Getting Students On Board with Active Engagement

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.

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.

Teach Collaboration

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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