The Magic of the Middle Division: Changing classroom norms (#aaptsm10)

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 18, 2010

I’m finally getting a chance to finish my blog posts from the summer meeting of AAPT.  There’s just one more talk that I wanted to share with any of you who couldn’t be there – another delightful presentation from Corinne Manogue of Oregon State University.  Corinne is a colleague, we’ve both been working on creating new activities for use in physics courses beyond the introductory courses, though I’ve been focusing on the junior years and she’s firmly planted in the sophomore level.  Still, I’ve used many of her activities from the sophomore level to enhance our junior course, and I just find her approach inspiring.  You can access many of her developed activities at the Paradigms Wiki.

In her talk, she talked about her area of expertise – the middle division – and shared some of her insights about classroom norms, and how we can be more thoughtful and deliberate about showing students what we want them to do in our classes.  That description barely does justice to the gentle revolution that she advocated for our physics classrooms.  “I’m going to show you ways to implement things that you already know, in new ways,” she promised.

We have certain expectations of a situation, depending on what we see around us, she reminded us.  For instance, if we walk into a restaurant that has a menu on the wall, we know we’ll pay first, eat with our hands, and then leave.  If the restaurant has a printed menu, we know we’ll first get our food, eat with a knife and fork, and pay after we eat.

This menu sets a context for what will happen next!

Similarly, we set up classroom norms from the start.  And it’s important that those classroom norms make everyone feel comfortable – women, minorities, shy white men, engineers – everyone!  In particular, when creating an interactive classroom, start out right.

1.  Don’t grade. If you want them to learn from an interactive technique, don’t grade it if you want them to learn from it.  This sets the stage that this is a low-stakes activity.

2.  Expect everyone to participate. If you’re not grading it, the expectation of participation still needs to be made clear, and made clear from the very first day.

3.  Don’t make them look foolish. Don’t expect them to do anything that you won’t model.  At some point early in the semester, she says, she gets up on the table during class.  In fact, she looks for any excuse to stand on a table, because it looks silly, and sets a new norm.

4.  Make it OK to make mistakes. She uses small whiteboards in her classes, where students can work through an answer to a question she poses.  These help get everyone involved, and nobody is left out.  However, students are a bit intimidated to begin with, not wanting to put something wrong on the whiteboard.  So, the first few times she does it, she doesn’t ask a student to explain why their answer is wrong to the entire class – that’s humiliating. Instead, what she does it to start with showing lots of student answers to the whole class, and talk as a group about which one is correct, and decide what’s productive about the different answers.  Later in the course, students are more comfortable and she asks students to stand up and show their answer, and defend it.  But early on, she clearly sets the norm that it’s OK to make mistakes, and that this is a classroom where ideas can be discussed productively.

What are our goals in the middle division, she asks?  We want students to move away from using problem templates, to use advanccorred notation, to break up complicated problems into smaller pieces, to be more confident in their problem solving ability and to reflect on their solutions and use their judgement as to their reasonableness.  In sum, we want them to move from being a novice to an expert.  And our teaching strategies have to reflect those goals.  Lecture isn’t a bad thing – it has value.  It paints the big picture, covers a lot of material, models good speaking and problem solving skills, and can control just what students get out of class and the questions that they ask.

But activities, like the ones on her wiki, have a different effect.  Students get to practice something, see how it works in depth, and control their own questions.

If they can get it from lecture, she says, then lecture.  If they can’t get it from the lecture, though, we often make the mistake of putting it into the homework instead.  Students work on it, and get stuck, and the good ones come to talk to you, and “you have a wonderful conversation about that difficulty, and they then share the answers with the next student, who shares it with the next one” and so on.  That doesn’t actually help them achieve your goals for class.  Instead, she does activities in class.

As an example, she showed us part of her Acting Out Current Densities activity.

She chose about 10 physicists from the audience and asked them to come to the front of the room.   In true form, she stood on the table at the front.

Corinne -- on the table -- doing a similar activity with students

“You are all charged particles,” she said.  “I have a magnetic field meter, make it fluctuate.” The physicists, smiling abashedly, started to move around near her.

“Now make it nonzero, but not fluctuate,” she said.  After a bit of discussion, they moved in a circle around her.

“Make it read higher” she ordered.  They circled closer.

Now everybody’s on the same page, she said, and we’re all awake.  And this opens up the possibility for questions.  It changes the focus of the class, and allows you to really gauge what your students understand.

Why is an activity like this important for gauging understanding?  When we take the integral over knowledge, she said, we get the impression that everyone knows everything.  Socratic questioning lets us tap into the knowledge in the room.  On the other hand, when we take the integral over questions, as when people in the class ask questions during group work, we start to think that nobody knows anything.

So, I think the point that she was making was that we want to both use lecture (to frame) and activities (to involve), to tap students’ knowledge by asking them questions, and to tap their questions by providing them the space to do so.   That by setting the stage for both to happen productively, we can help many different students feel comfortable doing what is necessary for them to achieve the kinds of goals that we wish for them – a deeper understanding of physics, of problem solving, and of their own capacities.

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