Monday, June 20, 2011

I would never let my students within ten feet of...

At the Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research, I can be quoted as saying something like the following: "I would never let my students within ten feet of those worksheet."

I didn't say this in a public talk, but I did say this in public during lunch to a handful of people. I believe the entire quote was something more like, "I love Tutorials as a resource for myself for thinking about activities, questions, and bits of sequencing in instruction, but I would never let my students within ten feet of those worksheets". As it happened, and by means of conference nearest-neighbor interactions, my comment was propagated through space and time and eventually found its way to some of individuals who created those very worksheets and whom were likely positioned to take offense at my suggestion that those worksheets should be kept in careful isolation from students.

I want to make it clear that I do stand by my statement. But that statement requires a bit of elaboration on my part to be full stood by.

First, the statement is truly meant to be about my students (with the emphasis on ME). I don't mind so much that others would use such worksheets as an orienting artifact for discourse management. In fact, I actively support instructors who choose to use tutorials and similar well-structured, research-based curriculum materials, and am committed to helping those instructors to implement chosen curricular materials in ways that maximize their productivity for students and instructors. For me, however, the set of things I want my students to experience and learn, I have personally found difficult to achieve with worksheets. I want to emphasize that it is not impossible to achieve them, but it is difficult. I must confess that have never felt extremely competent as a tutorial instructor, partially because of the feeling that, in such an environment, I am forced to co-teach with someone (i.e. a worksheet) that often undermines much of the productive patterns of listening, discourse, and engagement that I actively work to promote. Co-teaching can be an amazing experience, but it need not be, and I don't find that a worksheet is the kind of co-worker I want around, at least not very much.

Second, I learned a lot about student thinking and learning by being an instructor in tutorial environments where a highly-regimented, worksheet-driven discourse mediates much the classroom talk. By not having to mediate all of the discourse all the time, I was given the opportunity to listen without worrying about where we were going next. I didn't have to worry, because the worksheet remembered where we were going and what we would do next to get there. As a novice instructor, with all of this to worry about, I could allocate more of my resources to trying to make sense of what students were doing, what they were thinking. I believe that structured environments in which artifacts do much of the remembering can be fertile grounds for novice instructors to develop skills they might not develop without such structures. I have benefited from being a tutorial TA, and I expect that others can benefit from them as well. Do I think they are the most optimal place for novice instructors to be? Probably not, but they are certainly not the worst. On a side note, I think the Modelling Curriculum does much of this for teachers as well. It remembers what models you are supposed to help students make contact with, and some ideas for experiments and activities that will get them there.

Third, I have two concerns with highly-guided worksheet-based curriculum. First, students are intended to learn by engaging with worksheets; but they have been habituated to treat worksheets as opportunities to drill and practice what is already known. Because of this, we are always fighting the tendency to 'put down answers' and/or 'get through as quickly as possible'. There are certainly ways to mitigate this: Being explicit about your expectations for tutorial activity, providing common writing spaces like whiteboard, only giving students one page at a time, engaging with students in kinds of discourse the undermines the worksheet-driven discourse (instead of allowing it to undermine you). But that's a fight I don't want to fight, if I don't have to. Second, I find the word 'guided' curriculum problematic for me and my students. My experience is that students can quickly learn the boundaries of that curriculum–the one set forth by worksheet and the instructors who teach around it. When students sense that their ideas do not comprise a significant part of the curriculum, I believe they start to shut down. They start to think within the boundaries of the curriculum instead of the boundaries where their thinking and their inquiries lie. Sure, a good curriculum should have boundaries that overlap with students boundaries, but the reality is that they rarely do because individuals and classrooms are idiosyncratic and variable. Students don't make contact with ideas exactly when they are supposed to.

Other have said this better than I can, so I cede the remaining space here to another. The following excerpts are from David Hammer's "Discovery Learning and Discovery Teaching" published in Cognition and Instruction in 1997.

“Students do sometimes see and invent what they are intended to see and invent, and well-designed materials can improve the chances of that happening...On a traditional view of teaching and curriculum, one might expect these worksheets to succeed in guiding the flow of student learning through the predetermined sequence of ideas and observations. Thereby, one would see shortcomings in [them] for not anticipating the various aspects of students' knowledge and reasoning. The teacher's role in that view is peripheral, to help keep the students on the planned path, and the most successful materials should obviate teacher intervention."

"On the view of teaching and curriculum that I am promoting, a curriculum succeeds, not by guiding the flow of learning and instruction, but by helping to establish an arena of activity rich with opportunities for student and teacher discovery. Within that arena, the substance of the course, the curriculum, emerges. This is a view of teaching that is more flexible with respect to pace and substance, but it is also more dependent on teacher awareness and judgment. Presuming uncertainty, the teacher does not expect students to arrive at given insights at given moments; rather, it is the teacher's responsibility to recognize when and if they arrive at those insights or others, to discover their progress, and diagnose their difficulties. The teacher's role is not simply to keep students on the right path; it is to find out what paths there are, to scout
ahead to see where they may lead, and to make judgments about which ones to follow."


  1. Brian,

    I used the Mechanics UW tutorials the first two times I taught the calc-based intro course. I am planning on moving away from them and really found that I learned a lot about student thinking thanks to the conversations had with the tutorials. Like you talked about, I am ready to take more charge of how to start the conversations and how to guide them in appropriate directions.

  2. As I am writing my diss. on tutorial groups, I am noticing that there are a lot of mixed messages sent to the students about how to engage with the maryland tutorials. But I have a conviction that I haven't been quite able to articulate yet that this ambiguity is actually a good helps students go back and forth between having discussions in which they make sense of some physics, to completing the worksheet and asking each other simple clarification questions. I think both of these ways of engaging can play off each other in ways that makes both of them important for their learning. I've only recently started to see what you mean about the structures in place can sometimes be too rigid to allow students to go off in their own productive directions. This may be a good trade-off for tutorial instructors to rely on if they are not as experienced or not as comfortable going "off the script", but I think if you are in a different situation (smaller enrollment, more experience, etc.) it makes total sense that you find other methods more suited to your needs. But don't you think tutorials are better than the other options for what to do with large-lecture recitation sections?

  3. Luke,

    Yes, tutorials are way better than having students watch graduate students solve problems at the board, and even way better than students working collaboratively on the end-of-the-chapter problems. They provide a structure which can benefit students and instructors. Because of their careful construction and research basis, they are even way better than most "worksheet-based" guided inquiry materials.

    I do agree that learning physics involves coordinating among many activities that lie along a continuum from more individual to more social in nature. Do I think that the worksheet is the best place to best support individual and social work and their coordinations? No. Do I think they are the best option for large-lecture sections? No. Do I think they are generative starting place? Absolutely.

  4. Your post has been stewing in my brain for a week now. In it, you highlighted something that has bugged me about the education profession since I stepped into it from a scientific background. I've seen physicists publicly challenged again and again during colloquia if their research techniques were lacking. While they may not have been happy about it, they seem to accept this as part and parcel of the profession.

    However, to me, it seems as if educators are not nearly as open to critical feedback and questioning. Casting doubt on their methodologies and curricular design is sometimes tantamount to starting another Hatfield-McCoy feud. If an educator presents some curriculum or idea, I want to be able to challenge them, ask them how they know it promotes learning, and even disagree with them if I don't find their data convincing. And most importantly, I want them to challenge my methods. If they don't, I can't get better.

    Am I reading too much into this? Has my physics background skewed my view? Or is their a sensitivity to criticism in education circles?