at my school there will be too many students who prioritize other graded homework over studying physics if it’s not worth a grade at all, so last year I compromised by making homework a small, 10%, category. I’m certainly open to ideas on this.

I feel like I’m getting closer to the policy I’d like to have, but would love your feedback; please comment here or chat me up on twitter (@rutherfordcasey).



Choosing to Engage

I have Franco* in a course I’m teaching for the first time this year, Foundations of Physics. FoP was designed to help students who really struggle with math and reading, identified by test scores, to earn their required Minnesota physics or chemistry credit. It’s a below grade level class filled with students who largely have been unsuccessful in school in the past, and is certainly has an overrepresentation of students of color**. Franco has to some extent been a thorn in my side. He’s boisterous, distracts other students, and won’t stay in one place. He’s also demonstrated that he’s very bright, and he has a great sense of humor.

Earlier in the year I mentioned that we were going to perform a lab over again, and Tahvo* stood up and said “Another one!” Franco was among the students laughing; clearly this was a thing. I ignored it and moved on. A few days later it happened again, then again a few days after that. Finally I asked about it. “Just Google ‘DJ Kahled'” they told me, snickering. Turns out it’s a short clip that’s fairly mild (I expected way worse) that has become a meme. So here’s the thing; I could have assumed they were laughing at me. I could have reacted. By engaging in conversation instead, we’ve now gotten to the point where ‘another one’ is a class meme. It’s helped build culture in my classroom.

Another time Franco put an ear bud in my ear; it was NWA, which I recognized (I grew up listening to NWA, Easy-E, and Dre, coming back now with Straight Outta Compton). I’m not immersed in hip-hop culture now, but I can certainly have a conversation with kids and show a bit of interest. When they put in their earbuds, I can engage with them rather than react against them.

Today after class Franco was one of the last ones out the door so I stopped him.

“Hey, what’s your plans after school?”

“I don’t know…I gotta figure that out I guess.”

“Yeah, well, you got a lot of potential. You could do something really great. You just gotta figure out what that thing is.”

“Dang, you don’t hear that from many people.”

You don’t hear that from many people. Meaning, most people have written Franco off and he knows it. He’s been unsuccessful for undoubtably a variety of reasons. But he’s still a kid, and he still deserves to be believed in. I can engage in his positives, rather than react to the negatives. I can choose to engage.

*None of the student names in this story are their real names. 

**I’m happy that our school district is working hard to correct this, both by ending below-grade level courses except for those required for students to graduate off their IEP (including this being the last year of FoP), and by implementing an Excellence in Equity team to find solutions for our students we have traditionally failed to help. 

On Personalized Learning

The term “Personalized Learning” has rubbed me the wrong way for quite some time. Admittedly this likely stemmed from stories like how Carpe Diem school ‘personalized’ learning by putting students in cubicles;

Carpe Diem cubicles

Raise your hand if you have a job where you work in a cubicle all day and feel energized, appreciated, and passionate about your work.

I can’t imagine much worse for my children. I want them exploring, interacting, discovering, and, most importantly, interested in learning. I don’t want them moving onto the next algorithm after earning a badge.

Recently it appears the Edtech community has strayed from the cubical, Khan Academy model of Personalized Learning in favor of something more nebulous; the basic idea that students can work at their own pace with the teacher guiding and tutoring on the side. This often comes with mantras such as ‘student choice’ and ‘individualized learning plan.’ These aren’t bad things, but I submit that students working primarily on their own, at their own pace, is.

Which brings me to my recent revelation about why personalized learning as a primary structure for learning bugs me; it’s still passive. It appears that most of the ‘content delivery’ is still about students absorbing information from a source passively, then working exercises or doing practice of some sort to work towards mastery. When I think of an ideal math lesson, on the other hand, I think of rich tasks that take collaboration and significant critical thinking, such as Fawn’s Barbie Bungie Jump (listen to the kids cheer in the video!), Dan’s 3 act lessons, or Desmos’s Central Park. Shooting for productive struggle, I want to walk into a math class and see kids pointing at each others work, arguing, and even cheering.  Summarized, I want math class to be engaging in the sense that students actually want to be there. 

If I want students to be learning through collaboration and dialogue, then, generally speaking, I want them moving along at about the same pace. I do have times, particularly towards the ends of units, where students are working on problems independently for solidifying problem solving or receiving remediation as needed. This, however, is usually a few days to a week, as compared to the other three to five weeks in a unit where students learn primarily through collaboration. To be sure, my beliefs here are rooted in the decades of research on STEM education which has demonstrated consistently that a variety of methods centered around active learning are the best ways for students to learn. Additionally, in talking to my wife about this, she gave an incredible insight; “What skills can you gain from class time that you can’t gain from studying?” Precisely. Studying on one’s own helps to learn content, but collaboration, argumentation, sense-making through inquiry, and many other skills are emphasized when rich activities are the focus during class time.

There are some other things that bother me about personalized learning. It appears to be rooted in the theory of Learning Styles, which isn’t really a thing, as it turns out. (see also here and here). Students, generally speaking, learn from some types of teaching and don’t from others. Identified preferences in how that learning takes place hasn’t been shown to make any real difference in the actual learning that happens.

Then there is this post which makes the claim that the ‘factory model’ of education that many personalized learning proponents want to upheave is really the first experiment in personalized learning.

Finally, I agree with Dan Meyer who states that personalized learning is fun like choosing your own ad experience is fun. (Spoiler alert: It’s not).

I do believe that proponents of personalized learning mean well, and I believe that aspects of the model woven into a class at the right time can be useful. In the end, however, I choose rich, engaging, interactive tasks over learning at one’s own pace.

I Am Not Satisfied

I refuse to believe that kids should simply tolerate math**. I refuse the idea that math as a pursuit is so trivial and uninteresting that we have to spice it up by adding systemic, extrinsic motivational gadgetry to help kids stomach it (see my favorite post on gamification by Bill Ferriter). Math is the study of patterns, a beautiful, perplexing, engaging task on it’s own, that we manage to stifle on a systemic level by reducing it to trivial tasks of memorization, regurgitation, and pseudocontext.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not against games, nor occasional extrinsic motivation. I will not, however, accept that we’re ready to throw up our hands and concede that the subjects that hold our passion are not worth the attempt to instill that same excitement in our students. So I am against the systemic marginalization of our passions for pursuits like gamification or edtech for edtech’s sake.

I refuse to believe that we need edtech, generally, to engage students. I have seen plenty of engaging lessons with the absence of technology. I’ve seen Ellis Island simulations where students take part in sorting, waiting, and deportation, a powerful experience to help students wrap their minds around something typically far outside their realm of possibility. I’ve seen students compare and contrast cultures by visiting different ethnic marketplaces and reflecting on the practices of the shopkeepers as they try to bring good fortune on their stores. I’ve seen students debate passionately about important topics that they can work to address. I’ve seen students literally cheer in physics class. They didn’t need to augment their reality in the app store.

That said, there are a lot of great ways to enhance education with technology as well. Take, for example, the video my student made two years ago about how an Ocarina works. She could have written a paper about it, but the video reaches a larger audience as well as communicates her learning more effectively. And that’s exactly my point; the learning in the video is what makes it the most awesome; the video simply serves to enhance that.

There’s the rub; use edtech, but use it wisely. If you can’t communicate the purpose in learning behind your use of edtech, then I question it’s use.

I have had my share of poor edtech decisions. I once did a research project on forces using collaborative Google Docs, where kids learned about how to use docs but nothing about forces. I’m not perfect. But I did learn from that experience, and after realizing that the project didn’t help students gain any real understanding, I ditched it.

On the note of lesson design, I am not satisfied with simplifying the complexities of teaching to where it falls on the SAMR scale. Teaching is nuanced, fluid, and has a ton of moving parts, and we’d be better off embracing that than cheapening it with a stamp of ‘modification.’

I am not satisfied with degrading the student experience of learning by sugar coating it with edtech. I believe students are adventuresome, energetic, and truly want to learn. We just need to harness that energy on a systemic scale. We can certainly harness the power of technology to do so, but it should carry the banner of learning in doing so.

This post was written because I tend to be a dissenting voice in many discussions, and recently I’ve gotten a bit of pushback about that (one example of a few). But I refuse to be satisfied with band aid solutions when a transplant is needed for the real chance of survival (or better yet, the real chance to thrive). I’m very pleased that my district is looking big picture at how we teach and how students learn first, then looking at how technology can support that. I do think, however, that the edtech community needs to acknowledge that the focus must shift in a real way towards learning as the first priority. We may say learning first, but if we then push the use of the next big app, that message is lost in translation.

I am not satisfied with how my class went this year, nor will I be for next year. But I will continually seek improvement, and will do so in the name of student learning. That’s all I ask of anyone.

**insert class of your choosing here.

What Makes For Good Ed Tech? An ISTE 2014 Reflection

A couple weeks back I attended the ISTE 2014 convention, and I discovered something;

This wasn’t the first time I got worked up about edtech, but this time my frustration is directed towards the amount of money thrown around, particularly on products that don’t consider pedagogy nor the extensive research available on  how students learn. That got me thinking about how we can wade through the dump and find the treasure.

So I wanted to look more at some companies where I really value their emphasis on students and learning to see if I could find some patterns.

Let’s start with Desmos. A quick click to their about page reveals this;

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.31.31 PM

It’s very clear, and easy to find, that their focus is on constructivist learning. Then if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that they’ve partnered with amazing teacher leaders Dan Meyer, Christopher Danielson, and Fawn Nguyen to make some great lessons, designed for learning, powered by Desmos. I also had the fortune to have an extended conversation with Eli Luberoff, CEO of Desmos, and was struck by how much their pedagogical ideals influence what they do. They want to create a place for students to experience math, not a place where math is done to them. It’s inspiring.

Another good example is Dreambox. Their front page boasts

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.47.56 PM Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.48.09 PM

My daughter uses Dreambox through her school, in a different district than where I teach. I was won over to Dreambox first by the exercises she was completing that place strong emphasis on conceptual development of place value and the meaning of mathematical operations, and then by a great conversation with Tim Hudson, a former math teacher who now designs curriculum for Dreambox. Tim confirmed that pedagogy and conceptual development of mathematics are at the forefront in the design of Dreambox activities.


At first glance, Aleks (adaptive learning software) seems to be grounded in research.

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I started digging a bit about Knowledge Space Theory, and found KST is about assessing knowledge, not about how students are able to actually gain that knowledge The difference is important. While it’s good to know what students do and don’t understand, it’s more difficult, in my experience, to actually get them to learn things. Dreambox focuses on getting students to understand concepts through conceptual development, while Aleks focuses on, from what I have seen, drill and kill practice based on what the platform decided a student doesn’t know.

Khan Academy 

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I admire that Sal Khan wants to change “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. It’s an admirable goal, and one worth pursuing.

The problem is that KA repeatedly refuses to consider research on pedagogy and student learning (see Frank Noschese’s and Christopher Danielson’s posts for starters). The about page boasts about data and badges (read Bill Ferriter’s post about the problem with badges) rather than about deep thinking and conceptual development. I won’t rehash Frank and Christopher’s arguments, but seriously, go read those posts. It’s amazing what we do actually know about learning, and that Mr. Khan is dismissive of it all.

After my Twitter rant at ISTE about edtech nonsense, Kelly made an interesting observation;

[tweet 484002706185392128 hide_thread=’true’]

Edtech as an industry seems bent largely on ‘personalization’ and ‘individualization’; there is, however, a significant research base on student learning through collaboration and dialogue. Edtech should aid in promoting methods that work, rather than move away from them. Some are. I’m hoping this post helps myself and others make some strides as to how to find those edtech companies that really do have students, rather than dollars, at their core.

As for the edtech startups,  I can only hope they heed Frank’s edtech PR tips.

Finally, the most reliable method I have found in vetting edtech is to pay attention to what the right people are saying. Everybody in the MTBoS raves about Desmos. When I originally posted to Twitter asking about Dreambox I got rave reviews from folks I highly respect. KA, on the other hand, is not spoken highly of in those circles, and I don’t ever hear mention of Aleks. Chances are good, it seems,  that if a number of twitter folks are raving about a product for it’s usefulness in student learning, it’ll be a good one. Find people who explicitly evaluate learning effectiveness, and listen to them.


Innovation and Disruption in Everyday Education

Two nights ago I came across a tweet from Huntington Post Education;

I then modified and retweeted it;

What followed was an overwhelming number of retweets, favorites, and follows (at least for me, with a measly 600 some followers). Additionally, if you click on the link, you will see that HuffPo has since changed the title of the article to These 11 Leaders are Running Education But Have Never TaughtInteresting.

The vast majority of the RTs and interactions shared my sentiment, but one caught my eye;

And a conversation ensued;

Challenge Accepted.

As I started thinking about who and what I was going to highlight here, the tweets kept rolling in. This one really got me thinking.

The excerpt that really struck me;

Of course, even in Disrupting Class, the predictions of the ed-tech end-times were already oriented towards changing the business practices, not necessarily the pedagogy or the learning. [Emphasis mine]

I think that the ‘disruption’ really needed in education is to simply utilize methods of instruction and systems that have been demonstrated to be effective through research. In the end I don’t think we need to revolutionize the entire system, as we have pockets and individuals to serve as wonderful models. The real problem is how to scale from individuals doing great things to a great system as a whole.

As I highlight some of these innovations by everyday teachers, let’s start with the greatest disruption in my teaching, Modeling Instruction. Modeling is a highly researched, highly effective method for teaching Physics. Modeling came out of a great disruption; physics teacher David Hestenes wrote a basic concept inventory for his physics classes thinking they would rock it. Instead, they bombed it. Years of research then gave birth to Modeling. Frank Noschese, a ‘normal’ physics teacher in New York State, gave a great TEDx talk demonstrating how students “Learn Science by Doing Science” using Modeling. In fact, Frank was recently lauded by a non-educator for his work with modeling. Kelly O’Shea is closing in on 200,000 views on her blog where she posts guides to how to  implement MI, her modified MI materials, and other thoughts relating to physics education. She teaches at a private school in NYC. Both (and the many other modelers ‘disrupting’ traditional physics teaching) are ‘just’ teachers.

Standards Based Grading (SBG) is a movement in education more widespread than modeling instruction. The basis of SBG is to guide students towards mastery of topics rather than pushing them through an outdated factory model of learning.  Rick Wormeli and Robert Marzano are two academics leading the charge in SBG, though it has primarily succeeded as a grassroots movement of educators working in isolation. Frank and Kelly, mentioned above, are also teacher-leaders in this field. SBG has in fact even entered the higher-ed realm, with Andy Rundquist pioneering its use through non-standard assessments in his physics classes. In my district my wife was one of the first to implement SBG 5ish years ago as a result of her Masters thesis. Many others have followed suit, and, for certain in my case, the result is increased student learning.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a movement where students learn by doing, with a flexible route to demonstrating learning in comparison to other methods of instruction. The most visible example of PBL I know of is Shawn Cornally’s BIG school, where he is attempting to scale PBL to make school more awesome, a worthy task. Project Lead the Way is an example being implemented in my district, a program where students learn engineering through PBL. Students interact regularly with engineers from Seagate, Toro, and other local firms, and produce plans and prototypes with their guidance. Two other teachers at my school pioneered the building of an Environmental Learning Center around “the idea that meaningful learning happens when students engage with the community around them, including the natural environment.”

Many teachers were Flipping the Classroom before Khan Academy popularized it, and many have similarly continued to innovate within the flipped structure. Ramsey Musallam in particular popularized a variation called Explore Flip Apply, which was developed because of research indicating that sparking students’ interest and thinking through inquiry before providing content delivery improves learning outcomes. A local colleague of mine, Andy Schwen, wrote a nice post describing his transition from a pure flip to the EFA model.

Twitter is utopia for individual educators uniting to improve learning, and perhaps the best example of this that I know of is a loose collection of math teachers known as the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere. They use the hashtag #MTBoS, interact regularly, and have fantastic conversations about student learning. What’s really amazing is that from this virtual community has sprouted a real one. Tweetups are a regular occurrence (I have participated in three), and for two years now they have organized a loose, edcamp-style workshop called Twitter Math Camp. Last year 100+ educators took part.

I’m fairly certain that I’ve missed numerous ‘disruptions’ and ‘innovations’ out there. So my challenge to you; fill the comments with examples. They can be specific instances (projects, lessons, whatever), or general cases. I am particularly interested in examples outside of the math and physics world in which I primarily live. Blow it up, my hope is that maybe someone important will notice and realize that educators are the voice that’s missing from the education reform table.

A Physics PLC: Collaboration at a Distance

This year my school district, like many others, implemented PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) as the driving force behind how we collaborate to help students learn. The directive was that all teachers should meet in a PLC weekly for approximately 30 minutes. This sounds, and can be, great, but I had a problem.

You’re Gonna Need Some Background Info

For 7 years I had been the only physics teacher. This year I took on technology integration half-time, and in addition we have more physics sections, so there are now three of us who teach physics part time. The other two also teach math and chemistry. When the PLC directive came out I was excited to have someone to work with, finally. However, it was not to be. All three of us each teach a different course (I teach a college level course, the math teacher has regular physics, and the chem teacher has ‘applied’ physics, essentially a conceptual class). Since none of us teach the same course and PLC work was important with the other courses those teachers were teaching, they both decided to go with their other courses. Great, I’m a singleton. Again.

Enter Twitter. I’ve been on Twitter almost two years now, and I have learned more on Twitter in these two years than the previous six, which included a masters degree. Among other things I have managed to build a pretty awesome PLN (Personal Learning Network) that includes  a couple hundred incredible physics and math teachers from around the country. In particular, the physics Modeling Instruction community is active and extremely helpful on Twitter. So I decided I’d try to find out if there was anyone else in the same boat as I, or anyone else who simply wanted to use student work to inform instruction. I posted a short tweet with a link to a Google doc with this request;

My name is Casey Rutherford. I am entering teaching for the 8th year, my 7th teaching physics, and my first using Modeling Instruction. I have a relatively odd request.

My school is implementing PLCs, certainly a worthy task. The problem is that at this point there is not a logical person with whom I would form a PLC. Thus my request. I am wondering if any of you would like to form an online PLC with me, working together approximately 30 minutes/week to compare student work. My thought is that we can do a lot with formative assessments, using photos of student whiteboards to form the basis for our conversations. I am, however, open to other ideas as well.

I am very interested in Standards Based Grading as well; however, this particular class is articulated through the University of Minnesota (in fact, it is U of MN Physics 1101 and they get a college transcript upon completing the course), and thus I am not able to implement SBG for this course. It is the only class I am teaching this semester due to a new half-time gig as a technology integration specialist. Thus I think I would like to focus on the impact of modeling on student learning.

I was blown away from the response. Initially I had over 10 people who were interested (ok, so it’s not like that’s hundreds, but I didn’t know if anyone would!). We spent a couple of weeks trying to accommodate multiple, mutually exclusive, schedules. I must admit I got a bit caught up in wanting to include the masses; I thought it was fun that so many people thought this was something worthwhile. However, at some point Kelly, who ended up in the core group, said that this really only made sense if it was something one could attend regularly.

Duh. PLC. Norms, relationships, student work.

The Core Group

We ended up with a core group of six of us; myself, Kelly, Fran, Meg, Leah, and Matt.

This group is both diverse and similar. All of us use Modeling as our primary mode of instruction. We are all at least open to Standards Based Grading, if not practicing it. We are all already on Twitter and thus relatively connected to the larger physics education community. We all like to learn and to work towards increasing student learning.

On the other hand, we all teach in very different settings. Fran, Matt, and I teach in very different public schools in Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Kelly teaches at a private boarding school in Delaware  Leah at a private, girls,  Jewish high school in New York City, and Meg at a public charter school in upstate New York. That diversity of perspective has been awesome.

The Hangout

We typically meet on Thursday nights for about an hour, though that time frame is flexible depending on what people bring to look at. When we started we thought that despite teaching in different settings with different classes that we could try doing some common formative assessments. We developed a formative assessment for constant velocity motion, and a number of us assigned it to our students. We then took a week to look at the data for the first teacher who was already ahead of the rest of us. It was pretty fascinating that the students were using a particular reference, ‘the motion detector’, in answering the questions despite the fact that no detector was mentioned in the problem. It turned out they had done much of the development of the concept using motion detectors, thus they thought of detectors as a universal reference point. Turns out looking at student work informs instruction!

In the next week or two after we then looked at other teachers’ students answers, but there was a problem. The sheer amount of information from the Google Form was pretty overwhelming. We spent a significant amount of time just sifting through it and trying to get the other PLC members to see the same cell. We did some color coding, but didn’t have a very well-defined system.

A Different Way to Analyze Student Work

We fairly organically decided that it would be easier, especially because of very different pacing for our different classes, to simply have volunteers ‘bring’ student work to look at for each meeting. Thus whenever I give a quiz I scan or take a picture of some examples that represent common or interesting mistakes students made on the quiz. Others do the same. Not only do we get the chance to see how each others students are responding to similar questions (it really helps here that we all use, at the core, the Modeling Instruction curriculum), but we can discuss how to best help students avoid pitfalls and misunderstandings. A typical night starts with a check in on how things are going and, often, advice for someone who is struggling with something. Then someone posts a link to a quiz and we take a minute or two to look over it. Someone notices something, and discussion ensues. As discussion slows on one quiz someone posts another. There is no rule or defined procedure here, but it seems to work well.

Often these quizzes lead to discussions on instructional techniques. One week Kelly was sharing her thoughts on having students use vector addition diagrams rather than the traditional use of components, for solving force problems. She then opened a shared Google Drawings window and demonstrated their usefulness. I introduced this diagram to my kids the next day and was blown away by how much they liked it. Collaboration for the win!

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Building Relationships

Since the start of our gatherings I’ve thought a lot about Kelly’s statement that it would make more sense with a regular group. As we’ve been meeting for almost half a year now, I have found that I’ve become very comfortable with the other members. It’s humbling and sometimes embarrassing to share work that your students produced that is not perfect. A great PLC meets those imperfections with empathy and advice rather than with judgement. We’re all in this together, and all students make mistakes. In fact, one thing that I have become more convinced of as a result of our meetings is that the very process of making mistakes is essential to learning. Lots of research in science education, physics in particular, points to the idea that in order to learn and retain scientific reasoning, students must first wrestle with the dissonance between their own thinking and scientific explanations. (citations needed, I know; call me out if you want and I’ll dig some up for you! Here’s a bit to tide you over.) Anyway, the point is that as teachers it is hard to open up and be vulnerable, but the so far my experience is that my learning about student learning has been very worth it.

One highlight for me was that when I was in the NYC area over winter break I was able to meet Leah in person for coffee. It is really fun getting a chance to meet someone in person whom you  previously only knew in an online environment! I look forward to continue to build relationships with my PLC, and I hope to meet more of them in person eventually.

Why G+ Hangouts?

G+ hangouts were a natural choice for us. We all had Google accounts already, and G+ allows us to video chat, share documents, chat on the side (which also helps in posting links to student work stored in Dropbox, Evernote, or Drive), and even to use Google Drawings or screenshare. G+ also allows for recording hangouts, but we have not done that as there was consensus that recording would  take away from the ‘safe harbor’ aspect of the meeting.  There are certainly other options to G+; the Global Physics Department uses an enterprise version of Blackboard  Collaborate and the Global Math Department uses Big Marker. We never even considered anything else, however, as G+ hangouts has performed as well as we need it to.

At the End of the Day…

What’s better about my teaching now? So far this year my PLC meetings have resulted in changes in unit placement, improvements in teaching specific topics, additions of representations to help student visualizations, improvements in my understanding of student misconceptions, and an overall increase in the big picture view of learning physics through a cyclic treatment of the various models (rather than treating topics as isolated units). I can only imagine what further meetings will lead to!

Teaching a University Course at the High School Level


I have the privilege of teaching a course that is articulated through the University of Minnesota. I have been wanting for some time to write about it, particularly because it has become an interesting mash-up of some cool physics ed stuff;

  • Modeling Instruction
  • Context-Rich Problem Solving
  • In-depth study of content (as opposed to AP Physics B)
  • Significant lab/writing component
  • Standards Based Grading (sort of…you’ll have to read on to find out more!)

The course is called College in the Schools (CIS) Introduction to College Physics. CIS is a program run by the University of Minnesota where students take college classes, get college credit (complete with a U of M transcript), while being taught by high school teachers at a high school. CIS Physics is PHYS 1101W, where the W stands for the fact that students get one of their required writing credits due to the 5 lab reports written throughout the course.

I was first accepted to teach CIS physics as part of a four teacher pilot for the year 10-11 (the 2nd year of the pilot), and now the course has expanded to around 10 schools total, all in Minnesota. I have very much enjoyed the course as an alternative to AP Physics B, though admittedly the change to Physics 1 and 2 could render some of the benefits of CIS less potent. I moved towards CIS physics because I was tired of three aspects of AP B;

  1. I felt like we raced through the material and, because of that, students weren’t learning to their full potential (we taught it as a first year course)
  2. I felt there was no time for lab, and thus labs were few and far between.
  3. Many students worked extremely hard only to fall just short on one single measure of their physics understanding at the end of the year.

CIS physics is a one semester course at the U, taught over a full year at the HS level. This decision was made because the course requires 6.5 hours of contact time each week (3 hours of lecture, 2.5 hours of lab, and 1 hour of discussion), which we cannot touch with 46 minute classes. I love, however, that even at the U, more than half the time is spent with students working rather than listening. My classroom is much more than half, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Aspects of the U of M course

Lecture: U of M introductory physics courses run into the hundreds of students, and as such they have developed a system to manage aspects of learning physics while trying as best as possible to stay true to researched pedagogy. That said, lecture is still the content delivery method, and is given by faculty in the department. Students attend lecture three days a week for an hour each day. This component of the course is greatly reduced in my version due to my use of Modeling Instruction (MI). More on that in a bit.

Lab: The U of M developed a laboratory manual with 3-5 lab “problems” for each unit. Conveniently, many of these labs align well with MI, with the remainder providing good opportunities for verification labs. I love that I am expected to use almost half my class time for lab!

Lab reports: As much as I hate grading them, I like that this course has a technical writing component. I have received significant positive feedback from former students, both in regular and CIS physics, about their preparation for future lab reports because of my class. More importantly, I think it is important that students learn, generally, how to use data to make a logical argument. Lab reports also help me gain important insights on the reasoning skills and physics understandings of my students.

Discussion: This is the U of M’s main contribution within Physics Education Research (PER). The U’s PER group has done significant research into the use of Context Rich Problems solved collaboratively by groups of students.  This is an awesome part of the course, where students work in groups to solve difficult problems.

CIS Physics in my Classroom

The main difference between the U and my courses is numbers. They have hundreds of students per section, while (somewhat ironically) the CIS program limits our sections to 24 students. For me this has meant that I can effectively integrate a modified form of Modeling Instruction (MI) into the course, which largely replaces lecture (read more about why I use MI).Currently, this modified MI cycle, mashed together with some of the U of MN’s parts of the class, looks something like this;

  1. Paradigm lab: The purpose of a paradigm lab is to introduce the concept at hand, usually by investigating a specific relationship. Kelly has lots of great examples of paradigm labs, and their connection to model building, here. This works very well with the labs from the U, as slight tweaking allows for use of ‘official’ U labs for paradigm purposes.
  2. Conceptual aspects of model building: Though not universally true, I tend to start model building after the paradigm lab by looking at the conceptual aspects of the model. This tends to involve heavy use of the traditional MI worksheets and whiteboarding.
  3. Problem Solving: This tends to start with a couple of days where students work through problems and I move around the classroom giving help where needed. Sometimes we whiteboard solutions, sometimes students just check their work and move on when they understand.
  4. Context Rich Problem Solving: Students work on problems that are more difficult than those they can solve individually in the given time frame. Here is an example of a context rich problem that I wrote.
  5. Verification Lab: Usually units end by applying the model to a situation to verify it’s ability to make successful predictions. These labs come from the U’s ‘official’ lab manual and are usually complex, yet at the same time give convincing results.

I would like to add a couple of things in the future as I revise and re-write CIS Physics;

  1. Wow-factors that drive learning. I have recently been inspired by Shawn Cornally and his emphasis of using something awesome to inspire learning. I want more awesome.
  2. Breaking the Model, as Frank addresses at the 7:45 mark of his TEDx talk. I want to provide more coherence between models, and part of that is addressing the shortfalls of the current model so we have a reason to move to the next. 
  3. Standards Based Grading (SBG). There is a 5-10% category that is flexible, per the U’s guidelines for the CIS class. This is because the course at the U changes with the instructor (grading and all), and often the category is participation-based. It has been clicker questions, notecard answers, and other things in the past. I currently wrap that 10% into my other categories (Lab reports, Exams, and Final; I don’t believe in giving participation points or grading homework, but that’s a different post), but next year I would like to use it for standards checks. Most of the exams are problem based with some aspects that require implicitly conceptual understand rather than an explicit display of that understanding. I plan to have weekly standards quizzes (which I already do to some extent) that address 3-4 standards per unit so that students are getting more feedback on those conceptual and otherwise scaffolding pieces that lead up to the exams. The quizzes would be 100% retake-able  and each standard would be graded on a binary scale: either they’ve got it or they don’t. It’s not full SBG like I would like, but I think it will really help students to know their progress before the big exams.

That’s my current and future CIS Physics class in a nutshell. Feel free to ask questions or make suggestions!

Update: Here’s the post where I outlined in more detail how I am currently implementing a modified version of Standards Based Grading in this class.