Friday, March 28, 2014

A Pleasant Surprise Courtesy of Asynchronous Learning

I have a student who has struggled in my course this year. I'll refer to him as Donald. Donald hasn't quite internalized the demands of the course; specifically, he falls behind and doesn't use homework time to catch up. Donald definitely has struggled with the personal responsibility needed to be successful in my course.

This may have changed! I was pleasantly surprised during this spring break - a much appreciated #eduwin. Donald spent some of his spring break working on the next unit. So far, Donald has taken notes on two videos and completed an entire POGIL. Had this been a different student, I would be worried about spending vacation time doing school work but this is a good move for him. Donald will start the next unit a week ahead of his peers. Not only will this give him a cushion and provide great momentum at the beginning of the final quarter, but I suspect this will also be a psychological boost. I think he'll feel great about being ahead when all year he has been behind. 

Even though I expected some of the exceptional students to work ahead of peers, I didn't foresee this possibility. I use this mastery model to allow students to work at their normal pace but I never intended for a struggling student to use vacation time to move ahead. If Donald has a successful final quarter, I'm quite sure it will be because he took the initiative and took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the asynchronous flipped class model. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

On Being Less & More Helpful

Recently, I read a blog post from an educator who argued that teachers ought to be less helpful, in order to be more helpful. The argument goes as follows: teachers who over scaffold ruin the opportunity for students to engage in critical thinking and problem solving. Math educator, Dan Meyer cited some wonderful examples in his Ted Talk, "Math Class Needs a Makeover." It's easy to see this issue in math education, especially with word problems. A word problem might ask the volume of an object. In an attempt to scaffold, the problem might list sub questions which identify the major requirements to solve the overall problem. This might be over-scaffolding because an important part of problem solving is identifying the required information and ignoring the irrelevant information. The sub questions substitute for this process of critical thinking. The result is mindless calculations, where students might be able to solve the overall problem but not understand why the solution works. In this case, by being overly helpful, we stunted the intellectual development of our students. What if we just erased the sub questions? It would drastically increase the rigor of the problem. Students would have to think through which information is important and why. They would have to develop a strategy and figure which steps to complete. 

In the real world, when we need to solve problems, there are no clear steps dictated to us. We are the arbitrators of relevant versus irrelevant information. We decide which steps we need to take. Our classes should mirror reality in this case. 

I've been motivated to be less helpful this year. For example, I use to provide experiment-specific guidelines for each lab report. My hints document would tell students which graphs to make, which research to conduct in the background and which statistics to calculate. I no longer provide such a document. My students have to decide which data to graph and what type of graph to make. They have to figure out which topics they should research. Even though I still dictate which statistics to calculate, overall I have achieved my goal of being less helpful and as a result, more helpful. It is working because my students are visibly more frustrated this year about lab reports.  I have had more one on one conversations about graphing this year than in previous years combined. During these discussions, I can help students think about data display without doing the thinking for them. The other result has been freeing up the lab report structure. Students have thought of interesting and unique ways of displaying their data. In the past, these students would not have had this opportunity.

The tricky component is figuring out the best balance between scaffolding and over-scaffolding. I have to be more mindful of when it's appropriate to provide models for students, mandate components and list requirements. My goal is to have fair assessments which require the greatest degree of critical thinking. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Versatile Scheduling in a Flipped Class

I'm co-clerking a group charged with proposing a new schedule for the school. Part of the process entails getting feedback from the community. My department predictably prefers extended but less frequent meetings to accommodate labs. In the past, I would've considered lab periods as nonnegotiable in a new schedule. (Currently, middle science does not have lab periods.) However, I no longer have a burning need for the lab period model. This is all because of the flipped class. Now that direct instruction, including directions to labs, happen via video and hopefully out of class time, I no longer have those concerns. This is especially true in my asynchronous course. Since students are collecting data at different times, I don't have to slow down the entire class with step by step directions and fielding questions that other students don't need answered. When it's time for a small group to collect data, I am available to address their particular needs. Some groups are ready to go without any help from me, while others need one or two minutes of guidance. The result is an overall increased pace and more effective use of lab time. The other benefit is that I no longer need lab supplies to be available to all students in the same period. Again, leading to more effective use of time and created by the flipped class. 

The lone exception has been the Socrartic Seminars. Our periods are 44 minutes long, which could accommodate two discussions. I use the fishbowl model of concentric circles; the discussion takes place in the inner circle, while the rest of the class observes and takes notes to give feedback from the outer circle. Students switch their roles in the second discussion. I can have two engaging discussions with eight or so minutes to spare. Those eight minutes almost always get wasted. I could easily extend the discussions but I want my students to be able to get done work done every class. I've decided to have both seminars on consecutive days without the outer circle. This adjustment has worked well. While half of the class is engaged in discussion, the other half are getting work done. Even the students who participate in the seminar get half the period to do work. 

I don't know what kind of schedule models we will propose but I am comforted with the revelation that my flipped class will thrive in a variety of schedules.