Monday, July 9, 2012

#ModChem Day 1

Modeler's Log, Day 1 --

The workshop started out, as I anticipated, with introductions. Everyone had their perfunctory 30 seconds of fame to talk about their career, life, and hallmark accomplishments. We all go through this as a means of starting workshops or conferences, and so no surprises there.

Our group has two dozen teachers from various levels and from all over the country. I was thoroughly impressed with all the introductions, because of the high level of accomplishment that so many described. "I'm Gary, and I am from Detroit...(*audience gasps internally)...well, not exactly Detroit proper, but a city next to Detroit that isn't as well known. I teach physics in Grosse Pointe and I took the modeling physics workshop three years ago and have been hooked ever since. I am married, have two dogs, and I like to run."

After introductions, we were right into things. Without much hesitation, our workshop leader described the format of the workshop, how "student-mode" would be expected throughout most of the day and that we were going to get started with an experiment shortly thereafter. I was so pumped to get down to business, I could hardly wait!
Student-mode is a way of running a teaching workshop whereby the participants simulate the role of their own students and the workshop leader demonstrates the teacher's role. This allows for a more authentic-feeling experience than just traditional presentations.
We went into student mode and started making observations about a demonstration the teacher did. "What do you notice about the flame?" she asked. You can see the demo for yourself here. What do you notice?


The next question, after the demo concluded, was to describe what was happening inside of the can at "the smallest level possible." These vague directions are purposeful in the modeling approach, because they leave enough open-ended room for variation in responses that the students can arrive at an understanding in a variety of ways. There is no one-size fits all answer usually in this method.

What we discussed from all of our student observations of the demo and speculations of what might be happening led us to conclude that we don't have a good way of describing what happened without mentioning tiny pieces of matter inside the can, which we referred to as particles. At the large-scale level, there is no good explanation of the observed event, and so the need for describing things in terms of particles, comes up organically with the students in this manner.

The rest of the day followed from that initial discussion by trying to describe what we thought was happening at the 'particle level' in several situations. Other situations we explored today focused on comparing the mass of a sample before and after some change took place. For example, we combined two clear liquids and it created a new clear liquid that had white "floaties" at the bottom. The mass, however, was unchanged, and we represented this (and five other situations) with particle diagrams on whiteboards that we presented and discussed as a group. In the end, we determined that the mass stayed the same because the particles didn't "go away" they just moved around.

We took a similar approach in the second part of the day, where we looked at (in a similar way) volume of regular solid shapes and also liquids. By the end of the day we had simulated nearly two-weeks worth of high school content according to the modeling curriculum framework. We looked at a sequence of documents that serve as unit material templates (worksheets, quizzes, tests) to go along with the particle-view of matter. The end of the day was an hour of Q&A back in teacher-mode. We debriefed what we saw all day and what we had been wondering all along.

I was really pleased with the format of the workshop and how quickly we got our hands wet, literally!

Some reflections from what we did and what I saw today:

  • Teachers have a tough time remembering what it was like to be a student, regardless of time post-high school or college.
This was described to me by a colleague, mentor, and recent PAEMST award winner, Don Pata, as retrograde amnesia, which is where we forget what it was like to not know something in the past. For teachers, it is essential to overcome this in order to be better educators.
  • Modeling instruction is such the antithesis of traditional style instruction that traditionalist teachers (and traditionalist teachers who were also good traditional learners) that initially it threatens what we as educators instinctively conceive teaching to be and so we are hesitant to embrace modeling instruction. By the end of the day, you could see that some had been sold and others were well on their way. I can remember when I was sold on it myself, and I enjoy watching others have that epiphany too.
  • All of our traditional concerns with teaching, such as covering content just to cover it, homework, student engagement, student interest in the subject matter, and many other common "complaints" erode away under the use of modeling pedagogy.
  • Effective questioning should come not just when students get lost or in trouble with their understanding but also when they get it right or need to be challenged to solidify their thinking.
  • Showing and telling is not teaching, thought it looks like it could be teaching to some. Learning needs to be experiential and constructed for each student; the teacher's role is a 'guide on the side' instead of a 'sage on the stage' who puts students through a learning cycle of sorts that lets them construct their learning.
  • The chemical model development sequence follows very naturally from the way the model of the atom and modern chemistry were developed throughout history, all the meanwhile it preserves a coherent treatment of matter and energy without reducing chemistry to simple algorithms that can be used by students to 'fake it to make it' without actually gaining understanding.
Many other important points came up today, and I am making a conscious effort to live tweet during the day. You can check out #modchem to see more ideas from the workshop today and over the next three weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing where this all takes us over the next few weeks, but even just today has me sold on using this in my chemistry teaching in the future. It's tough to reproduce the experience in words, you just have to try and see it for yourself sometime if you can. In the meantime, find some resources online and talk to teachers in your local area or PLN for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout out! Great reflections. You seen to really be capturing the important underlying concepts and not the surface features.

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