From Crappy to Okay

Published: 2015-09-10 12:30 |

Category: Reflection | Tags: teaching

One of my goals this year is to help students struggle productively with ideas before I loop back to teach it. I don’t remember who said this first – probably Dan Meyer, Frank Noschese, or Kris Shaffer – but it makes a lot of sense. It builds anticipation and allows students to find and build meaning with the discrete ideas before they tackle them.

I tried to do this with my introduction to motion with my physical science students. I started with Dan Meyer’s TEDx Talk which highlights a ski lift problem and how he broke it down for students. I tried something similar by asking students to describe the position of each ball to the other using this picture:


The goal was to have them feel the struggle of explaining a position without any reference point, two very important foundations for movement. Instead, I confused kids without offering any direct path to resolution. Why circles? Why are some “higher” (again, no frame of reference, so they could be lower…) than others?

Frustrated, I tried again with a variation on the same picture with a different class:


This became too easy – they didn’t see the need for using a coordinate system because they could describe – well enough, at least – the relative position of one ball to another. I had missed the mark again…I hadn’t created a situation in which a coordinate system was essential for describing motion.

At this point, I sent out a tweet asking for help. The minute I sent it, I realized that the image was way too abstract to make any sense. I thought the framing I had done for students in the room was enough, but it highlighted the fact that I had pseudotaught rather than actually taught anything leading up to the discussion.

I tried a different tactic. I made it a game. Here was the picture I came up with:


I stood at the board and grabbed a marker. I then closed my eyes and told my students to get me – verbally – from one of the people to the other.

It was like the Price is Right. Directions, shouts, and redaction all flew at me. I let them argue over where to start and where to finish for a while. After a try, I stopped and asked what would have made it easier. They immediately recognized that labels would really help in descriptions. We set directions and names. Trying again, the class was able to identify which two people would be connected.

Then, I asked them to tell me exactly how far away one person was from another along the path. This set the stage for the coordinates. If you’re in an airplane looking down at this group of people, you can’t land, grab your measuring tape, and start counting centimeters…it isn’t practical. Some classes took longer than others, but eventually, they realized that a grid would work, which let us set exact positions for the people.

It took me the better part of a day to really get down to an okay situation for students to struggle with. I’m still not entirely happy with where we landed, but it worked. The hardest part of creating struggle is finding the sweet spot between not obvious but not too abstract. I’m still trying to incorporate struggle, mostly through having qualitative lab experiences before teaching an idea, and it seems to help build a proper frame of reference for the instructional stage. I’d still appreciate any tips you may have for building these experiences in your classroom.

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