Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Setup

When I first started teaching in "somewhat-reform-minded" college physics courses, I remember learning that I wasn't supposed to give students the answers. I was also never supposed to "lecture" or tell students if they did something right (or wrong). The implicit philosophy was that somehow this was supposed to make me a better teacher and that it would make students learn more. "Students have to do it themselves" was the takeaway message.

Now, I understand that physics is not a spectator sport (students DO have to do it themselves with guidance, encouragement, and support), but I also know this

What we do TAs in preparing them for "reform" courses is a set-up:
  • First, it is a setup to take away from students something that has for so long been valued (answers) without replacing it with something else that can be valued (equally or more than answer)
  • Second, it is a setup to take away TAs' easiest and most natural way to praise students (for getting right answer) without replacing it with tangible ways to praise students in other ways
  • Third, it is a setup that we fail to give TAs any reasonable tools for interacting with students in ways that tacitly change the value-system in the classroom
As I see it, we often blame students (for just wanting answers) and blame TAs (for not being good reform teachers). Often the blame game involves identifying the bad "beliefs" and "attitudes" that students or TAs have about learning. This, I tell you, is part of the setup. We put TAs and students in a fundamentally "bad" situation, and blame them for the "bad" things they do.

The way I see it– we have designed a systems in which classroom discourse with and over worksheets dominates the classroom environment. And here's the problem. Worksheets can only really do two things: make statements and ask questions. And those questions tacitly send the message that answers are what matter.

Think about all the things that worksheets can't do? Worksheets can't value questions, or creativity, or having a sense of curiosity or wonder, or individuality. They can't value patient problem solving. They can't smile or get excited with you. They can't value persistence through confusion.

Once again, this is part of the setup. We tell TAs not to value (or give) answers, but we pit these TAs against a system in which all the material structures around implicitly value answers. Questions on worksheets demand answers. But if TAs or students seek out answers, we blame them for not having sophisticated beliefs.

We have put TAs in the garden of "answers" and have told them not to let anyone bite.

So what would I do differently with TAs?

Man that's tough. But the answer has to involve thinking of TAs as capable of being good teachers and of students not inherently seeking answers. We have to think of simple skills that we can have TAs practice that will help them grow and that will help establish different classroom conditions. Conditions in which TAs and students aren't constantly having to avoid doing "bad" things.

One thing that I'd have all my TAs practice:

I'd have my TAs practice listening to what people say and writing it at the board in real time.

For many of my colleagues, the blackboard is sacred place where only correct science ideas can be written. Think about this: How comfortable do you feel writing WRONG ideas on the board. This is something I had to get over, but it's not hard with practice. I want TAs to practice writing what their students say (right or wrong) in such a public space. I want the blackboard to become ingrained a sacred place where student ideas get written.
Why do this?

  • First, writing requires listening and interpreting. Paraphrasing what students say requires a different kind of listening than purely evaluating does.
  • Second, writing gives TAs a more tangible job to focus on rather than what is mostly automatic (i.e, responding to the correctness of ideas). Telling TAs to write down student ideas is WAY better advice than telling them "don't give away answers", and is more easily carried out than more sophisticated "talk moves".
  • Third, writing at the board means that TAs are not constantly facing their students for appreciable amounts of time as students express ideas. This may sound silly, but this takes away a lot of the pressure of TAs to respond. It naturally builds in wait time, which is something I want my TAs to practice. Writing at the board protects me from getting into I-R-E patterns of discourse. With the face hidden more of the time, my poker face becomes less important.
  • Fourth, it is hard for new teachers to verbally value students' wrong ideas in authentic ways with out lots of practice. But writing ideas down concretely values those ideas by making them public and durable. This helps to build the culture of "not valuing only answers" in a way that TAs can do.

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