Thursday, May 19, 2005

Understanding

I have suspected for months that Mr. Kelvin's students just aren't getting it, but I've had trouble finding any one thing to point to that would help explain why or what to do about it. I've also suspected that although I could sit in the back of the room and know his lesson wasn't really getting through, he didn't see it that way. I would do my observations and give him feedback, but it felt like I was always picking out little tiny things that didn't add up to much.

On Tuesday, after observing another lesson and having the same set of intuitions, I decided to confirm my feeling by interviewing a few of the students. I picked out a few students sitting near me, neither the strongest nor weakest students, and asked them a few questions like these:

"Why did the balloon expand when he took it up the mountaintop?"

"Air pressure? What do you mean by that?"

"WHY is the air pressure less on the top of the mountain?"

"Okay, so why does that make the balloon get bigger?"

It only took a few of these open-ended questions and follow-ups before the kids would hit a wall in their understanding. Now, they're only 11, so obviously they are not going to get everything perfectly. Unfortunately, their understanding unraveled just as my questions probed the most important concepts underlying the lesson.

They weren't getting it.

I decided to talk to Mr. Kelvin about it today, in lieu of a science dept. meeting. Unfortunately, the conversation didn't go quite as planned - I didn't say enough to prepare him for what I wanted him to hear, and then we pulled out some of the sixth graders and he and I interviewed them in the same way. It was clear to him that his lesson hadn't gotten across.

And I think he was devastated.

After about 4 or 5 interviews like this, I asked him, "What do you think?"

He said little and went into his classroom. A few minutes later, we talked again, and he said he doesn't know what to do because there's only a month left and he feels like they didn't learn anything from him. I could tell from his tone and demeanor that he needed to be left alone at that point, so I left it - we can debrief it more later.

The thing is, he needed that moment. His teaching this year has lacked a sense of urgency. He was coasting, on some level. And I really think this was the first time he got real, from-the-kids feedback on the effectiveness of a lesson. But it was brutal and devastating. I have no real training in working with adults, and I think I didn't handle this that well. Clearly, I needed to prepare him more for what we were going to do and its purpose, and I needed a more solid plan for what to do after that moment. Eventually, he'll get over the initial sting and will hopefully be in a frame of mind to do some problem-solving and set up better feedback systems for the future. I know he needs that cognitive dissonance in order to learn, but how do you create it in a way that isn't so alienating? I don't know.

*****

Our AUSSIE suggested that I share some of my own stories of teaching something and knowing that the kids didn't get it. Good heavens, it's happened a lot. Most recently, my lesson on meiosis yesterday resulted in a lot of very confused children. I used PowerPoint so that I could show them animations from the web, notes, etc. It took a lot longer than I expected, mainly because I have a few kids who are very vocal when they have questions (thank goodness - that's one of those sources of feedback!). We reviewed mitosis, then I introduced meiosis. Lots of confusion. The particularly tricky thing, which I remember being hard for me during my education, was keeping straight the difference between homologous pairs of chromosomes and pairs that form when the DNA replicates. I do my "lectures' in question & answer format, which keeps everyone (mostly) involved, makes sure they are engaging with, not just absorbing, the material, and helps me get a handle on how hard it is for them. I think it also loosens them up to ask questions and to tell me when they don't understand.

Luckily, I knew from my interactions with students that they didn't get it, and I knew roughly where the trouble lay. So today, I cut chromosomes out of strips of paper, drew giant cell membranes on chart paper, and typed up a simulation with steps to follow and questions to answer. The kids worked in groups, followed the simulation instructions, talked to each other, asked me when they needed clarification, and everyone felt a hundred percent better about it by the end of the period. Their homework is to draw a comic strip showing the process. That's my next opportunity to find out what they're thinking. I don't think they'll get diploid & haploid - some will, some won't - but that's just icing. They definitely get that DNA comes in chromosomes, that humans have 46 (23 pairs), that gametes have only 23 chromosomes, and they have a rough idea of the steps involved in dividing up the genetic material to form those gametes.

I think the operative ed terms for this post are "formative assessment" and "summative assessment." Formative is all the little ways you know how they're doing as you go, and summative is what the students produce at the end that tells you exactly what they learned. Formative is more often used for checking in with the teaching process, while summative is more often used for grading purposes.

*****

On a side note, I went to 3 supermarkets and 2 drug stores, and couldn't find colored marshmallows. So I guess I have to buy gumdrops for our DNA models tomorrow. I'm sticking to the basics - the double helix (a.k.a. "twisted ladder), the base pairs, the idea that base pairs "spell" the genes, which tell the body what proteins to make. And then we take Twizzlers, toothpicks, and gumdrops and make candy DNA...

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