I hear teachers talk about all the things that they have to cover. It is sometimes an excuse for not changing the way we teach. How could I possible cover everything if I allowed time for inquiry? How could I possibly have the time for a discussion? How can I cram more technology into my course?

As a technology integration person I have never sold technology as a time saver. I have always sold it as making the time we have better, more fun, relevant or engaging. Yet some of this urgency has spilled over into my own frustrations with how problem solving gets taught in my own class. I have forgotten that I am not in charge of when something is learned.

I was reminded of this in a great little book called Serving With Eyes Wide Open. It is a book specifically about short term mission trips. It is really so much more. It is about opening up your perspective on the world to see your own cultural viewpoint so that you can enjoy other cultural viewpoints. While some of the chapters are specific to Christian ministry, much of the content is about culture.

This quote convicted me, "Our drive to make everything happen 'now' rather than seeing what unfolds can lead us to be judgmental of people in more laid-back cultures." I wonder if we can apply this statement to schools, where teachers are asked to live increasingly in the adult results now world of business but teach kids who are by their nature are revealing slowly to themselves and the world around them what they know.

School is about seeing what unfolds. We do not know what each person in a classroom is going to bring to that classroom until June when we close the door on that class. It does not mesh with what is being demanded of us, which is frustrating for us. However we must let our students continue to reveal who they are as they discover who they are.

Learning and Ribs

Ribs in the smoker

I love ribs. I love them with BBQ and with rubs. I love them all year long. I can eat a lot of ribs. I love to look at them at the meat counter and pick out my ribs. I love to cook them. And I cook them like you have too... slow.

So here is what I observe about my heat and temperature inquiry. It was a process. And I think this is OK. Learning that takes time lasts. My objective was to have student run into a need to understand both specific heat and latent heat in their quest to show me a scenario that matched my conditions. Many groups did. I would get great questions and answer them with more questions. This was especially true as student prepared their presentations. One of the main components of the presentation is telling us what a physics professor would have said would happen. They dig into the book and the wikipedia and the physics classroom trying to figure out what someone more trained might say, and they come with more questions. Many times questions that I do not know the answer to.

It just feels like it take a long time. Mainly because, like tasting the ribs after hours of cooking, I know how good it is when you understand something new about the world. I find myself explaining things perhaps more often, and in orders that I would not have chosen, but students hang on the words. Instead of me wondering if they have ever cracked the text, they come with it open asking for help with a passage.

By the way, not every group gets there. Some get it during the presentations when I highlight stuff and ask questions. Others seem to need a problem set to get it. Some need the first quiz, but even that is fine because they can take it until they are happy (SBG!). Some probably escape from the topic somehow, just like they always have, it is just not as many as it used to be.

The Hardest Things Are Worth Doing Right

The title of the post comes from Camp Roger. Camp's have a lot of hard problems to solve. There probably is not a lot of math in the problems, but sometimes there is. I sent a link to the post entitled Pleasantly Frustrating by Joe Bower to my camp director. The post, and its title reminded me that the hardest things are worth taking the time to do right.

In view of my change to allowing WolframAlpha into my physics class has made problem solving just plain frustrating to many students. So where is the balance between solving real problems, complicated, multiple step problems  and just being frustrating students? What is a pleasantly frustrating physics problem?

In my change of the course to look at a real problem, energy in Nicaragua, I have tried to solve the pleasant part by making the problem really real, hoping that the focus on the small steps would come from a bigger purpose. I must not be holding that purpose in front of them correctly yet, because at least the mathematical problem solving is still mainly frustrating. This is something to continue to work on.

Inquiry Three: Investigating Extreme Temperatures

I know it has been a while. Life. One post a day, every day of break. A goal.

At the end of my last entry on the project to Nicaragua I asked where I should head. I headed in the direction of investigating heat energy. I thought this was the easiest on ramp to understand the most we would need to understand about energy to begin to build efficient and useful devices for energizing Nicaraguan schools.

The challenge I presented the student with was this. Produce a graph of a temperature held steady for 5 minutes above 103 Celsius and 15 minutes below -3 Celsius. I allowed them to use our Vernier GoTemp! probes and let them start writing grants.

My idea is that this would make them innovate a little and that the students would take one of two approaches. They would either take the path of finding something with a freezing or boiling point in the range and let said item freeze or boil for the allotted time. This would emphasis heat being different from temperature. It would show that heat can do work as well as increase temperature. It would make it clear to groups that heat is energy stored microscopically, which was one of the standards of the unit.

The other approach I anticipated was that students would pick something to depress the freezing point (like salt) or increase the boiling point (like salt) and then take away or add heat as necessary to keep the temperature stable. This would be a different approach and would emphasis that heat is constantly flowing from hot to cold (heater to water when making the solution hotter, water to room when you remove the heater). This also was a standard.

There were many interesting experiments. Much success and some failure. I had hoped that the presentations would show students both concepts and I encouraged groups that had chosen one method on the cold experiment to try the other method for the hot experiment.

At that point we were off to the races. Here are the rest of the standards for the unit.

Random Question about Food Energy

On Dec 18, 2010, at 10:26 PM, Emily  wrote:

> Just a random question... if you eat food warm vs cold do you receive more energy from it because heat=energy???

Great question. Off the top of my head the answer is no and yes a very
little. No there is not more energy to run your body in hot food. The
Calories in food do not go up when you heat up food. However, cold
food like ice cream does reduce your body temperature a little
requiring your body to use more chemical energy than it would have to
keep your body temperature up. This is where it is important to
remember that Calories for food are big C calories which are really
kilocalories. Eating cold food might use up a couple of small c
calories, several order of magnitude less than the the chemical energy
you are taking in. Ice cream is still a very high net calorie food,
celery is very low in net calories. Ice cream is more tasty than

Drawing Pictures as a First Step to Solving Problems

During a literature review for the class I am taking this semester I ran across this bit.

The teacher or textbook may say that it is important to do such things as to "draw a diagram," but they seldom say why, and the student can see that the answer comes from a formula, so why bother with a diagram? (1987, p18)

One of the best parts of this school year has been my students drawing pictures. I have never had so many pictures. I had so many I complimented them and scratched my head about why. I wonder if because we have entered all our topics with real questions about the world and started by looking at the world as a real place and noticed how hard it is to describe it mathematically if the pictures became important. My students are starting their problem solving by relating it to the real world, with diagrams. All I really know is that they are drawing more and better diagrams this year. 

Hestenes, D. (1987). Toward a modeling theory of physics instruction. American journal of physics, 55(5), 440–454.

I am never sure how to cite offline work, so at the bottom please find the APA cited reference. A link to Amazon (or WorldCat or Better World Books if you would like to reduce commercialism) means so much more today than a cite. 

David Hestenes, 1987

David Hestenes, 1987

As awareness of a national crisis in science education has increased recently, substantial federal funds have been allocated to cope with the crises on the secondary level. However, little of this is directed toward significant pedagogical research, and much of it promotes a reactionary "back-to-basics" approach. I am not alone in the dour prediction that the main result of this movement will be more bad science teaching and in the opinion that substantial pedagogical research will be essential to a more salutary outcome.

from: Toward a modeling theory of physics instruction. Am. J. Phys. 55 (5), May 1987, pp 440-454.

Inquiry and Play

Part of the change in physics this year as we move towards helping those who need energy is that the students need more freedom to create. This has caused me to use a lot more inquiry than ever. What has been great about this is I have been giving each cycle of inquiry time to unfold. One thing that I have noticed is that students, like adults, dig right in when they have a challenge at hand. It is only when they are asked to produce a final product that they go back and structure up their work.

I think this is good. I think we call it play. Playing is really imagining the world as something different than it is. Eventually that is what my students will need to do. They need to imagine a world where poor schools in Nicaragua have lights, fans and CD players. Before they can do that they should probably be allowed to play qualitatively with some temperature probes and immersion heaters. So that is what we did today. We played. We got used to the new equipment. We learned how to avoid spilling on our laptop and we started experimenting with what we might do when we formalize our experiment. And what is the goal of that experiment? For that you will have to keep reading.

For now suffice to say that I was happy as a clam all day helping kids play with physics equipment. We learned a lot of qualitative conclusions. But I was shock how the great subject of thermodynamics reared its beautiful head early and often. Groups called me over and asked why the boiling water was not raising its temperature. You cannot pay for moments like that. Plus when the real experiments come the students all will have gotten a lot of the ugs out of their systems, all from playing with the physics. A great day.

So, on the best test ever, what grade did you give the kids?

Lately I have been getting a lot of email about my blog. I love it. This question rocked. Here is what I responded. If you want to evolve the conversation yourself feel free to comment, email, tweet or contact me in some other way.

On Mon, Oct 25, 2010 at 9:02 AM, Henry wrote:
Oh yeah...I have been reading your blog.  I have you as someone I follow on Twitter so I link off of that.  So, on the best test ever, what grade did you give the kids?  All the same or did you still give individual grades?  I liked the getting the group consensus on a question and having anyone defend it--just didn't know how that fit the pressure of giving a grade.

Thanks so much for asking the question. It is so helpful for me. In rereading my post I realized I had not really talked about the grading at all. This adds so much to my attempt to clarify what I am doing this year in physics, I hope others will comment and contact me as well.

So there are two solutions in the pyramid testing option [PDF]. In a traditional points based grade book you might weight each section of the test to match what you are emphasizing that day. So a very generic match might be 50% of the grade is your personal attempt, 30% is the group's grade and 20% is the almost always totally correct class grade. It seems to me that this is a fair way of putting these grade into the book.

Here is what made me truly excited about what happened in my class on Wednesday. I have been using standards based grading. The unit we are in has four standards. The questions that I asked in class each focused some combination of two of the four standards. As students were working on the questions I had the standards in mind that I was evaluating. I would ask questions about why a student choose something (during the personal time) or I would listen into a group conversation. Then I would run up to my computer and record scores. I also asked if students wanted to hand in their work at the end of the hour. Some did. Others did not. Great work was handed in.

I am going to give one more attempt at each of the standards, so I am not too worried about them handing in something yet. If they do not after hand in something after the second attempt then their grade will not be good. They will be allowed to challenge that. Students are allowed to challenge any one standard on a given day. They have to name the standard and tell me what they have done to improve their knowledge. There is a long list of resources for them to use to improve.  I then give a quiz or just talk the standard through with them.

The main point of this is that the conversations I had with students were wonderful and very instructive about where they were at. The period moved quickly but without stress. There was no tension in the room like a normal test can bring. It was the first time I can remember feeling like I was evaluating while knowledge was increasing.