I wrote last month about new approaches I’m using to find out what students think, keep track of who thinks what, and let the curriculum be guided by student curiosity. When Dan Meyer reblogged it recently, an interesting conversation started in the comments on that site.  The question seems to be, “how is this different from common practises?”  It sparked my thinking, so I thought I’d continue here.  If you’re a new reader, welcome.

Just Formative Assessment?

It may be helpful to know that I’m teaching a community college course on the basics of electricity.  The students come in brimming with questions, assumptions, and ideas about how electricity works in their lives — phone chargers, car batteries, electric fences, solar panels.  And all new knowledge gets judged immediately in that court of everyday life. What I’m trying to do better is to discover students’ pre-existing ideas and questions, especially the ones I wouldn’t have anticipated.

I agree that there is a way in which this is nothing new; in a way, it’s the definition of formative assessment.

Many formative assessments inquire into students’ thinking as a T/F question: did they get it, yes or no?  Others ask the question as if it’s multiple choice: are their ideas about motion Aristotelian, Newtonian, or something else? (See Hestenes’ work leading to the Force Concept Inventory).  Some assessments focus on misconceptions: which of these mistaken ways of thinking are causing their problems?  Typically there is some instruction or exercise or activity, and then we try to find out what they got out of it.  Or maybe it’s a pre-assessment, and we use the information to address and correct misconceptions.

I’m trying to shift to essay questions:  Not “Do they think correctly” but “What do they think?”  I’m trying to shift it to a different domain: not “what do they think about how this topic was just taught in this class” but “what have they ever thought about this topic, in all the parts of their lives, and how can we weave them together?”  I also hope to ask it for a different reason: not just, “which parts of their ideas are correct”  but also “which parts of their pre-existing ideas are most likely to lead to insight or perplexity?

As Dan points out, there is a “part 2”: This isn’t just about shifting what I do (keep a spreadsheet where I record student ideas and questions, tagged by topic and activity they were working on when they asked it).  It’s also about shifting my self-assessment.  The best activities aren’t just the ones that help students solve problems; the best assessments yield the most honest student thinking.

Which of the activities in your curriculum would you rank highest on that scale?

What do you think makes them work?

Pros: Student Honesty and Motivation

This year, I’ve got a better handle not only on who holds which ideas,  which ideas are half-digested, applied inconsistently or in a self-contradictory way, and what the students are curious about.

The flashlights you shake to charge — do they work like how friction can transfer electrons from a cat’s fur to a glass rod?

What happens if you try to charge a battery but the volts are lower than the battery you’re trying to charge?

Batteries’ don’t get heavier when you charge them — that is evidence that electrons don’t weigh much.

For example, if I was looking for a way into the superposition theorem, I couldn’t ask for better than this.

Cons: Fear and Conflict

I’ve written extensively about the fear, anger, conflict, and defensiveness that come to the surface when I encourage students to build a practise of constant re-evaluation, rather than certainty.   What are your suggestions for helping students re-evaluate things when they’re sure they already know it? What are your suggestions for helping students notice when common sense pre-conceptions and new ideas aren’t talking to each other?

Bonus points: what are your suggestions for helping teachers re-evaluate things when we’re sure we already know it?  What about for helping teachers notice when our common sense pre-conceptions and new ideas aren’t talking to each other?

Why Am I Obsessed With This?

This is the fear that keeps me awake at night:

The students in the first example had learned in class not to discuss certain aspects of their own ideas or models. In particular, they had learned not to talk about “What things are like?” …

The students in my second and third examples had learned that their ideas were worthless (and confusing to think about).

The problem with (some) guided inquiry like this is the illusion of learning. Instructors doing these kinds of “check outs” can convince themselves that students are building powerful scientific models, but really students are just learning not to share any ideas that might be wrong, not to have conversations that they aren’t supposed to have, and to hide interesting questions and insights that are outside the bounds of the “guided curriculum”.

At the end of the day, if students are learning to avoid taking intellectual risks around the instructor, that instructor doesn’t stand a chance of helping those students learn.

(Read the whole thing from Brian Frank)

Which kinds of assessments do you think discourage students from taking intellectual risks around the instructor?  My gut feeling is that anything along the lines of “elicit-confront-resolve” is a major contributor, but I hope that having more data to look at will help me confirm this.

Pros: I Get Honest and Motivated Too

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that no one else has ever done this.  It’s common to ask students “how were you thinking it through”, such as when discussing a mistake they made on a test.

I don’t want to just do it, though.  I want to do it better than I did last year.  I want to systematically keep track of student ideas and, together with the students, use those ideas to co-create the curriculum. Even the wrong ideas.  Especially the wrong ideas.  I want them to see what’s good in their well-thought out, evidence-based “wrong” answers, and see what’s weak about poorly thought out, unsubstantiated “right” answers.  I want them to do the same for the ideas of their classmates, especially the ideas they don’t share.

It means that sometimes we go learn about a different topic.  If they’re generating curiosity and insight about parallel circuits, I’m not going to force them to shift to series circuits.  It wastes momentum (not to mention goodwill… or what you might call “engagement” or “motivation”).  They know what the goal of the course is; they’ve paid good money and invested their time in reaching that goal.  We come up with a plan together of what it makes sense to learn about next, so that we move closer to the goal.

Want to help me improve?  Here’s the help I could really use.   If you were one of the people whose first reaction to my original post was “I already know that” — either I already know that to be true, or I already know that to be false… what would have helped you respond with curiosity and perplexity, adding your idea as a valuable one of many?  If that was your response, what made it work?