Monday, July 9, 2012

An Experience With Modeling Instruction & #ModChem

Today was the first day of my chemistry modeling workshop at Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA. I have been really looking forward to this workshop for a while. Actually, I have been looking forward to taking the chemistry modeling workshop since I took the physics workshop at Arizona State University a few years ago. The word "workshop" doesn't really do it justice though, because it is three weeks long, every day for eight hours straight. It's fundamentally a graduate-level course in science pedagogy, but it's formatted in such a way that anyone can sign up to take it, regardless of enrollment in a graduate program.

Modeling instruction is something with which I have had a long history, both as a student and now as an educator. I took physics in high school with a teacher who taught using the modeling methodology. It was a unique experience when compared to my other science courses, but I gained a lot as a learner from that experience, though not all of it was painless. Now, in my teaching, I naturally gravitated toward an approach that was student-centered for some reason, but didn't have a formal way to enumerate a process for accomplishing what I wanted in my classroom. Then, serendipitously, I wound up teaching in Arizona in my first year teaching. Among my department members were four other teachers, three of whom used modeling instruction as their pedagogy in physics, physical science, and chemistry.

I was quickly introduced to the modeling method from a teacher point-of-view working there. It was a baptism by fire, as a matter of fact, because I had to teach that way to keep consistent with the other classes of the same subject; however, I didn't have a way of knowing what to do. They supported me very well and built me up as a fledgling modeler. I worked closely with a teaching mentor who showed me the ropes, but eventually said I "had to take the workshop." That summer, they sent me to Arizona State University to take a three-week course in physics modeling instruction.

The course was intensive, to say the least, and had the same format as the workshop I am currently taking in chemistry. You learn a lot in three fully-submerged weeks, both about the pedagogy and the people. It was a tremendous experience and it shaped the way I have taught everything ever since.

At this point, if you haven't already checked out the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) to learn more, you might be waiting for some sort of explanation about what it is in the first place, or at least looking for my take on it. Let me briefly try to describe modeling instruction in my own estimation:
Modeling instruction is a framework for teaching (especially science subjects) wherein learning takes place through focused development of conceptual models, which are constructed by the students themselves through active experiences interacting with content in context, cultivated with the teacher's guidance. 
Basically, the students are put in an empowered learning role where they are in charge of constructing their own understanding of things rather than merely being told what to think, believe, and know by their teacher.  The methodology of modeling instruction is akin to an onion, as Shrek puts it, because there are many layers. It is a process that arises from over 25 years of dedicated academic research and translation into best practice. It involves the development of models based on observations and experiments, but then uses those models as predictors and explanations of future situations. It utilizes Socratic discourse, student-centered activities, discrepant events, inquiry-based experiments, multiple representations, and all done in a team-like social context.

I have found modeling instruction, in the three years I have been teaching using it as my pedagogy, to be the best way I can teach science and the best way that students can learn science. The simple reason for this, to me, is that modeling instruction is learning through doing science in a scientific manner.

The success in the classroom I have seen with a variety of students, ability levels, and conditions using modeling instruction in several subjects (bio, chem, and physics) has led me to seek to get more formal training. Thus, I have come to take a chemistry modeling workshop this summer in Pennsylvania.

I decided today that I would blog about my experiences with the workshop each day. I will include some reflections about what I learned, experienced, read, did, and thought about the chemistry modeling workshop. You can follow the tidbits of information on Twitter by searching the #modchem.

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