Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pseudoteaching: Laboratory Experiments

My physics colleagues Frank Noschese and John Burke have invited physics and math teachers to contribute a posting that exemplifies the concept of pseudoteaching [PT]:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

Laboratory work is essential in the sciences; after all, don't we want our students to have a first-hand experience of thinking like scientists?

Why then are ‘cookbook’ type of labs ubiquitous?

During my first years of teaching this is how I did labs in my physics classes:
a. I had all the equipment neatly set on the lab tables.
b. I divided my students into teams.
c. I provided each of them with a worksheet with step-by-step lab directions.

When observed by my immediate supervisor I always got praised by how well I conducted the lesson. After all it was evident that the students were engaged. Perhaps they were busy, but were they learning?

Let’s take a closer look at this example of a traditional cookbook type lab:


The objective of this lab is to determine the spring constant for a spring using two methods.

Ring stand, Mass set, Spring, Meter stick, Stopwatch

1. Hang the spring from the ring stand.
2. Place the meter stick vertically and record the position of the bottom of the spring. This is the unstretched length.
3. Attach a mass on the spring so that it will stretch the spring and hang at rest.
4. Measure the new position and record it in the Data table.
5. Measure the displacement for 5 different masses added to the spring.
The displacement is the difference between the unstretched length and the stretched length. Record your measurements in the Data table.

1. Construct a graph of Force (N) vs. Displacement (m).
2. Determine the slope of this graph.
3. What are the units for the slope?
4. The equation relating the magnitude of the force and the stretch is F = -kx . How does this equation relate to the slope of your graph?

1. Remove the spring from the hanger and measure its mass and record it on the table.
2. Hang the spring from the ring stand.
3. Attach a 100 g mass to the spring.
4. Stretch the spring about 5 cm and let it oscillate up and down.
5. Use your stopwatch to measure 10 complete oscillations. Divide this number by 10 and record it as the period on the data table.
6. Measure the period for 5 different masses added to the spring. Record your measurements in the Data table.

1. The total mass of the system is given by adding the hanging mass plus one-third of the mass of the spring. This is called the effective value of the mass.
2. Use the period equation to calculate the spring constant for each of your trials.

1. How do the values of the spring constant compare with both methods?
2. Calculate the percent difference.

So, what is wrong with this lab?

From the lesson perspective apparently nothing is wrong with it. The lab provides guidance to the student for determining the spring constant with two different procedures. The lab includes data collection, the students graph their data, they follow prompts to analyze the graph and answer a couple of questions as a conclusion. They must have learned how physics works in the real world!


The students just followed a recipe and completed a worksheet. They were told what to do and how to interpret the data. Completing this worksheet does not provide evidence of critical thinking at all!

What actually happened is that the students were robbed of the opportunity to do real science! It would be more effective to let them design their lab, make their own decisions about collecting and analyzing their data, and investigating the sources of error and uncertainties in their measurements.

I believe that it is by doing science that actual learning occurs. I've found that a better way to conduct this lesson is by making it an open-ended investigation. In this type of inquiry labs the students are given a task for the experiment but have significant latitude in terms of what procedure to follow, which measurements to take and how to conduct their analysis. The students record their findings in a lab journal including the following items:

I. Purpose
Write a statement of the problem to be investigated that provides the overall direction for the investigation.
II. Hypothesis and Prediction
State a hypothesis and a prediction for your experiment as appropriate.
III. Equipment and Equipment Setup
- A list of all laboratory equipment used in the investigation.
- A detailed and labeled diagram to illustrate the configuration of the equipment.
IV. Step-by-Step Procedure
- Neatly explained, preferably in a numbered sequence.
- Identify and name all experimental variables and describe how the independent variable is controlled.
V. Data
-What data needs to be taken?
- How many trials do you have to include?
- How is data reported?
VI. Data Analysis
- How do you interpret data?
- Include graphs and analysis of graphs as appropriate
- How do you compare the results obtained by two different ways?
VII. Conclusions
- Discuss any questionable data or surprising results.
- Explain the possible source of any error or questionable results.
- Suggest changes in experimental design that might test your explanations.

Nowadays when doing a lab about this topic, all my students receive from me is this prompt:
"Design and conduct two different experiments to determine the spring constant of a mass-spring system."

What are the advantages of doing this type of investigations versus traditional ones?
Here are a few:
- Open-ended investigations eliminate the busy work component of “take the data and run” approach

- Students develop a sense of ownership and vested interest in their own learning
- Motivates students to create investigations with real-world applications

This link to my physics website has over 50 prompts for Physics Open-Ended Labs.

Arnold Arons said:
“The problem is to provide students with enough guidance to lead them into thinking and the forming of insights but not so much as to give everything away and thus destroy the attendant intellectual experience.”1

Amen to that!

1 Arnold Arons, "Guiding Insight and Inquiry in the Physics Laboratory", The Physics Teacher, Vol 31 May 1993

Monday, February 14, 2011

What KHAN be done with it!

Last night we received an e-mail from our Head of School inviting us to read this posting by Aaron Saenz: Yes, the Khan Academy IS the Future of Education.

He asked for creative ideas of how to leverage the power of Khan Academy in our school.

I believe that Khan Academy can be integrated in our school in two major ways: asynchronous and synchronous. Here are my ideas of what KHAN be done with it:

Asynchronous learning is a student-centered teaching method that uses online learning resources to facilitate information sharing outside the constraints of time and place.

Students access Khan Academy outside of the classroom:

1. Khan Academy as a Digital Textbook
The Khan Academy videos contain background information, problems and examples clearly explained with simple but neatly done illustrations. The videos can be used by Middle School and Upper School students.
The Academy covers almost every single topic for each of the following subjects:
Mathematics: Arithmetic, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Statistics, Pre-Calculus, Calculus
Science: Biology, Chemistry and Physics
Selected topics in European History

2. Khan Academy as a Virtual Tutor
Students can watch the videos anytime, anywhere. This includes mobile devices that can access YouTube or directly with this I-Phone app: Khan Academy: A Classroom in your Pocket

3. Khan Academy as a repository of Review Materials
a. To review for topics, access additional problems and exercises and get another explanation for a particular concept.
b. To prepare for quizzes or tests.
c. To prepare for the AP Exams: Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Calculus.

4. Khan Academy for Reverse Instruction
Flip the classroom by having students use Khan Academy to study the content at home then use face to face instruction for deepening into topics, allowing for more practice time, classroom discussion, additional hands-on activities and problem-based learning.
Excellent resources:
Reverse Instruction in the English Classroom

5. Khan Academy as a Summer Academy
A course can be structured having the students access the selected topics to learn the content and go through the Exercises section.
The Khan Academy Exercise Software is a powerful learning platform that allows students and teachers to track their progress through the Profiles. Students complete Challenges and can earn Energy Points and various levels of Badges. It offers an amazing variety of interactive visualizations (knowledge maps, timelines, focus charts, exercise progress reports, etc.)
A Summer Academy can also be part of a Blended-Learning school component where a teacher acts as a facilitator setting goals and expectations and tracking the students’ progress through the Exercise Software.

6. Khan Academy for Enrichment Courses in Blended-Learning:
Students can have access to courses not offered in traditional core curricula:
- Organic Chemistry
- Cosmology and Astronomy
- Differential Equations
- Linear Algebra
- Finances
Students can study the material at their own pace using the Khan Academy Exercise Software.

7. Khan Academy for Math Remediation
Students that are transferring from other schools and need to acquire or refine their math skills can work through a set of exercises until they demonstrate the level of mastery required.
The students can be motivated by completing the challenges and earning a series of badges.
(Suggested by @mmmcewen)

Synchronous learning refers to a group of people learning the same things at the same time in the same place.
Students access Khan Academy in the classroom:

1. Khan Academy for Differentiated Instruction
Differentiated Instruction is a teaching strategy based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to different readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles of students in the classrooms.
The three key elements of differentiated instruction are content, process and product.
The Content refers to the curricular materials to be learned by the students. The Process consists of the activities through which students develop their knowledge and the Product refers to the array of options through which students can demonstrate what they have learned.
Using Khan Academy for differentiation:
a. Teachers can facilitate differentiated learning by Content and Process having the students use a laptop in class to learn or review the material at their own pace.
b. Teachers can facilitate differentiated learning by Product having the students research a topic and creating a reflecting artifact such as a blog posting, a digital presentation (Glogster, Prezi, video).

2. Khan Academy as Teaching Assistant
Teachers can divide class time into three activities as follows:
I. Using laptops or the computer lab the students access Khan Academy to work through the material and practice problems and exercises.
II. Students present a quick wrap-up of the topic.
III. The topic can be used for a deeper classroom discussion or students can work individually or in groups on new problems and exercises.

3. Khan Academy as Substitute Teacher
Teachers can create a generic lesson plan that involves students using Khan Academy for a lesson and then completing the Exercises section. The work of the students is recorded for teacher verification.

4. Khan Academy for Snow Days
For the winter months: January or February, teachers can create and post a list of potential videos that can be used in case of school closings.

5. Khan Academy as a Motivational Tool
Teachers can get inspired to create their own screencasts and introduce reverse instruction in their courses. (Suggested by @Deacs84)

I bet there are countless other ways to use Khan Academy. Would love to hear What you KHAN do with it!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Educon: Power in Connection

Helpful, productive connections with my PLN happen anytime and almost anywhere, if you include the ability to access the internet while flying across the country!

But how is the quality of this connection enhanced when it happens face-to-face?  When after seeing the familiar faces we are greeted with a smile and a hug and when the interaction is followed by an exciting and engaging conversation?

Therein lies the power of Educon!

Powerful connections happen during coffee breaks, going up and down the stairs of the Science Leadership Academy, and over lunch and dinner. Most importantly connections get strengthened during the scheduled conversations where leader educators share, discuss, question, strategize, and dream.

What is my biggest takeaway from participating in my second Educon?
Without a doubt, that the experience of those connections has re-energized and  reaffirmed my core values about education:

- The challenging and worthy undertaking of schools is preparing young people to take part in a world that is becoming at once smaller and more complex and to take part with both an awareness of inherent responsibilities as well as the confidence to come to grips with constantly changing local and global realities.
- The task of the school's leadership, in partnership with faculty, students, parents, and the community at large is to create and develop an environment in which this challenging process can best occur.
- Teachers, administrators, and other members of staff are partners as leaders and members of teams with valuable voices in articulating and putting into action the mission of the school and the vision for its future. Their professionalism is vital to learning. The best teachers and administrators, just as the best in any profession, have a desire to grow in their practice. Just as students require an environment conducive to learning, teachers require an environment conducive to teaching.

- As Director of Instructional Technology I will continue to partner with our academic and technology teams to support teachers and administrators in their path to accomplish their individual plans for 21st century (IP21). 

- We will continue to collaborate as a community that has an interest in the well-being of students to collectively make the school's vision a reality. 

Certainly I have more questions than answers but I know that I can tap into my PLN anytime, anywhere!

Word cloud created with Tagxedo
All Twitter IDs belong to educators that I met at Educon. I am grateful to ALL of you for sharing your passion and knowledge.
Picture taken at Educon by @scmorgan. Left to right: @charrod, @dgende, @steelepierce
Thank you for your friendship and support!