Saturday, June 30, 2012

...and another thing...

I tweeted recently about Sal Khan's (of Khan Academy) response in the Chronicle of Higher Education to the MTT2K tweet-project-happening-movement-thing, where teachers present critiques/parodies of Khan's video, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000:

I don't have a subscription to that journal, so I admittedly only commented on the excerpt on dy/dan.

Something in there's still bothering me, though:

     With procedural, worked problems: That’s how I learned, that’s how everyone I knew learned.

In addition to Dan's (and others') already-written critiques on procedural learning and lecture's general ineffectiveness (a point which Khan still seems not to acknowledge or even fully appreciate, which is the scary part, especially for someone being given the keys to the educational kingdom by many), there's another issue here.

One of the reasons that physics reform efforts (which are some of the most highly advanced, in terms of purposeful development and research support) have veered sharply away from lecture is that it's been shown to be ineffective.  One of the reasons that it has been a difficult sell to many (teachers, administrators, parents, students) is that lecture and procedural approaches were how they learned.

For most students (and parents and administrators as past students, unless they went into scientific/mathematical fields - but maybe not even then, if they didn't go into physics), it doesn't even work for them! It's familiar, though, and there's almost an idea that you're not supposed to understand physics and math.  It's a hoop that you jump through that you forget right after. We teachers see that mentality all the time, and SBG's a good way to start to stem that tide, but that's not my point here.

For physics teachers, it's a difficult sell precisely because lecture probably did work for them. I took a course similar to AP Physics B in high school (we didn't have AP-designated courses at my school, but it was basically the same course content) as my intro course, and a calculus-based course that was about the same as the two AP C course for my second course (and I had the good fortune to be able to take electronics and modern physics courses too).  After that first course full of a crazy amount of content, I really did have a solid grasp of the concepts beneath pretty much all of that physics.

That's a story that's been around forever - this worked for me, so it'll work for you. If it doesn't, then you're not working hard enough or you're not smart enough or whatever.  One of the historical failures of lecture was the inability to really reach folks other than those folks that become teachers, engineers, etc.  Everyone else was left out.

So if that's an old story, what's left to say? I think that one of the reasons that it could work for me was that I had time to engage with the material, even just inside my own head. I had downtime and time alone.  Quite a bit, really. There were no cell phones, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  I had email and FTP and Gopher, etc., but those weren't 24-7 sources of instant gratification like students have today.  I built stupid stuff, did silly projects, took apart things that I couldn't put back together, etc.  I wasn't out doing a Westinghouse project, I was just engaging with the world and, with some space and time, I was able to connect the real world to all of those things that I learned about in physics class.  I was interested in all of that stuff before I took physics, so I had a leg up (especially on the many kids that I see that don't know how to use a wrench or don't understand what are and aren't good uses for duct tape, etc.), but the space to do that experimentation before, during, and after my physics education was important, even if it didn't look like it all the time.

Regardless of the reform method, the key is stimulating this engagement.  Whether it's SBG, modeling, peer instruction, etc., that's really always the lynch pin. In the past, there was opportunity for that thought and experimenting (building things, etc.) outside of class, even if the lecture itself wasn't convincing to everyone that that was something that they should do (and even if it didn't really train them to do that well or at all).

Today, kids don't have (mostly through choices that they make, though there's great societal pressure to make those choices) the long stretches of attention to devote to turning these ideas over in their minds.  There's always a text message to reply to or some other distraction.  They're just never alone and their time is increasingly sucked into reactive communication.  Never before have so many been able to talk so easily and had so little to say.

If they're sitting in class listening, almost all of them are not really engaging with that material.  Outside of class, almost all are trying to get through whatever assignment or test prep they're doing so that they can get on to the next thing or the next text message, interrupted all the while so that most can't even do that bit efficiently.

What reform education methods do is actually carve out time for that reflection to happen. 

The key is to walk into the class and see what the kids are doing.  If it's something, it's probably a lot more effective than doing nothing while sitting and listening. 

Yes, it'd be great to for kids to be able to do more of this outside class, but the deck's stacked against us.  Even when kids did have time, the success rate of lecture was abysmally low. If we teach them how to think and reflect and analyze, then we know that they're actually doing some of that (because we're there when it happens), and we may even stimulate them to do more of it while they're not with us. Win, win, win.


  1. Have you seen what is happening at Khan Academy summer camps? Seems to be exactly what you want: (from 2012 Khan Academy camp) (from summer camp 2 years ago that Sal ran)

  2. There are a few levels on which folks have issues with KA:
    1. Physical/mathematical inaccuracies
    2. Poor pedagogy - 'classic' lecture mistakes
    3. The overall failure of lecture as effective teaching for the large majority of students

    The third point is still at issue here. I'm looking at what he says in the article there - the idea that the 'core concepts' can be communicated via video lecture is a large part of the problem. Using class time for engaging projects is an improvement on just using these videos and doing rote practice, but isn't the whole deal, IMHO.

    The biggest issue is 4.: how the videos are being used or proposed to be used.

    So many of the decision-makers here don't understand the distinction that is made in the article, though, and Khan isn't doing much to dissuade them - if he's on board with 1-3 above, which I haven't seen a great deal of evidence for. Politicians are increasingly seeing this as a cheap way to get rid of difficult teachers and sit kids in front of videos.

    Practice has a place. Lecture _can_ have a place. It would still require a great teacher to pull videos together into a coherent course that would work for large numbers of students. Also, I'd like to see the lectures at least be completely physically correct and at least be created by teachers with deep content and pedagogical knowledge. There are plenty out there - why are we throwing attention and money at a dilettante (in the best sense of the word - with some understanding but not a specialist's background)?

  3. "What reform education methods do is actually carve out time for that reflection to happen."

    That's a great way to summarize most of the reform movements in physics education. I hadn't thought of it that way before, but that does seem to be the common thread running through almost all of them. By moving the reflection time into class (via whiteboarding, peer instruction, etc.), we can make sure that students are taking time for it and we can monitor the quality of it, coaching students as is required.