Over the past few weeks, I keep finding myself in conversations about navigating pushback from students and parents when using student-centered, active-engagement instruction, such as Modeling Instruction. Brian Frank tweeted a thread this fall on the fact that that while the frustration and misery that lead to pushback are common, they aren’t inevitable.
This paper https://t.co/zN4z0fYIUr is making the rounds, and so I’ll repost some comments I made on Facebook:
“So, I do believe it’s all very complicated and that it pulling it off is always a delicate matter…
— Brian Frank (@brianwfrank) September 6, 2019
When I used a more teacher-centered, traditional approach, building relationships with my students was enough to make kids comfortable in my classroom. But, when I started using Modeling Instruction, I found myself dealing with angry students, fielding phone calls and e-mails from frustrated parents, and even meeting with administrators when a few parents escalated upstairs. I eventually figured out the point Brian made in his thread–that you can reduce the misery by planning the right kind of classroom environment. While I certainly haven’t eliminated my students’ frustration, I now find my students are mostly onboard with the instructional approach I use and there are some particular steps that have been especially impactful.
Keep Students’ Perspective in Mind
Kids don’t get frustrated because they’re lazy or disinterested in learning; I have yet to meet a student that isn’t curious, hard-working, and persistent under the right circumstances. I think part of the reason students don’t always bring those traits into the classroom is school more often rewards students for compliance and reproducing procedures or reciting knowledge provided by the teacher. Students, especially older ones, have gotten familiar, and even comfortable, with seeing those actions rewarded. Expecting and rewarding something different feels like changing the rules of the game; for students who’ve done well in school, the change can even feel threatening since you’re changing the rules of a game they’ve been winning. Heidi Carlone found students may even see what they’re asked to do in a reformed science class as in tension with their identity as a “good student”. Keeping this in mind isn’t enough to prevent students’ resistance to active learning, but it helps me approach student resistance from a place of empathy, rather than frustration or judgement, and empathy is a much better place to build a classroom climate from.
Tell Students What I Want From Them
During my first year of Modeling, I saw a lot of students working hard in my class, but still struggling with the content because they were working in unproductive ways. Telling these students they needed to participate or put more effort into the class only made their frustration worse, because they were already participating. As I gained empathy for my students’ perspectives, I realized students were engaging in ways that are usually rewarded in school, like memorizing answers or focusing on what’s right during a lab, rather than what actually happened. I started spending more time talking about what productive engagement looks like during different kinds of activities. Since directions like “focus on sense-making” or “collaborate well” are too vague to be useful, I’ve been working on ways to make what I’m looking for more concrete, like using group roles to give students a clear target for good collaboration.
I also keep in mind that high school students have a lot of experience with getting rewarded for superficial engagement. Just telling them those approaches won’t work in physics is almost never enough to overcome years of experience as a student. Students need space to try more familiar approaches, reflect on whether they are working, and the chance to improve. For me, this has meant copious opportunities for reflection on the course and a generous retake policy so early mistakes don’t stick with students the rest of the term.
Finally, every fall, I remind myself to be very patient in September and October (and sometimes even longer) as I give my students the time and tools they need to develop the skills and mindsets necessary for active engagement. Even once students recognize they need to learn how to collaborate or how to have good discussions, they need practice to develop those skills, so a lot of the lessons and activities those first few weeks of the year are rocky. I have to remember that just because my classroom doesn’t look the way I want it to in September doesn’t mean my students and I won’t get there.
Listen to Students
I remember a day during my first year of Modeling where I started class by sketching a graph on the whiteboard of panic in physics vs. time. Students laughed, and we made some jokes about it, but it gave students a much-needed opportunity to be open about their frustrations with the course, as well as to talk about what in particular was frustrating them. The relief in the classroom was palpable; naming and normalizing what students were feeling made their frustration feel smaller and more manageable. I now spend a lot of time listening to students when they are frustrated and having conversations about how physics is different than other courses they’ve taken. I focus on listening to where they’re at, validating their discomfort with my class, and assuring students it is something I will help them work through. The release students get from these conversations doesn’t prevent them from getting frustrated, but it keeps their frustration from festering into something worse. It also gives me the opportunity to help students find ways to channel their frustrations and engage productively in the class, which leads to less frustration down the line.
Share My Purpose
If students are going to sit with their discomfort and take risks, they need to know there’s a reason for what I’m asking of them. Rather than asking students to trust I have a purpose, I talk to students about the reasoning for my instructional choices. We talk about my decision-making both when it comes to the course as a whole and when it comes to individual lessons, which makes it clear to students that I know where I’m taking them. I think teacher-centered instruction feels to students a little like hiking a well-marked trail while following a guide who has a map; even if the trail is unfamiliar, you can see the direction you’re going and you know the guide will keep you on the right path. Active engagement feels more like trying to find your own way in the deep woods without a map or trail. Students need to be reminded that even when I’m hanging back, I know where we’re going, I have a plan to get us there, and I will intervene before anyone gets too far off track. Explaining my choices gives students that reminder, and helps them feel safer, which makes it less likely their discomfort will become frustration. Making it routine to explain my decisions also means I get a lot of benefit of the doubt from students when I make a move I haven’t justified; students trust I have a purpose and either ask about my goals long before they get upset or simply go along with what I’m asking of them.
Make Sure Students See Their Progress
I’ve found that students don’t always recognize how much they are learning when they are constructing knowledge themselves. I give short assessments almost weekly, rather than big unit tests every few weeks. This means students get frequent reminders that they are learning new physics content and making progress towards mastery. When students have evidence they are learning, they are more willing to go along with what I’m asking of them.
The deeper skills, like collaboration and science practices, are harder to track. On a regular basis, I take class time for students to reflect on their growth on these skills. I also try to notice when I’ve been quieter than usual during a discussion, when I manage to stay out of the way during a lab, or when I hear high-quality discourse, so I can point it out and contrast with where the class was early in the year. When students see what they’re gaining, their discomfort feels worth it.
Build Student-to-Student Relationships
If revealing ignorance in front of a teacher is nerve-wracking, revealing ignorance in front of a peer is downright terrifying. If students are going to try out ideas, offer an answer before they know what’s right, and take other intellectual risks, it isn’t enough for students to trust me; they have to trust each other, as well. I wrote about some of the concrete strategies I use in a previous post, but the most important piece has been a shift in the relationships I’m thinking about in my classroom. Previously, the main relationships I paid attention to were the ones between myself and my students; now, I work to cultivate positive relationships between students, as well. My students don’t all need to like each other, but they do need to be able to trust and support each other while they are in my room.
Even when students trust each other, collaborating well is a skill, and a complex one. When I started Modeling, I underestimated how difficult it is for students to collaborate effectively, which ensured my students spent huge amounts of time in ineffective groups, feeling frustrated and miserable, unsure how to improve their situation. I read Cohen and Lotan’s book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom. I started using group roles, reflections on collaboration, and other strategies to teach my students how to work well together (I talk more about these things in the same post where I addressed student relationships). It turns out, when you teach students a skill, they get better at it and when more students are in high-functioning groups, fewer students feel frustrated.
Give It Time
When I first switched to Modeling Instruction, I wasn’t comfortable or skilled with the instructional approaches, and my teaching was often clumsy at best. My first post-lab board meeting flopped and the first round of mistakes whiteboarding was a disaster. As the year went on, I forced myself to try again and gradually got more skilled at facilitating active engagement. It was incredibly uncomfortable to work through those lessons that went poorly, but I needed to fail to figure out how to get better. I spent a lot of time reflecting, I asked for help, and I latched onto evidence that my students were still learning physics during those lessons that felt very rough. With time, I got more skilled with this kind of teaching and more lessons got the results I wanted.
Time is also important for shifting students’ expectations about the course. Kids talk to each other and have heard what physics was like for older friends and siblings, so it felt like a bait and switch to them when I started Modeling. The second year, most of my students had heard about how I teach, so registered for the course knowing it would have lots of group work and minimal lecture. By year four, I’d been using active engagement for as long as they’d been in the high school, which may as well be forever. At this point, even when students are frustrated, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is another way to teach physics, which makes for very different conversations than I had those first years.
Frustration, pushback, and other misery are common reactions to active engagement, but they aren’t inevitable. Creating a space where students feel safe, both with me and with each other, takes effort, but it means that students can accept, and even enjoy, the challenges of active engagement. It’s also important that nothing I talked about here is one-and-done; they are things I work on from September all the way through May. This work isn’t easy, but to see students not only rising to the challenge, but enjoying themselves while they do it is well worth the effort.
Going into this school year, I decided my biggest goal in regular physics would be to be intentional about the kind of class culture I was building. From a pedagogical perspective, I want the kind of classroom where students feel comfortable participating and taking intellectual risks. From an equity perspective, I want classroom where students value working with diverse groups and every student is valued as they are. At the end of the year, my students let me know I’d made some important progress in this area when, on the last day of school, students talked about how much they would miss being in their particular physics class and the sense of community they felt with their peers. I don’t think there is any one thing I can attribute this success to; part of the credit certainly goes to the personality of this senior class, but there a few things I did that I think played an important role.
For a few years now, I’ve had the very simple routine of stopping by each table while students are working in small groups and asking everyone how they are today. I didn’t have any intention or thought behind this habit until I had a student who wouldn’t let me have any other interaction with her group until I’d done the check-in. She also came to class every day with a plan for what she was going to tell me, so the ritual was clearly important to her. Since then, I get several notes from students each year that specifically comment on how much they love my routine of asking how they are each day and the way it makes them feel safe in my classroom. On my end, I really enjoy that I have a low-stakes, positive interaction with every student every day and I get to hear about what’s important to my students. If that makes them more comfortable letting me know when they have a question or when they need something, all the better.
Randomly Assigned Groups
Kelly O’Shea convinced me to try assigning visibly random groups that change frequently. She uses the list function on random.org, but I ended up putting my roster into a spreadsheet made by Scott Lotze, the other physics teacher at my school. Making new groups almost daily ended up being one of the most impactful aspects of this strategy. The usual complaints about assigned groups and requests to switch groups disappeared very quickly since students recognized they only had to manage a challenging group for a day or two. In addition, my school is big enough that I usually have students in the same section who don’t even know the names of most of their classmates but, this year, within a few weeks, every student felt like they knew everyone else in the class at least a little bit. This made a huge difference in whole class discussions; without any changes to how I ran whole class discussions, students were more engaged, more willing to speak up, and more willing to question each other than in previous years. Students told me they felt more comfortable speaking up in physics than in other classes because they actually knew everyone in the room.
Students also learned more when the groups changed frequently, especially when students started working problems with one group, then prepared a whiteboard with a new one. Inevitably, within the first few minutes of moving to the new groups, someone would ask the rest of the group “How did you do our problem?” which lead to great discussions comparing different strategies and finding each other’s mistakes. While this mirrored some of the discussion that happened as a whole-class during mistakes whiteboarding, this small-group discourse drew in every student in a way that is not possible in a whole-class discussion with a class of 33.
In my licensure coursework and in PD I’ve done over the years, I’ve been exposed to group roles numerous times, but always dismissed them as something unnecessary and a little silly for the older students I teach. Reading Cohen & Lotan’s Designing Groupwork: Strategies for Heterogenous Classrooms finally shifted my thinking; they discuss the ways that group roles set the tone for what it means to contribute to a group and can disrupt patterns in who is granted status by their peers, which strikes me as especially important when thinking about the experiences of underrepresented students.
I developed a set of group roles based on conversations with Kelly O’Shea, the group roles from the University of Minnesota’s PER group, and the needs I saw in my classroom. I printed the roles on laminated cards so that students could have a description of their role, including some suggested sentence starters, on the table in front of them while working.
At the start of the year, I used the roles most days, sometimes letting groups decide who did what and sometimes assigning roles randomly. Regardless of how the roles were assigned, they served two important purposes. First, they communicated a clear expectation that every group member was involved and actively contributing to the task. Second, none of the roles required any physics knowledge, which made explicit that there are important ways to contribute to a group besides being able to tell everyone else the answer. Ultimately, these messages were more important than the roles themselves. An instructional coach observed me on the first day of a term, before I introduced the roles, and a day or two later when I’d assigned roles to students. He commented that while we saw very little evidence that students were using the official roles, students were much more engaged and collaborating more effectively during the second observation.
I don’t feel the need to use the roles all the time. I used them quite a bit the first two weeks of the school year, then less and less until the end of the first month, when I retired them for the term. At the end of each trimester, around half of the students in regular physics not only switch between hours, but switch between teachers, which tends to reset the class culture. To help with this transition, I had students go back to using the roles for a week or so at the start of each new trimester to make sure each new mix of students had the shared expectations that came from using the group roles built into their class culture.
Valuing Diverse Abilities
There are a lot of different skills and abilities that are critical to success in science, but students often have a limited view of what it means to be good at science. To try and shift that, I used a simple exercise from Cohen & Lotan’s Designing Groupwork: Strategies for Heterogenous Classrooms where, after an activity, we did a debrief where students identified some of the skills the task required and describe how those skills were demonstrated by someone in their group. In those debriefs, it became apparent that it would be unreasonable to expect any one individual to have all of the skills required, which lead naturally into a discussion of why it was useful to do the task in groups and encouraged students to consider how to take advantage of their peers’ strengths on future activities. It also gave students who see their strengths as incompatible with being a “science person” the opportunity to recognize the value they bring to a group.
During the first month of school, I picked one activity per week that we’d debrief, usually selecting one that I expected to generate a diverse list of required abilities. Like the group roles, this helped set a tone in the class, but became less necessary as students settled in. Similar to the group roles, I picked a few activities to debrief again at the start of each trimester when students moved between hours and between teachers, again ensuring that all students had certain shared expectations and beliefs about collaboration in my classroom.
In the future, I’d like to connect the skills students are identifying to something like Eugenia Etkina’s scientific abilities, Kelly O’Shea’s scientific competencies, or the science practices used in NGSS or AP sciences. There is a lot of overlap between each of these lists and the skills and abilities my students have identified in our debrief discussions this year, and I wonder if connecting what my students see as important to a list that feels more formal would give additional weight to their value in my classroom.
Collaboration is a skill and part of how you get better at any skill is evaluating your strengths and weaknesses so you can make a plan to improve. With that in mind, I had students complete some kind of reflection almost weekly. Some weeks, the questions were about using the group roles, some weeks I asked students to reflect on a list of things effective groups do that I originally got from Scot Hovan and posted at each lab table, and some weeks I used Colleen Nyeggen’s participation goals. All of the reflections were completed during class to ensure students saw the value I placed on them and, on the first few reflections of each term, I took the time to respond to something each student wrote to make it clear I was reading and thinking about what they had to say. Because it was clear that I valued the reflections, most of my students took them seriously, writing insightful comments and having meaningful conversations with their peers. With all of the reflections I used, I was able to get information about was and was not going well with group work and students were consistently thinking about how to be a better member of their group in physics.
I mostly used these strategies in my regular physics classes partly because I fall into the trap of thinking my AP students don’t need the same support; they come in to my class more skilled at collaboration and more comfortable with each other. My AP classes also have very few students who switch between hours and all of them stay with me all year. In spite of those advantages, by the end of the year, my regular physics classes were much tighter knit and typically had higher-functioning groups than my AP classes. That tells me it’s worth making the time to bring these strategies into my AP classes next year.
I also know there is more room to put equity at the forefront of my classroom. It’s fairly easy for students to drop courses at the end of a trimester and white girls and students of color drop the regular physics course at a higher rate than white boys. Next year, the other physics teacher and I are planning to use our PLC time to take a critical look at our classrooms to think about what in our classroom cultures reinforces this pattern and find changes we need to make.
My colleague and I also want to work on building a classroom culture where students value challenge. Most of the students who drop say the course is “too hard”, even when they are getting good grades. If we want to reduce our drop rate, one piece may be building a classroom culture where the challenge is seen as something positive.
Peter Bohacek shared an interesting article with me that found students who’d had a kinesthetic experience with a bicycle wheel gyroscope not only performed better on an angular momentum assessment, but fMRI scans showed the sensorimotor parts of their brain became active while thinking about angular momentum. This validates my gut instincts that students should have lots of hands-on experiences, and I feel like I do a pretty good job of that in physics, but what does a kinesthetic experience look like in chemistry? I teach a basic chemistry course where concrete experiences are critical in developing student understanding and I think students could especially benefit from the kinds of kinesthetic experiences described in the article.
Gas laws ended up being a great place for me to start thinking about kinesthetic experiences in chemistry. Last year, I started doing a lab where students play with a sealed syringe, including heating it up in a water bath and manually changing the volume. Throughout, students are able to feel the pressure difference as the plunger pushes or pulls against their fingers, giving a great kinesthetic experience we can refer back to throughout the unit.
The trick has been connecting this experience to the equations. Feeling the plunger push back when they held it at the same volume in a hot water bath was enough to convince students that pressure goes up with temperature, but a lot of them struggle enough with math that they had a hard time seeing how the qualitative relationship from the lab fit with PV=nRT; the inverse relationship for volume was enough tougher for students to make sense of! My students needed more of a bridge between the kinesthetic, qualitative experience and the math.
That’s where Pivot Interactives came in this year. As part of the Chemistry Fellows program, I’ve been piloting their new chemistry resources in my classroom and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Since Pivot Interactives has several activities where students can collect data for the ideal gas laws and we’ve been working a lot on interpreting graphs this year, I was hoping that collecting their own data could serve as a bridge between the kinesthetic activity and the math.
After some discussion on the qualitative results with the syringes, including developing an operational definition of pressure, we fired up the computers to collect some pressure and temperature data in Pivot Interactives. Students got a nice, linear graph and I had them turn the slope into a “for every” statement to describe how much the pressure went up for every 1 degree of temperature increase. We also had a lot of discussion about how these results fit with what they’d observed previously with the syringes. By the end of the hour, students were on board that P = “stuff” x T and could clearly explain how their experience with the syringes supported that result.
Volume was a little trickier. A lot of my students haven’t taken geometry and finding the volume of a cylinder was a big barrier for a lot of them on a lab earlier this year, so I was nervous about having them find the volume of the bubble. We did some whole-class discussion on what we could measure that would tell us about the volume of the bubble, and students readily settled on the diameter as a good option. The graph of pressure vs. volume still looked pretty inverse.
The discussion was also trickier. Students had felt the changes in pressure as they changed the volume of their syringe, so we had to spend some time working through how that connects to the Pivot Interactives video showing changes in volume as the pressure drops. It took some time, but students were eventually able to make the connection. It also took a little more for my students to make sense of the graph. Since we don’t do linearization in my chemistry course, we weren’t able to make a “for every” statement about the graph, but students were able to recognize that as pressure went down, volume went up and eventually get to V = “stuff” / P.
After this series of labs, it was time to start working some problems. Last year, students struggled through gas law calculations and had a very difficult time reasoning through whether their answers made sense. This year, students frequently talked about their experiences with the syringes when making sense of a problem and were able to breeze through the calculations. I also saw the difference in much higher scores on the end-of-unit assessment.
Using the kinesthetic lab to introduce gas laws wasn’t new to me, but Pivot Interactives gave me new tools to build a bridge between what students experienced directly and what the calculations described. This proved to be an important piece in developing my students’ understanding of the material.
Kontra, C., Lyons, D. J., Fischer, S. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Physical experience enhances science learning. Psychological science, 26(6), 737-749. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0956797615569355?casa_token=QLM-ZEKB0W4AAAAA:J0rTJejG7a3LBukCFyZNaJtDjV6FgYyCDZu-zy_B7ugrpUQJd8qAj0uaRF8iM7MslTLsZg_vCzQ
This year, I’ve been able to pilot some of the new Pivot Interactives chemistry activities in my Chemistry Essentials course as part of their chemistry fellowship program. There is a much higher absence rate in Chemistry Essentials than in our other chemistry courses and one of the challenges I’ve been able to tackle with Pivot Interactives has been finding an approach for make-up labs that balances equity with a meaningful lab experience.
First, a little background on the course. My district offers four different chemistry courses, and Chemistry Essentials is designed to meet the minimum graduation requirements. Many of my students have seen limited success either in science in particular or in school in general and one of my challenges as a teacher is to make sure my students see my class as an opportunity to change the patterns they’ve experienced in other courses.
In my department, the standard approach when a student is absent from a lab has been to have them come in before or after school to complete it. The trick is many of the same issues that keep a student from coming to class, such as obligations outside of school or transportation issues, can also make it difficult for them to come in outside of the school day. Even if I’m willing to bend for a student who talks to me, how many never do because they see coming in outside of school as just one more immovable barrier they face? This is doubly frustrating to students who have a study hall or similar space in the school day where they could make up the lab, but the lack of available space or staff to monitor lab safety mean I can’t give students that opportunity.
My go-to has been to provide a make-up version of the lab with the data already filled in. While it gets away from requiring students to come in outside the school day, the data often feels like meaningless numbers when students don’t have any connection to how it was collected. Students also miss out on a lot of science practices, such as designing the experiment, using the necessary tools accurately, and the countless decisions that come with collecting your own data. While I think a student can make progress on these skills missing a lab here or there, a student who is gone frequently can easily miss out on a crucial part of the course.
Pivot Interactives has allowed me to give students something in-between these two approaches. While it can’t completely replace the kinesthetic experiences that happen in an apparatus-based lab, students still can make qualitative visual observations and develop a clear understanding of where the measurements come from since they are seeing the experiment and takin the data themselves. I can also easily write a make-up version of the lab that includes similar experimental design and data collection decisions that students had to make in the classroom. At the same time, students can complete the lab when and where it works for them, rather than having to make a small window of time work. As a result, many of this year’s make-up labs have felt more to students like an actual lab experience rather than a box to check using disembodied data.
Stoeckel, M. (2018). Where does the energy go?: Using evidence-based reasoning to connect energy and motion. The Science Teacher, 85(1), 19-25.
Stoeckel, M. (2018). Moving multimeter ground to define electric potential difference. The Physics Teacher, 54(24), 24-25. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.5018683