learning from the game designers

Grant Wiggins nails what I want to figure out how to do in physics. See the second half of this post, beginning with the paragraph that starts “Demographics have nothing to do with designing backward…”:

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A2L is back

Assessing-to-Learn (A2L) was a web site full of physics questions for clicker (classroom response system) teaching, created by my group at UMass while I was there. It’s been unavailable since sometime this spring, when the old server it was on finally died. Well, it’s back, with a shiny new URL:

(I just dropped it on the new server, and was rather surprised when it ran flawlessly. I’m still suspicious. If you find anything amiss — broken links, missing figures, etc. — please let me know. Thanks!)


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worth reading

Grant Wiggins: “Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really.

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reaction to Barak Rosenshine’s “Principles of Instruction”

The Spring 2012 issue of American Educator (available here until the next issue displaces it) led off with two articles that have caused some consternation among my local twitterverse. At first glance, the articles seem to make a frontal assault on a broad swath of “reformed” teaching approaches — i.e., the things that educational researchers like myself have been developing, researching, and extolling for decades — arguing, instead, that a close read of the research strongly supports the superiority of traditional, transmissionist, “the teacher explains what to do” pedagogy. I must admit to dismay and apprehension based on the articles’ titles and summaries.

As to the first article, by Clark, Kirschner & Sweller: My dismay was largely unfounded. A thorough read of the article itself reveals that the authors are not promulgated transmission over active engagement, but rather “guided instruction” over “discovery learning”. I have no problems with that. Guiding instruction, after all, is what teachers are supposed to do.

The second article, by Barak Rosenshine, is more interesting. I find it well argued and very reasonable-sounding, and have made some notes about changes to make to my own teaching. However, it also makes me very uncomfortable, and I fear that the article is framed in such a way as to bury something critical.

One source of my unease comes from my sense that Rosenshine’s arguments are pushing me inexorably towards a “drill and practice” model of instruction: small chunks of teaching at a time, explicit modeling, heavily scaffolded and guided practice, extensive rehearsal, etc. These things all make sense for teaching very specific, well-defined skills and performance tasks, like training students how to solve stock physics problems. However, I don’t see physics as about training students to solve stock physics problems.

To put it another way: What learning goals are Rosenshime’s best practices the best practices for? Do they really help students develop both dimensions of “adaptive expertise”, or only the “efficiency of problem solving” dimension? Maybe they do, or maybe they *can* depending on the implementation. If so, this is a very critical point to make explicit. Rosenshine’s article never uses the word “transfer.” (The Clark et al. article does, but with no discussion of exactly what kind and degree of transfer they mean.)

A second source of unease for me is the fear that although the kind of instruction Rosenshine advocates may be effective for developing specific, well-defined knowledge and skills, it may be very ineffective at developing students’ motivation, their developing identity as “the sort of person who does physics” (or whatever the discipline in question is), and other aspects of what Joe Redish calls the “hidden curriculum” and David Perkins calls “playing the whole game”. I’m afraid that this is exactly the kind of reductionistic thinking — getting better and better at teaching more and more decontextualized, fine-grained, formalized “knowledge” pieces at the expense of the really big picture of “why students are in this class in the first place, from their own perspectives rather than ours”.

A third, related source of unease is that it seems to push us way from student ownership of and initiative within the learning design, instead further entrenching the synchronous factory model of instruction. I wonder what Alfie Kohn would have to say.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Rosenshine’s article. I would, at the very least, like to see some discussion about how to implement his best practices in the service of whole-game learning, the fostering of intrinsic motivation and self-regulated learning, the development of adaptive expertise, and so on.

Posted in Educational Research, Learning & Teaching, Pedagogy | 8 Comments

“Just tell me what you learned…”

It’s Saturday night at the end of spring break, my wife is nine days into an eleven-day trip out-of-state, most of my friends are out of town too, and I’m feeling moody and philosophical. So what do I do? Try to figure out what’s wrong with the way we (all) teach physics, and imagine better ways to do it.

So here’s a completely crazy, hare-brained idea. Every day, I go into class and just kind of weave a web of ideas, following them wherever they lead. Sometimes students will ask about whatever aspect of the physical world has caught their attention. Sometimes we’ll analyze something out of the news, or the physics behind a bit of technology. Sometimes I’ll toss out a puzzle to figure out, or a thorny real-world situation for them to try making sense of. We’ll pull in some math, some problem-solving strategies, and of course all kinds of physics concepts and principles as we go. The overarching, underlying, and through-running theme is “We live in a really interesting world, and we encounter some pretty powerful ideas when we think about it carefully.”

I encourage students to do reading on their own, sometimes choosing from various bits and resources I’ve marshaled, sometimes following their own curiosity. Problems and scenarios that come up in class get followed up outside class, and students report back another day to discuss what they figured out or where they got stuck.

There’s no specific, must-cover list of topics (though of course I can pretty much guarantee that the “big ideas” will come up again and again).

And what about grading? Throughout the course, students keep a journal or assemble a portfolio of what they’re learning. At the end, they write a reflective essay summarizing and weaving together what they think they’ve learned during the course, backing up with the journal/portfolio. That’s the basis of the grade. Maybe they even suggest the grade they feel they’ve earned, along with self-critique and suggestions to themselves for future learning.

We don’t have to think or talk about the friggin’ grades all semester. Students don’t have to worry about learning what they need to learn for the test, rather than what they want to learn or think would be most valuable for wherever they’re headed in life. I don’t have to worry about whether we’ll get through the syllabus: no “death march through the textbook.”

It couldn’t possibly work, right?

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