Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

girl_grad_study_mind_lg_wht As a high school physics teacher, I teach to a clientele that is, in the majority, college bound.  Very few actually plan on majoring in physics, and many will never need physics in their future careers.  So what can I offer these students, besides the obvious overview of physics and a slightly better understanding of the world they live in?

From my perspective, the most valuable asset I can give my kids is helping them learn to teach themselves.  In today’s society, success in any career requires the willingness and ability to become a lifelong learner, adapting to the changing scenery of today’s job market.  Due to the proliferation of the Internet, the information needed is readily available, though many times students are inexperienced in how to digest it.  My task, then, besides teaching physics, is teaching students how to teach themselves.

This is a huge asset in college courses, and even more important in real-world situations.  For example, I will never forget my freshman Chemistry II course.  Our instructor was hilarious, he would lecture to a hundred students for an hour three times a week on a wide variety of topics, none of which were even remotely related to our chemistry curriculum.  It was entertaining, but uninformative.  Nevertheless, our course exams still covered the standard curriculum.  If you wanted to survive, you had to read the book and figure it out yourself, a great learning experience early in my college career, even if not by the college’s design.

Physics is a terrific course for allowing students to learn to build their own understanding.

I don’t teach students physics directly.  At least, I avoid it as much as possible.  Instead, I set up learning experiences, resources, lab activities, and discussions that allow them to develop their own understandings.  Of course, we come back together to combine what we’ve learned in our classroom community, but students are expected to answer their own questions, with leading questions and directions from the instructor where necessary.

bobby_studying_lg_wht At the beginning of the year, this is very uncomfortable for many students, but as the course progresses, they build more and more confidence in their skills as I remove more and more of their "scaffolds" and assistance.  By early spring, students are ready for their first independent learning unit, in which I give them a set of pages to read in several books, point them at a web page or two from my APlusPhysics site, reference a couple of online video primers on Youtube or APlusPhysics, and provide them a couple problem sets and lab activities.  Then, they’re on their own for the week, coming to me only for additional resources or clarification.

It’s a scary proposition, but the students stretch to meet the increased expectations, oftentimes reporting not only a successful independent learning experience (verified by and-of-unit exam scores as well as analysis of lab reports), but a desire to engage in more of these activities in the last few months of the school year.  A success not only for physics content, but even more, a success for life skills that will allow them to exceed the reach of their teachers as they grow and develop.

teacher_reading_with_student_lg_wht A good teacher doesn’t answer students’ questions, a good teacher asks probing and leading questions that guide students to answer their own questions.  A good teacher doesn’t lecture hour after hour, a good teacher allows students to explore, develop, err, and reflect.  And most importantly, a great teacher doesn’t talk and talk and talk, but instead engages in conversations with students, listening, reflecting, and adapting instruction to the needs of the individual.

Keep these things in mind when searching for a tutor, regardless of subject.  If the tutor appears to be working harder than the student, something’s wrong.  The tutor should be asking the questions, allowing the student to struggle, make mistakes, and learn to recover.  Look for resources the student can use to answer their own questions, and make sure the student starts there.  The teacher should never be a student’s primary resource for knowledge.  Our job as educators is to create learning experience for students to engage in, not to spoon feed knowledge which will soon be forgotten.

Tablet PCs in the Classroom

Over the past few months I’ve answered a number of questions from various sources (most commonly, the AP Physics Listserver) surrounding the use of tablet PCs in the classroom. Given their burgeoning popularity, this series of posts is an attempt to document best known methods for utilizing these tools effectively, with a specific focus on physics education.

Tablet PCs mean many things to many people.  For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider a Tablet PC to be a laptop computer which includes a stylus you can use to write directly on the screen, or a laptop or desktop computer which includes an electronic tablet and stylus (such as the Wacom Bamboo Tablet).

Fujitsu-LifeBook-P1610-Tablet-PC I’ve used tablet PCs in my teaching for roughly five years now, and though by no means an expert, I have had the opportunity to find plenty of things that do and don’t work. This series of articles is an attempt to share what I’ve learned and answer many of the questions that keep recurring on the listserver.  Much of what I’ve learned has been through the support and advice of the online community, and likewise, I’m hoping that others with experience and expertise in this arena will share their thoughts and best known methods. Tablet users, I welcome your feedback, comments, additions, and modifications.

For our first article, I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to showcase some of the ways a Tablet PC can be used in the classroom.  This showcase is by no means exhaustive and will hopefully remain a living, growing exhibition.

Presentations & Notes

The Tablet PC can be used in place of a Smartboard when combined with a digital projector, and is, in many ways, superior to a Smartboard. For starters, it is typically easier to write neatly on a tablet PC compared to a Smartboard, whiteboard, or chalkboard. And with the right software, you also pick up a wider array of communication tools, ranging from pen types, sizes, and colors to geometric objects, tables, pictures, and even hyperlinks.

zzzWorkPower I use Bluebeam PDF Revu to document my presentations to the class by projecting a “clone” of my tablet screen for the class to see. Not only can I write neatly for my students, but I can also have my course outline right beside me as I lecture, assisting in maintaining organization and insuring I hit all the key points for each topic.  If my presentation includes a web resource such as a PHET simulation, I can link to it directly from my notes screen, avoiding awkward fumbling and keying in of website URL’s in the middle of a lecture.

Most importantly, when the presentation is complete, I can easily copy and paste my notes directly into blogging software and publish it to the web. Thirty seconds after the end of class, students have access to the entire day’s notes on our course website… an invaluable aid for students who aren’t able to attend class, as well as for students with special needs who require a copy of course notes.

Check out more details in the articles “Presenting and Blogging with a Tablet PC” and “Presenting with a Tablet PC: The iPad

Problem Solving

Often times I find it useful to solve problems with my students in a step-by-step fashion. This is useful as part of a lecture presentation, for homework review, and for review of formal assessments to assist students in working through a logical problem solving methodology. Using a Tablet PC in combination with PDF software such as Bluebeam PDF Revu, I can scan the homework or assessment sheet into a PDF file, project it, and mark it up in real time as we solve problems together.

It’s also quite easy to set up problems in advance, copy and paste a picture or two from the web to spice up the problem, and have students work in groups (typically with whiteboards) to solve the problem.  As I wander around the room examining student work, I can hand the Tablet PC to students who have developed unique or model solutions. They share their solutions using the Tablet PC as they talk through their thinking, and the “coolness” factor serves as a reward for both the presenters as well as the class, leading to the educational nirvana of students teaching students. Interesting problems can again be cut and pasted into blogging software for sharing with all students with just a few seconds of extra effort.

Video Guides

Of course, online notes don’t take the place of a live instructor modeling problem-solving in real time. For cases where this just isn’t practical for all students all the time, you can capture audio and video of the instructor solving the problem. Screen capture software is readily available for Tablet PCs, ranging in cost from free to several hundred dollars, depending on the required functionality. Throw in a low-cost microphone, built-in on many systems, and you have everything you need to create your video. You can even pull your example from a video elsewhere on the web and combine it with your scientific analysis to create an informative and entertaining mini-video that will get your students talking about where they see physics each and every day outside the classroom! Sharing with your students is just as easy – post on YouTube or TeacherTube, embed the file in your blog along with your class notes, and you’re well on your way to creating an amazing online resource for your students!

Over the next several articles in this series we’ll delve into each of these applications in more detail, sharing best known methods and techniques for utilizing Tablet PCs in education, ranging from software and hardware reviews and recommendations to how-to guides for specific applications. So pull up a chair, make yourself at home, and share your tips, tricks, and expertise with our growing community!

YouTube Comments Justify Changing Problem Sets?

In their recent “Physics Teacher” article titled “Unfortunate Outcomes of a ‘Funny’ Physics Problem: Some Eye-Opening YouTube Comments,” authors Josip Slisko and Dewey Dykstra Jr. present a detailed and well-sourced condemnation of humorous physics problems and the negative attitudes toward physics these types of problems inspire.

The article uses a selection of the 1700 YouTube comments in response to a single video titled “Real Word Problems From My Physics book – PH17” as its data source to show the danger and negative feelings the public may experience as a result of a single misguided problem, while simultaneously noting that research results on these topics are inconclusive.

I find the use of YouTube comments to justify the hypothesis unconvincing. Sure, the question described in the YouTube video is ludicrous, and its re-creation is fraught with problems. This should be an indictment of a poorly designed problem, not an indictment of more creative problems altogether. Absolutely, you can find 1700+ comments about the video, ranging from snarky to mean to vulgar. But let’s look at the source – many social media comments, especially Youtube comments, tend to cater to the dregs of culture.  As opposed to looking at the large response to the video as a sign of alarm, I look at the same data and see a large number of people who can remember similar “cute” problems… the problem itself made an impression, and these responders are thinking about physics outside the classroom.

  • Consider the standard projectile motion problem: a particle is launched off of a 20m cliff onto the flat ground below at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal with an initial velocity of 27 m/s.  Neglecting air resistance, how far from the launch site will the object land?

Such problems are a dime a dozen.  Occasionally these problems are even spiced with a kicked soccer ball or thrown football.  Student engagement level – fair at best. Now, how about we re-write the problem?

  • Evil Knievel is shot out of a circus cannon from the roof of a platform with azzzknievel velocity of 27 m/s at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal. The daredevil flies across a gaping chasm, eventually landing on an air cushion at a height 20m below the launch cannon. How far from the platform should the air cushion be placed in order to save Knievel from a trip to the hospital?

All of a sudden, we’ve added some interest to the problem, some extra motivation for solving it correctly, and provided a more realistic context to allow students to visualize the problem.  Of course, such problems could be taken to the level of absurdity:

  • A distraught zookeeper launches a rare orange-striped wombat from a catapult located at the top of a 20m cliff. If the wombat leaves the catapult at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal with an initial velocity of 27 m/s, how far from the base of the cliff will the wombat land? Neglect air resistance.

Even at the level of absurdity, the problem makes an impression. Realistic? No. But as you realize you can solve absurd problems such as this with basic kinematics, you also realize the wide range of projectile problems you can solve.

Based on my personal experience, teachers don’t need warnings about using “funny” problems in the classroom. We have enough real challenges and issues to deal with each and every class period.  If “cute” or “funny” problems engage just one more student, or shift a student’s paradigm just enough that they make a new connection, or the problem is so crazy it comes up that night around the dinner table, it’s one more valuable tool in our belts that I am more than happy to pull out and use whenever it’s appropriate to do so. Using a selection of response comments from a Youtube video as a data source to denigrate creative problem synthesis is premature. Instruction needs to be tailored and differentiated both to the personality of the instructor as well as to the personality of the class, and this may or may not include “funny” problems depending on the situation at hand.