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The Right Thing, Said Once

Prologue: I have been doing a lot of thinking this year about what I’ve learned so far about teaching physics (and about teaching high school students in general) both as general reflection and as part of solidifying my thoughts in preparation to look for a new physics teaching position for next school year. Occasional conversations with a new math teacher here this year have also helped me pull some of my thoughts together. I am starting to try to pull some of the big ideas into (what I hope will be) a series of posts that will serve as a set of snapshots of my current “rules” for teaching. (Rules or guidelines for myself, not rules I would impose on others.)

Beware The Right Thing, Said Once.

This idea is one that I’ve found I need to cycle back to again and again as I work on my teaching. It can sneak into a class via several conduits.

    1. When the teacher is giving information to the class. Enough has been written on how and why clear explanations do not result in changed understandings (though they feel really good and can be really fun at the time). Here’s a link to the Veritasium video on learning physics by watching videos, just in case.
    2. When the teacher is working through something with the class’s help, calling on students to fill in the gaps. Before Modeling Instruction, this activity was my most common go-to way of spending class time. I knew that I didn’t want to just tell students things, but I didn’t yet have a way of coaching them to construct their own ideas, so I basically just told them things via fill-in-the-blank “lectures”, AKA “guess what the teacher’s thinking” (at least, that’s how many students saw it). Luckily, I had some pretty amazing students who were willing to tell me what was what. One of the hugest moments in that first year of physics-teaching was when one student told me, “Listen. Ms. O’Shea. Just because one of us has happened to say the right answer to a question, that doesn’t mean that we all understand it.” Whoa. And also, thank you, Donald. Seriously. I wasn’t ready to do much better, yet, but I was starting to shape my understanding of how my classes needed to look different (and what was going wrong with them so far).
    3. When students are presenting information, results, or solutions to problems (as in whiteboarding). And here’s where it starts to get even trickier. In this case, I’m not lecturing. I’m trying to guide students to develop their own ideas. The class looks a lot better. Students are doing almost all of the talking. They are using whiteboards. How can it go wrong? And yet—one of the biggest mistakes I made in my first years of Modeling Instruction was making sure students were presenting correct answers. I knew the students presenting the problem usually understood what they were doing. They weren’t just getting their information from me. It took a while to realize that the presentations weren’t doing much more for the other students than my fill-in-the-blank presentations had been doing during my first year. If the whiteboards were approved by me, then it was really me transmitting information (it was just being read by someone else). You could tell that I was the authority, not the presenters, because when students asked questions, everyone turned to look at me (even the ones up at the board). Even though The Right Thing was being said by students instead of the teacher, it was still always The Right Thing, and it was still being Said Once. Oops. The big turning point and realization moment on this front came from watching a class (that had grown bored with whiteboarding) spring to life and to action when a group went up with an incorrect board. Suddenly there was work to be done. The Wrong Things were said, and so were The Right Things. They were all said multiple times, by multiple people, and in multiple ways. Eventually, Right triumphed. Hey, now.

And even when I think I’ve understood and conquered these ideas, they are always ready to sneak back into my class under the guise of picking up the pace. In the moment, it feels like I am moving faster when we hit the correct answers and move forward, but my experience has been that these practices actually tend to slow me down.

The messier process of letting mistakes and confusions surface, of entertaining those wrong paths and ideas, of then battling through them—that all certainly makes any individual problem take more time to finish in class. But it speeds up every problem that comes after, and not just the ones that look similar to the problem at hand, either. The more my students practice working through errors, the better they are at working through their own errors and uncertainty in future, unrelated problems. They look to me less frequently for check-ins and guidance. They start pushing me away, seeing the value of holding onto their confusion for longer. None of these changes are immediate, but they start to build and gather momentum as the days, weeks, and months move forward through the year.

Some Reminders to Myself

CAUTION Correct AnswersGive a student courage to speak up when she disagrees, and normalize that willingness to question and check by letting it be a necessary part of the process of the class (checking other groups’ whiteboards during presentations). Instead of being shamed by their wrong ideas, or not even knowing that their ideas are different from what is being said in class, they are constantly listening for places where they disagree with any explanation, answer, or solution. (Those moments of, “I know I am going to disagree, but I haven’t found what I disagree with yet” that pop up during Mistake Game whiteboarding sessions are actually pretty amazing—no meekness there.)

Shake the complacent, diligently note-taking student out of just listening and writing down notes. Make sure he is thinking through and checking everything before he writes it down for himself.

Disrupt the nervous, tentative student from erasing all of her answers and replacing them with what her classmates present. If there is a large chance that the answers being presented aren’t quite right, you can’t immediately assume that yours are wrong.

Don’t let answers be the goal. Don’t let there be mysterious “secret words” that suddenly cause everyone to scream and move on to the next topic (leaving everyone, maybe including the utterer, bewildered).

When you let The Right Thing be Said Once, it reinforces every student’s idea that everyone else gets it while they simply don’t.

Actions

When you know that a group has totally nailed the understanding of a problem, make sure you assign a different group to whiteboard it. That way, you know that there will be an excellent section of question-askers to chase down the errors on the board, and you also avoid short-circuiting the discussion by having the leaders of the conversation underestimate everyone else’s confidence in the answer.

When you are up front, don’t acknowledge answers immediately. Don’t acknowledge right answers differently from wrong answers. Let there be time, redirect students to talk to each other (instead of to you), and see if you can wait out a consensus.

While you do that, be sure to go meta every once in a while and explain why you’re doing that (or you’ll drown in “I said that!”s). While you’re at it, tell them about Clever Hans. Acknowledge that it has probably been a successful strategy for them in school in the past (they will agree wholeheartedly), and also tell them why you are going to try to cut that strategy off from them. They will appreciate the big picture idea, there, even though it is making things more difficult for them than they are used to in the short run.

Any truly new idea has to come from students, be discussed by students, and be agreed upon together (or they won’t ever truly believe it, even if they can repeat it). You set the stage and put them into a situation where they can start building the idea, and you coach them on the process, but you don’t verify along the way. Any “new” information that you are presenting to them can’t really be new. It has to be something they could arrive at using old ideas. You can have them walk you there by only asking questions they have definite ways of answering (and often sitting back or getting out of the way while they work together to answer those questions before you can all move on toward the next step).

Be even more patient. Let things take time. Let them know that it is okay for things to take time.

I am sure that my ideas here will keep developing and evolving in the coming months and years. This, of course, is just where I am now (and how I got here).

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About Kelly O'Shea

I teach high school kids physics at an independent day school in NYC. Less homework, more thinking. Follow @kellyoshea

Discussion

13 thoughts on “The Right Thing, Said Once

  1. Hi Kelly,

    Did I read correctly, are you done teaching physics where you are? I hope it is a switch that is looking to move to a better position. You see to be so blessed with wonderful students who are eager to learn which is not always the case in public schools. I’ve taught for 10 years now and can’t even begin to tell you how much your blog has helped to modify my teaching style and classroom atmosphere. I hope you continue to blog about your new position.

    Posted by JimG | December 31, 2012, 8:40 AM
  2. Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for stating so eloquently what I strive for in my own classroom. I use whiteboards often in my HS math classroom and there’s nothing more powerful than whiteboards with incorrect thinking on them. We worked hard on creating a “judgement-free zone” in the classroom – that what’s on whiteboards is about learning. Allowing mistakes also works against the “correct my majority rule” tendency. Recently, all five whiteboards in one of my classes had the exact same incorrect answer. One student proclaimed, “We all agree – we got it right!” Another student quickly followed with, “Or we’re all making the same mistake.” All I had to do was ask, “So which is it?” Powerful stuff.

    Posted by Pamela Rawson | January 1, 2013, 9:53 AM
  3. Kelly,

    I’m very much in the thick of this problem. I can’t shake the students eyes and desires to know The Right Thing. I have been unsuccessful in convincing the students that they will develop the right way of thinking without me saying, “that’s the right way of thinking.” And honestly, I admire the students who have a genuine desire for learning and in a place where they just need that last bit to pull it all together. But I have 2 or 3 per 20 that are like that. It’s draining my morale and desire to continue in this pedagogy completely dry.

    I’m sure you’re going to say something like “give it time, be patient” but I’m curious if there are specific strategies I can try implementing that will aid the students and myself tackle this curriculum, while I continue to give it time and remain patient. Thanks for any help you can offer.

    Posted by Andrew Schultz | January 9, 2013, 3:55 PM
    • Hi Andrew,

      That’s really tough. I have a couple of ideas that don’t just involve waiting longer.

      1) Learning about how their brains change as they learn new skills can make a huge difference. It’s what Carol Dweck talks about in Mindset as being the thing that helps promote a growth mindset. The best resource I’ve found for teaching kids about that is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. It talks about myelin growth in the context of various sports, music, and even literature. You can’t force kids to adopt a growth mindset, but you can make it available to them by letting them know how their brains are changing (and that they actually do grow brain cells, as opposed to what they learned in elementary school). Some readings from The Talent Code could help. I’ve also used this article in the past. The year that I used that article, it made a huge impression on several of the students. They really saw themselves in the descriptions of the kids, and they spent a long time processing it over the course of the rest of that spring. And it showed in our much better classes.

      2) Made the right answers totally available at all times. Print up a sheet with the answers to every problem in the packet and post it somewhere in the room so that students can go and check it whenever they want. That makes it incredibly clear that it’s not about the answers—it’s about the work. Having the right answer isn’t that meaningful if it’s already given. Playing the Mistake Game during whiteboarding could also be improved then—everyone knows what the correct answer is, so the challenge isn’t identifying if an answer is wrong or what the correct answer is—it’s about figuring out where things went wrong and how you can get someone from that wrong answer toward a more correct one. Plus giving them the right answers upfront seems like a compromise with them, so it should help the mood a bit.

      Those are just the first ideas I have right now. If/when more things come to me in the next couple of days, I will reply here again.

      One thing that I’ve found key for myself is that you just can’t push things that hard on them. The more successful strategy is making things available to them, but letting them make choices that aren’t always great (and letting that be okay—not lecturing them about it all the time). But also making the easy choices to make the ones that fit with the growth mindset-type strategies (the grading system I’m using is huge for that— the amount and quality of outside-of-class work that is being done by choice by my students now just trounces what was being done when I was dictating and grading what they needed to do each night).

      Good luck! Let me know how things are going!

      Kelly.

      Posted by Kelly O'Shea | January 9, 2013, 7:57 PM
      • So, I’m trying…but I’m just not seeing it. I’m letting them fail, but now I have a classes at 50-75% failure. I’ve got parents, administrators (in a good way, but still), and students breathing down my neck on how can I improve, and sending them to work on their own, do the practice I assign, come in for tutoring, PAY ATTENTION during other groups discussions as well as your own, etc. but without the consequences of not doing homework, and so many other variables influencing how well the students are doing in class, they and I don’t see their grades improving. Of my 90 physics students I think 5 truly benefit from the Modeling Cycle, Socratic dialogue, and whiteboard sessions. Everyone else waits for the right answer (even when I give it to them). And once they have the right answer, they shut down, ignore the conversations about why, or why not, or how…Unless it directly influences the students grade, the majority of students won’t do it (homework, discussion, participation and attention during labs or WB sessions.)

        I’m also trying the modeling methods in my IPC (integrated physics and chemistry) class (i only teach the Physics portion). This class is made of low achieving freshman and sophomores. We go at a much slower pace, spending a lot of time working on graphing skills and units first, then moving into the constant velocity model with lots of experiences and labs. But they (20 of the 22) refuse to participate during class (outside of clean cut “cookbook”
        instructions) and refuse to do homework or practice outside of class.

        I know that you’ve got years of experience working in this system and with this pedagogy, but can you remember your first year and offer any saving graces to cling to?

        Posted by Andrew Schultz | February 22, 2013, 12:46 PM
        • Hey Andrew,

          Sorry for the delayed response (the comment notification got buried under email mountain for a while). Your situation is so difficult. Change is hard and it takes a lot of (sometimes really frustrating) time. It can be hard to get students fully on board with this way of doing class until they see how useful whiteboard meetings (etc) are in terms of their understanding. And of course they won’t actually be useful if they aren’t even minimally trying to use them.

          In terms of understanding physics, the students who aren’t engaging now wouldn’t really be better off in a lecture-format class (since there isn’t much gaining of understanding for physics in that format). So there’s that. Although, if they are so diligently refusing to engage right now, it’s hard to believe they would approach the class any more actively in the format they want. Hrrmm.

          And yes, I can definitely remember my first years both of teaching physics and the first times through with Modeling (which weren’t far apart, probably making it even harder), and I think it’s just always rough when you’re starting. I think the most helpful things for me have been the meta-talks both in class (not taking too much time, just a few minutes here and there, but kind of regularly) and outside of class (these ones were usually longer and with just one or a few students at a time). And kids who won’t do homework—won’t do homework. There’s not a lot you can change about that. But it can be helpful to have that conversation with them (outside of class) about what it has to mean for their time in class (that they have to bring it, in terms of engagement and effort) if they aren’t going to be practicing outside of class. Because if you don’t do it here and you don’t do it at home, when are you going to do any physics?

          Are they talking to each other (about physics)? Or are they all stuck in individualistic-learning land? I have a lot more ideas about what it takes to get them out of individualistic-learning (that’s been a big focus of mine when thinking about my own classes the past couple of years).

          Kelly

          Posted by Kelly O'Shea | March 16, 2013, 12:59 PM
  4. I enjoyed those thoughts! I’m not sure how much I have to offer since I’m not an educator but I find that I’m learning all kinds of new things that are physics related and wished I had someone show me physics when I was a kid. I might be an astrophysicist instead of an optometrist! I’m working this concept out with my son who’s watching me read my physics books.

    Posted by James Jordan | August 27, 2013, 6:54 PM
  5. Hi Kelly,
    This is a very informative blog post even though I am not an educator. These strategies are used by my physics teacher as well and I have learned plenty from her in a month or so. We are recently learning the effects of friction on acceleration through examples shown in class. Extra credit is awarded to those who speak up even if their answers are incorrect. This allows one to learn from their mistakes. I have found using models in classrooms to display the effect of gravity and friction on various objects has helped me gain a further understanding of Force and kinematics.

    Posted by Fadi Chanaa | February 12, 2014, 10:27 PM

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