Pedagogical Autobiography: Collaborative Problem Solving

The picture is from physics night. It was taken at 9:30 PM on a Monday night at school in the physics room. There is Monday Night Football on the screens and there are clusters of students working together around the room. They are working on a program called CAPA, a web based assignment tool.

The story of differentiated problem solving starts with two people, neither of whom necessarily thought they were advancing a relational way of teaching. A professor at Hope asked me if I wanted to piggy back, for free, on their web based problem system. I said I was interested and started picking problems. I had a computer at every lab station, something that our principal had funded, and thought that I could figure out a way of selling this type of assignment to the students. When I went to the principal to talk through it with him, he demanded that I have one night a week where the room was open for students to come and use the computers, in case they did not have computers at home. So we settled on this plan. I would give homework on Tuesday, a whole weeks worth. Friday would be question and answer day in class. Monday night the computer lab would be open for students to come in and work if they wanted to, with the problems being due at 11:30 that night. This has been my basic schedule in physics for 10 years. I fill the week with other work, like discovery labs and discussions, and the homework and reading happens parallel to the course in the evenings.

So far none of this seems all that radical. I cannot over emphasize how much it has changed my teaching. It took no time to realize what gold the Monday evenings were. We were all learning together. Since everyone has different problems, that the computer keeps track of for me, I can have some comfort in knowing that students who are working together are talking about physics, not copying problems. I learned that I could assign a lot less problems but produce more conversation about the root of the problems. The Monday nights were really a club. A club in the sense of Frank Smith's clubs in The Book of Learning and Forgetting where on page 11 he defines clubs as, "communities of influential people." Without really trying, I had brought together a group of people who we interested in solving physics problems.

And if you walk into the room on Monday nights, you will find that is what it sounds like. A physics club. And I say that because a physics class sounds different, and to some extent has to sound different. On Monday nights I almost always have something going on the television. If not, there is music. There are students arguing about physics concepts and how to apply them. There are students helping each other or asking me questions. There are also students talking football, baseball, choir, and math. There is a lot of socializing. There is a lot of food some years. There is some anxiety because they cannot find their place in the room or the discussion that will benefit them the most. There are students that meet in the hall because they need to be away from the noise.

On top of all of this there are also a variety of student needs that are addressed. Some have the normal physics questions. Even those are broken down into two categories. Some are questions about problem solving, numbers equations and math. Other students gather to discuss and argue how the concepts of physics apply to real world questions that I pose to them each week based on the same material. Other students come because they are done with the problems and would like to help. They are members of the same club who are there to help. This is integral to Smith's idea, because club members, "don't teach you; they help you." (page 18) Finally there is an interesting group of students who come to do other work. Sometimes it is brothers and sisters who have to come, but end up enjoying themselves and finding a room full of people willing to help them. Sometimes it is peers who just would rather study in the presence of the activity of learning.

Collaborative problem solving allows my class to become a club. A social physics learning club. Few things have been a more powerful force in my teaching career.
2 responses
...a true community of learners. Is the key that they choose to be there? Is it the assignments? Or is it merely the space with no one else taking it up so there is room for each to be learning?
Yes, I think each learner buys into it for one of these reasons or a host others. Is it a social time that mimics a coffee shop? Is it the unforced grouping? Is it that there are others who need help and they want to help? The setting allows, better than a classroom, the natural learning styles of the students to rise to the top.