Monday, July 23, 2012

#ModChem Day 9: Part 1 - Whiteboarding and Discourse

Modeler's Log, Day 9--

We got right to work today finishing our first participant-led questioning session with whiteboard presentations of review problems in unit 5. Everyone was given as much time as they needed to work on questioning with their "students," but it did go more quickly by the end than it started. Embedding plausible student mistakes can be difficult for teachers to really simulate students' incorrect lines of thinking; and, as a result of our natural tendency to forget what it was like to not have a solid understanding of the content, this challenge extends into trying to understand, diagnose, and remediate students' misunderstandings. At the end, we all debriefed the whiteboarding session and our questioning attempts--we determined that we all need more practice. A hard lesson learned was the difference between closed and open questions in this session; that is, questions that will only elicit one response (e.g., yes/no) rather than questions that can have a variety of responses communicated in a variety of ways.

Immediately following the whiteboarding session, we discussed two articles on whiteboarding as a learning process and Socratic dialogue in teaching. The article review coupled with our own experience as "students" in the workshop led us to many great points and even more great questions. Whiteboarding truly is an essential component of modeling instruction, and it is a learning process.
It is not just an activity or another way to go over homework; rather, it is a way to make thinking visible, help students become more metacognitive and to reflect more on their own understanding. Of course, you don't have to use modeling instruction to do whiteboarding, but you do have to use whiteboarding if you do modeling instruction...regardless, you can employ strategies that make thinking visible, such as those given by Harvard's program on the strategy.

This discussion included ways to hold students accountable for their work; e.g., students who construct the whiteboard cannot present, or everyone must speak during the presentation. This helps to get everyone an equal chance to be involved in the process, rather than leaving up to be dominated by certain individuals who may be more "in the know" than others. A great idea that came up was to empower students to ask the teacher-style questions of each other, and not just during whiteboard presentations but in all aspects of the class. Having them emulate the teacher questioning will prevent them from being mere "tellers" when helping others or working with each other. Also, we know that to fully understand something would entail that one comprehends the connections between aspects of a concept and has an ability to navigate through multiple representations of the concept or anticipate pathways that can lead to understanding of the concept. After all, if someone can teach someone else something, without merely "explaining" it to (telling) them, then mustn't they have a strong understanding in the first place?

Finally, with regard to the topic of whiteboarding and Socratic discourse, we talked about having Norms for whiteboards, both in their creation and in the presentation of them during class discussions:
  • One person talking at a time; not everyone talking over each other
  • Nobody likes a know-it-all; telling isn't teaching--ask questions instead of just telling someone
  • Talk loudly enough to be heard by everyone else
  • Talk to the entire group, not just the teacher
  • Everyone claps after each board, and it's a golf clap (via #TeamPhysics)
  • Write legibly, with a darker color, and large enough to see across the room
Asking good questions is different than telling in an interrogative way. Don't just end your questions with "...right?" or "...yes?" because it encourages an affirmative answer so that the student appears 'in agreement' with the teacher, since the teacher is viewed as the expert...right?

Whiteboarding sessions should be used as an opportunity for students to learn from mistakes and not merely just arrive at an answer. All too often, it is just about the right answer in school, and when students come to expect that, they can lose sight on the learning process and the underlying comprehension that underpins the right answer. This can be significantly helped if the teacher resists the urge to correct mistakes that students make on their whiteboards before presenting them when they are constructing their board; instead, let the mistake get presented and then fix it as a class through discourse. Never let a mistake proceed uncorrected during a whiteboarding session.

Coupled in with our discussion of whiteboarding and Socratic discourse, stemmed from our practice at questioning students during our simulated whiteboarding session, was a discussion of the student errors we saw in the session. Issues with dimensional analysis, especially multiple steps, and misuse of the relationships between quantities, were our main areas of focus. We agreed that, because students sometimes just focus on just matching units up in an algorithmic fashion under the factor-label method, stoichiometry becomes a separated based on mathematical ability and cognitive development to formal operational thinking. Students seem to have a struggle with stoichiometry and dimensional anlysis or are quite facile with it. The challenge, however, lies in the approach to teaching these topics. If dimensional analysis is reduced to a factor-label chart with the answer as the main focus, then students will lose sight of the physical relationships between quantities and not necessarily know what it is that their answer means, let alone how they arrived at it.

Using single step proportions (or even the cross-multiply setup that students learn in math) can allow students to keep the physical context at the focus of their problem-solving and attend to the physical relationships between quantities to help them reason their way or think their way to a solution rather than perform a mere algorithm. This can be accomplished using "for every" speak, which is a linguistic representation of the physical relationships between the quantities. Using "for every" statements in your teaching of dimensional analysis or stoichiometry is discussed in more detail here from a presentation given at ChemEd 2011. This is not to say that the factor-label method cannot ever be used, rather it is expedient and a helpful way to solve the problems, but it is not intuitive nor a form of reasoning; it is an algorithm that can be applied without an understanding of what it means. Since we want students to be critical thinkers and to be able to reason their way through a problem solution, starting out with an algorithm (shortcut) will mean nothing without a full development of the concept behind it. The "for every" statements can eventually lead students to arrive at the factor-label algorithm on their own, or at least to apprehend it more easily when it is taught.

Ultimately, we want our students to be empowered and to feel success with their chemistry, but this cannot be accomplished if we teach only in a way that makes sense to someone who has a higher-level understanding of chemistry to begin with; keep in mind that many of our students are still concrete thinkers and will not develop further just by being forced to think in a formal operational way; instead, we need to scaffold them with intuitive approaches that will transfer to reliable problem-solving strategies later. This is done with the way we teach, how we make thinking visible, and how we engage students with us and each other in Socratic discourse of a nature that is critical to the content we are trying to teach & learn.

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