Physician, Heal Thyself!

Failure leads to humility, which leads to brutal self-inspection, which leads to insight.

I’m an educational researcher by profession. I tend to believe that I know a lot about how to teach well, especially physics. I’ve read the literature, attended the conferences, conducted research, engaged in countless discussions about teaching and learning, and published some papers. Yes, I’ve even designed and taught physics courses, though not much since finishing my Ph.D. (I’m on a research position, not a teaching one. Unfortunately.)

Which is why the following anecdote is acutely embarrassing.

This past July, my colleague, group leader, and travel buddy Bill Gerace and I spent two unexpectedly hot, humid weeks in Vitznau, Switzerland. We went to teach physics to hospitality management students (as we did in Singapore the previous summer). Does that seem bizarre? UMass has partnered with hospitality management schools in Singapore and Vitznau to offer a UMass baccalaureate. Students must fulfill regular UMass degree requirements, including “distribution” criteria of so many literature classes, so many science classes, etc. The partner schools used to ship their students over to UMass for a year or so to take all those courses, but someone figured out that it’s cheaper to send UMass faculty over to teach two-week intensive courses in various subjects. So, UMass asks its faculty for volunteers.

Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Bill jumped on the opportunity. He used the stipend to pay my travel expenses, so we both went more or less for free, inveterate travel junkies that we are. Bill taught, I helped out with computer tasks and improvised experiment/demo equipment, and I telecommuted to fulfill the duties of my “real” job. (Lest you think I’m a slacker, know that we committed to this trip before the big research grant providing my real job had been awarded.)

Back to the humility thing. A few days into the course, we reached the topic of “conservation of energy.” I have a way of explaining the concept that I think makes a whole lot of intuitive sense and should be brilliantly clear to students, so I asked Bill if I could teach that segment. He agreed, and I did. I tried to, anyway.

So I started, and introduced my analogy between conservation of energy and financial accounting, making the point that money is never created or destroyed, but moved from one account to another, to cash in your pocket, to credit (or less debt) on your credit account, etc. This is is just like energy: it gets shifted around from one form to another, one “place” to another, but the total amount remains the same. (Nobody asked about governments that print money.) This should be really accessible to students also taking management classes, right?

As it goes on, I get increasingly uncomfortable. Eyes are glazing over. A crunch on classroom space has pushed us into the computer lab for this class, and more than a little key-pecking and monitor-glancing is happening. I ask questions and get very little response; the answers I do get are tentative and unsure, more like guesses than opinions.

And then it hits me. I’m doing it: the classic IRE triadic pattern of classroom discourse, in which the instructor “initiates” with a question, the students “respond” with an answer, and the instructor “evaluates” the correctness of the response. No “uptake” or chaining of responses to responses, no true dialogic discourse or exploration of points of view. This is quizzing, not discussion. I’ve just read an entire damn book about patterns of discourse, nodding in agreement as the authors expounded upon the futility of IRE-based teaching, and here I am torturing perfectly nice foreigners with it.

It’s not that I don’t really understand the theory or the arguments against IRE. I very much do, to the point that it seems self-evident. Rather, IRE-style teaching is so deeply ingrained in me from 20-odd years of being a student (not counting preschool or the interminable stretch of my dissertation work) that I fell into it without even thinking.

So I bailed. I tag-teamed off to Bill almost mid-sentence. No one can improv physics like Bill, so he picked up smoothly and continued the lesson (with significantly less IRE and eye-glazing).

Licking my wounds later and reflecting on the experience, I realized I had been doomed from the very moment I first desired to teach that lesson. I began by thinking about what was inside my head — the cool analogy I was going to make — rather than about what was inside the students’ heads. Rule #1 of teaching:

It doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth (or shows up on your PowerPoint slides). All that matters is what happens in the students’ minds, so find out what that is and interact with it.

The myth of coverage is a corollary of this.

The morals of this story?

  1. There’s a huge gap between knowing and doing. We generally do what we’re patterned on, not what we would choose if we thought about it. Especially under stress or on the spot.
  2. If we really want to impact the way science (or anything else) is taught, we must change the formative learning experiences of our future teachers. It’s a bootstrapping problem.
  3. Don’t lose sight of the goal for even a moment: in this case, developing students’ understanding. Teaching cleverly is not synonymous with making learning happen.
  4. Self-monitoring and reflection are very powerful learning tools. I learned more from that one experience than from dozens of learned papers and discussions. (Bill likes to say that “All learning is through trauma.” He’s using learning in a narrow, strong sense and trauma in a general, cognitive one.)

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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