Sunday, July 28, 2013

Putting the Phun Back in Physics

Physics is required for most of the high school students in Texas. Unfortunately, it can be a tough course for many. The fact that most on-level students do not see the connection between physics and their lives makes it seem even more difficult. This year on-level physics students are the recipient of a rare gift, time to learn how physics applies to them. The gift came when Texas discontinued both of the standardized tests that loom over the eleventh grade students; STAAR End of Course Exam (EOC) for physics and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). This is a gift not to be squandered by lowering the bar. This change gives the opportunity to implement engaging learning methods that were previously dismissed due to lack of time and an overabundance of curriculum. With the flipped classroom already implemented it is time for an additional improvement. The choices for improving class time include so many intriguing methods to engage students in learning; peer-instruction, mastery learning, inquiry based learning, project based learning, universal design for learning and the list goes on.  

Students arrive in physics class with a working, sometimes off base, knowledge of physics. The improvements to class should help create meaning for the student, pique some curiosity and give the student a reason to learn more about the topic. Ideally each unit will start with some way to reach this knowledge, address misconceptions and further understanding. This a tall order when combined with the practical requirements; approval by the curriculum cadre, meet time limitations, be implementable with three new teachers on a six teacher team and add some fun to physics class. Inquiry lessons should meet these requirements. 

As I have learned more about using inquiry I have realized that it can be implemented with careful planning. Inquiry lessons are more flexible than I had realized and do not require the amount of time I had originally assumed they required. At the start of the year we can introduce short, fun and more directed lessons to acquaint the students and teachers with the process. These lessons will still include the abilities and understandings of inquiry as well as introduce elements of exploration and play into physics. Students will be asked to play with a concept using their knowledge and experience and some guidance to create a question and an investigation to pursue throughout the unit. They will be tasked with deciding what they need to learn to answer the question they have designed. Working with the teacher the students will be able to determine how to find the needed information and design a successful procedure. By the end of the unit the students should be able to take what they have learned in the provided lessons and combine it with their work to answer their questions.

By helping students realize they already know some physics and that it is part of their everyday world, the class will become more interesting to those who only consider the subject something required to graduate. Perhaps they will accidentally have fun in a science class and learn to embrace their inner nerd. I know I will enjoy watching students replacing completing assignments with learning some physics.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Something Happened at the Intersection of Flipped Learning and Inquiry

Passing through the middle of nowhere

                As a teacher, I love summer. Not for the reasons some people assume. During summer I still teach, learn and plan but the pace is different and there is time to really think and explore. There is also time for new experiences and adventures. An event occurred that caused the thing I like about a teacher’s summer together in one place, the middle of nowhere. In this unlikely place learning, planning, teaching and traveling intersected. 

I was invited to speak about flipped learning at a conference in Ruidoso, New Mexico. I flew into Albuquerque and drove over two hours to Ruidoso. I enjoy exploring on road trips and this was my first trip to New Mexico. I had done a little research on the Ruidoso, but I did not look up things to do on the route from Albuquerque to Ruidoso. I drove by a number of interesting sites, but I did not feel I had time to stop and enjoy the pueblo, the large array telescope, white sands missile range, the rock shop, lava fields, Smokey Bear’s resting place, or Billy the Kid Historical trail. I was curious about all of those places, but I headed straight for the conference hotel and checked in. 
                It was energizing to have the opportunity to share flipped learning at the conference. The flipped learning model is a way to shift the class environment from teacher centered to student centered, gain class time for more exploration of topics and encourage deeper learning. A short forty five minute presentation packed with information left some with the feeling they were “brain melted”. After time to process, some of them wanted more information so we met and discussed ways to use this method to improve the classroom learning experience for the students. As the conference progressed two ideas kept flashing through my thoughts, Learning Culture and Intentional Content. The learning culture is described:

“In the Flipped Learning model, there is a deliberate shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered approach, where in-class time is meant for exploring topics in greater depth and creating richer learning opportunities through various student-centered pedagogies. As a result, students are actively involved in knowledge formation through opportunities to participate in and evaluate their learning in a manner that is personally meaningful.” (The Flipped Learning Model, 2013. pg 2)

Providing intentional content requires teachers to evaluate the lessons they are presenting to differentiate between what teachers should present and what students should be allowed to explore on their own. The goal of this process is to improve understanding. (The Flipped Learning Model, 2013. pg 2) These form part of the foundation of flipped learning and both are also important in the inquiry learning process. Filling class time with great learning experiences is the real challenge presented in flipped learning and inquiry meets this challenge.
                The next day it was time to take the long road home. I was still mulling over the challenge of creating great in-class experiences. But the current challenge was to make the most of this drive while arriving on time for my flight. I did some research regarding the places to go and things to do in the area and along the route. I created a plan. I limited my explorations to places that were in the general direction of travel from Ruidoso to the airport. The route back was slightly different than the arrival route, had one detour and some places to visit along the way. Departing early enough to make the flight later that afternoon the journey began. I allowed an hour to drive up a mountain at Ski Apache, time for a lunch stop at a suggested local dive and then thirty minutes for a stop at the rock shop.
Smokey Bear's resting place
                I was looking forward to the views from the top of the mountain at Ski Apache. The geology of the area is intriguing and a birds-eye overview would help my understanding of the varied terrain. Making the turn for Ski Apache I was greeted by a flashing sign warning of large, slow construction vehicles and possible road closures at mile marker three. I was very disappointed that my original plan would need to be re-worked. Fortunately the backup plan was to visit Smokey Bear’s resting place. With the GPS reprogrammed, I headed off to Capitan and Smokey Bear Historical Park. Those who are old enough may have fond childhood memories of Smokey Bear and even remember when he died in 1976.  After a visit and short stroll the road trip continues to Albuquerque. I did not stop for lunch after seeing what others had recommended I was not very hungry. The next planned stop was the Blanchard Rock Shop, three miles from the middle of nowhere.

I arrived at the middle of nowhere. Perhaps this isn’t a real place, but if it is, I found it. I was thinking about my travels, wondering if the process I had taken to create my route had elements of inquiry and the back to school writing assignment “What I Did This Summer” popped into my brain. I then wondered if that old familiar writing assignment could become an introductory lesson in the inquiry process to make it more accessible for students. The analysis began.

I did start with a question. “What must I do on the way back to the airport?” I did some investigating and created a plan: Visit Ski Apache, eat lunch somewhere interesting and go to the rock shop. I used the internet to check mileage and did some mental calculations regarding timing. When I found the road closed I had to decide whether to continue my original plan at some risk or change my route. Applying some critical thinking to this problem I created a new plan that included a stop at Smokey Bear Historical Park. I did stop at the rock shop, enjoyed the specimens scattered about on large make-shift tables. I learned some about the local rocks from the proprietor and bought a rock from a nearby mine. All of my plans were built on prior knowledge and experiences, stemmed from the desire to learn more and gave me the opportunity to do so. The route sent me along the Billy the Kid Historical Route and through the lava flows in the Valley of Fires Recreation Area, both of which piqued my curiosity and suggested some additional learning for my next trip. Once I arrived home I planned to share how and what I learned on my trip through nowhere.
I hope everyone has the opportunity to find experience something a little surprising during the summer. When students come back in the fall I would like to hear about their trips. Instead of writing about what students did over summer, which does not fit well in the science curriculum, they can look at their vacation or an outing as an exercise in inquiry.  This will use a personally interesting event to introduce a scientific process.  Analyzing their choice of personal experience with the elements of inquiry could help students understand the process they will be following in investigations during the year. The analysis helped my understanding of inquiry. It will be interesting to design the assignment and try it.

The flipped learning model: executive summary. (2013). Retrieved July 10, 2013 from