Friday, 18 September 2015

Making the very very big, small

This term I was particularly proud of my SPIN. I only get one a term, and I care about them a lot. For me, they are a chance to really hone a particular aspect of my teaching in a quick, fast-paced environment, since we are always rushing to get stuff done in the limited time each SPIN has in a week. Anyway, as I say, I was particularly proud of my SPIN, so I'm going to blog about that.

I was going to blog about the latest Big Project, but I'll get to that later. Aspirational goal.

Context and history

Bit of context first: SPINs are 1.5 hour classes that run just once a week, only last a term, and are focussed on one learning area. It's only really possible to focus on doing one thing each class, but it's enough time to do that one thing really well.

My last SPIN was a very self-directed investigation and experiment based class called Playing with Physics. The students had some time at the start of the term to play with various toys I have accumulated which nicely show some physics principles, explore those principles with very little depth (these are year 9 and 10 kids, after all) and design experiments around these toys which gave insight into how they worked or into the physics principles they embodied. It was a very difficult class, to be honest, but nearly everyone had at least some success with it.

The Very, Very Big

In this term's SPIN I wanted to experiment with information and skills. I decided to do something which I hadn't done before, and which I was hesitant to do anywhere else at this school: lecture. I had a slideshow or four, I had intimidatingly hexagonal note-taking aids, I had a whole bunch of cool stuff to talk about and the arrogance to think that students would listen.

Which, they did. I was rather pleasantly surprised.

The class was called The Very Very Big, and it was focussed on astronomy and cosmology. I divided it into two halves, as below:

My timetable plan for the term


The first half, called Space, was focussed on our achievements in space, with the first lecture about Robots in Space, and the second about Humans in Space. After the two presentations, during which the students were asking neat questions after I made it perfectly clear I was happy to go off on a tangent, the students had the opportunity to follow their own Space-based inquiries. My thinking was that the two lecture-based classes would help prime the student's interest - I wasn't worried about the quality of their notes, for example, but rather whether or not they were interested enough to write about something. Afterwards, they had three weeks (or 4.5 hours) to explore their own inquiries, based around a Big Question and following a particular protocol I had given. 


Afterwards, in the second half of the course, we did it all again, with new Time-based inquiries. The idea behind the 'Time' half was that we would look at the bigger view of the universe, more cosmology than astronomy per se. We looked at the beginning of the universe and how it will probably end, at stars, black holes, SETI, dark matter and the cosmological horizon. All good stuff. By this point the students were very comfortable asking questions and chiming in with their own knowledge, and I learned to give occasional conversation breaks, where students could just chat about what they thinking and what interested them. Right now we are in the middle of our Time-based inquiries.

How it worked

Overall, I am really happy with this class. I am astounded by some of the work I have seen from their students with their inquiries, and even by how they used that ridiculously hexagonal note-taking aid. The work they have produced is, on the most part, surprisingly detailed and interesting. Next week is our sharing day, where we can show off what we have been looking at and take some time to reflect. Some are... more enthusiastic than others, as one might expect. We'll see how it goes.

Links to my inquiry

My inquiry at the moment is centred around how to keep students interested in Physics - what I've found so far is that students are very interested in Physics and physical phenomena before taking physics classes, and become very disillusioned with the whole idea during and after. Therefore my thinking is that it is not necessary to interest students in physics so much as to keep their interest. As an introductory class, I think the two weeks general lecture-based introduction with three weeks specific and focussed inquiry model worked really well, as a way to support initial immersion. I don't think I would run the class in exactly the same way in the future - I'm more likely to expect students to do some reading or watching of videos at home, then go into more detail in class or set up discussion groups with discussion scaffolds, before leading into the inquiries. At any rate, the students are interested and engaged in fascinating, but difficult, areas of Physics.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

WALT: be a Big Project guide

Big Projects and me, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the fail

Disclaimer: Still really worried about failing though.

Big Projects are an important aspect of the way we teach and learn at HPSS. It is one of the things that, in my mind, really sets us apart. It is also the aspect of teaching where I find I am learning the most. Often this learning is the most valuable kind: learning through failure. It has given me an appreciation for Big Projects as an institution, but also showed me the value of failure in learning, for both my students and myself.

The last round and deflating hopes

The last round of Big Projects, recently finished, involved setting up business and raising money for the charity Kidscan. I will be the first to admit that the project ideas from my students were... ambitious.

One group wanted to produce a smartphone case which would charge one's phone with a solar panel and onboard battery. The solar panel was soon scrapped in favour of style, the battery was soon scrapped due to lack of mass-production ideas and also because the prototype didn't work, and finally the style was scrapped because these kids have absolutely no sense of style. I feel like they should learn these things in an English module somewhere.

Another group wanted to produce a toaster-like charger for iPhones. I'm almost glad they never managed to make them. I wanted to spare them the lack of market interest. In fact, we did a survey of market interest, which was itself interesting. In a show of resilience, they pushed on regardless.

Finally, the last group wanted to produce a set of jigsaw-like circuitry pieces which could be taken apart and recombined to make different circuits. Each piece would have a function, and the way you joined them together would effect the way certain components, like LEDs or motors, would work. This would be a winner if we got it off the ground, if the very similar 16-piece set which someone tried to sell the school for just under a grand was any indication. That grand would have been all profit, by the way - the components themselves range from a few cents to a few dollars. What could have been...

Snatching learning from the jaws of defeat, which is some sort of canine in this metaphor apparently.

As time progressed, it became more and more clear that nothing was going to be made, no profit turned and no funds donated to Kidscan. We are a school, however, and the essential aspect of a school is not that it raises money for charity, but rather provides learning opportunities for its students. I asked them to tell me what they had learned from this whole experience, and the responses were rather cheering.

The majority of responses were about teamwork. Some learned how to get others in their team to stay on task rather than take naps. Some learned the importance of planning time wisely. Some learned the importance of good communication the hard way. Many of these arose from mistakes the students made as they worked, or struggled to work, with their teams.

Other responses were about more technical details. Some learned the benefit of market research. Some learned budgeting techniques and being aware of cash flow. Some learned circuitry, or programming. These sorts of things give me hope that we will find some really authentic assessment in the future, as NCEA standards fall out of the learning which Big Projects encourage.

As for myself, I learned a great many things. I learned the importance of keeping a balance between structure and planning and just-in-time responsive teaching, and I think I have made progress in understanding where that balance lies. I have learned about managing a group dynamic, and making sure everyone has something important to do, but without me giving the instructions. I have learned how to enable students to find their own tasks, without relying on an authority (myself or a student leader) to tell them what to do next. I have learned the importance of planning for failure, and to allow plenty of time for testing and refining, implicit phases of projects which the students tend to de-emphasise, which gives them the comforting illusion that they have plenty of time.

My forthcoming blog post will be a reflection on this current round of Big Projects. This one was meant to be that, but now I need to go eat something and consume caffeine lest time runs too slowly. Also I promised Ros I would publish something.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Just a diary entry I suppose

Had a couple of issues today - first year teacher moments I suppose. Learned a lot.

In the Learning Area taster I ran today, I was not expecting so many students to turn up. That's not an excuse, that's my first mistake. The taster I was running was supposed to show off science. I thought it would be a cool idea to do a physics/engineering thing, where students use some materials to build a catapult or something which could otherwise move a bouncy ball as far from a line as possible. I deliberately didn't suggest a catapult, knowing full well that with rubber bands available the majority of such devices would be slingshots. There were, however, some excellent ideas using balloons and string, along with some rocketish devices. They didn't work of course (how could they after just an hour) but I was very impressed. Now that I write this I don't know what I was so worried about, they actually did some cool stuff. I think I just need to loosen up.

What wasn't cool was the way they left Foxtrot, after I deliberately left what I thought would be an ample 7 minutes for clean up. Many simply made more mess by popping balloons, and I think one of them skewered his hand. I was left with but a few valiant souls helping tidy up. A lot of stuff I expected to be returned, wasn't.

Next time I do this on Friday, I will prepare some packets for individual groups with limited resources to prevent wastage, and confine ourselves in a smaller area to keep an eye on them. I also think I will structure the time more carefully, to emphasise the plan-build-trial-improve cycle, get some proper learning out of them.

Anyway, this is too short but I'm going to bed. I promise more effort tomorrow after a much anticipated all day community meeting.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Communication and creativity

Left this a bit late today, I hope that I can get adequate fodder for these posts once modules get underway. I do have a couple of things to talk about though.

Resisting the urge to coin 'gin and tonic Tuesday'.

Today at HPSS we handed out our module selection booklets. It was an interesting experience to watch my hub students look over the booklet with excitement, in the case of the year 10's, and confusion, in the case of the year 9's. We have a complicated system, and I didn't really realise how complicated it was until I tried to explain it in detail. It required a very long email to all their parents today.

Attached to said email - a picture which captures us all perfectly.
My worry here is that parents will read my email and immediately freak out about it. I realised that I had been expecting complete acceptance of the way we do things from parents, which is obviously not something I should take for granted. Good thing I thought about it today as I was establishing our lines of communication. One set of parents is already on my side. I'm hoping I can get or keep most of them on board. Hopefully this won't be something to worry about.

Going on a tangent now. The #scichatnz today was about creativity in science and its importance. I got there a bit late, so I will write about it here instead. I think creativity is central to the NoS strand Investigating in Science, in that before one can design and carry out an investigation, one must have a question to answer. Coming up with the question requires creativity and curiosity. Coming up with the investigation requires creativity and science knowledge and skills. Using the results of the investigation to inform further questions requires creativity yet again, and shows SOLO extended abstract thinking. Where is the room for this creativity in traditional classrooms, where content trumps skill, and practicals trump open inquiry? For real scientists, doing real science, creativity is central to new developments and discoveries. When can science students experience such a thing? I'm glad that 'creative' is one of our Hobsonville habits, it has a real place in the sciences.

Monday, 9 February 2015


Happy Merlot Monday everyone! We can just make up holidays, right?
Happy Merlot to me
Anyway, today I thought I would write about teamwork. Today I experienced teamwork at least three times, and I guess I'm still riding on the coattails of Thursday's theme of partnerships.

The biggest teamworky thing that happened today was a meeting with the parents of one of my hub students. I won't go into details of what the meeting was about or why we were meeting, in the interest of privacy, but I really felt like we were part of a team working together for the best interests of this student. The parents were really keen to establish some processes for communication, but to begin with it felt like they were looking to me for all the answers. I think they expected that I would have everything all worked out and ready for them to just accept or deal with as best they could. When I asked for their opinions and their thoughts, mainly because I don't really know what I'm doing (but they don't know that!), they seemed quite surprised. I was surprised at their surprise! After all, they are the parents, and they know much more about their child than I will ever know. It really felt like a spirit of collaboration in the room, where the student, the parents and I were all suggesting and judging ideas. Together we came up with some good stuff that everyone happily agreed upon. I think we really are a team now, together more able to help the student deal with their challenges. It felt good, and it felt right for the school. I hope I can entice other parents to come along to school with the promise of coffee and biscuits.

The second teamworkly thing from today was Liz and I sorting out what we will do on our first day of our module. A minor enough thing perhaps, but this will be my first 'real' class at HPSS, and planning it out feels like quite the milestone. I love what we came up with, and I think it will be an absolutely fantastic introductory lesson. Biology is not my forte, despite my medical school history, so starting with a biology themed term is a challenge for me (on top of all the other challenges!) but I am confident in our ideas, excited by the possibilities for project based learning in science, and enthused by the ideas that Liz and I have come up with. It's a good thing I am writing this blog, because I think I will need to tap into this wellspring of enthusiasm and energy when the semester is half done! I know that it probably won't all go according to plan, but I just hope it all goes right. 

Finally, the last teamworkish thing that happened was delicious. Amber makes the cupcakes, and I clean up after her!
Shame there isn't enough for all of you. I guess the only fair thing to do is eat them all myself.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Maori learning in Physics: Part 2

Hopefully this post will conclude the Maori learning themed weekend. It is an area of great interest to me, but honestly I have no idea what I am talking about, and neither experience nor theory upon which to draw to inform my opinions. But anyway.

I was thinking about culture in Physics. Acknowledging that there is a culture in Physics to get used to is, I think, an important first step. It is important to do this because we run the risk of excluding those students who do not feel included in what's going on. Students should feel like they are in the midst of Science, part of the process. even if they are struggling, rather than outsiders looking in. How might we include students so that they feel part of the process of Physics, rather than a passive audience?

I think that emphasising the skills of Physics is important. By practising skills rather than trying to grasp concepts. students can learn what it is like to do science as well as understand it. A common complaint from the few schools I have been in is that it simply takes too much time to do experiments, time required to go over the important concepts in class. But this just means replacing skills with concepts again, an approach which alienates those who can't immediately grasp the important ideas. A shift in thinking is required, from lecture based (or near enough) concept transmission to open inquiry and skills.

A lot of good thinking has gone into Maori achievement in Science, but not a lot into Physics in particular. I think this is because Physics is simply not very popular with Maori students, who elect not to take the subject (tried looking for proper statistics but now I only have 3 minutes left - I'll edit in later). This is seen by those I have talked to as a reason not to worry about Maori success at all. I see it as part of the problem. Rather than being pleased enough with not needing to worry about targeted learners, Physics teachers need to think about how to make their subject more appealing to a broader profile of learners. This is not only an ethical concern - we should be making our subject accessible to everyone as a matter of course - but we should also be ready to accept other views and cultures which can enrich our subject. My hope is that the cross-curricular learning at HPSS will help with this, and one day provide me with further insight which can enrich my own practise.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Maori learning in Physics: Part 1ish

Today I'm going to try to follow on from yesterday's post. I've been trying to find resources to help me out with today's post, but this has proved to be difficult. I'm not sure how to improve Maori outcomes in Physics, and I'm not sure anyone is. There are some good ideas about improving Science in general, but I think Physics specifically hasn't received a lot of attention in this area. As far as I know. After about 3 hours of searching the internet. Look, I know I'm not an expert, but this interests me and I have to write about something.

From what I can tell, Physics as a subject suffers from several problems when it comes to Maori learners. First, it is content heavy. Second, it is culturally blind. Third, physics classrooms frequently have very few Maori learners at all anyway.

The problem with being content heavy is that the pedagogy leaves very little room for student voice. There have been strides made in looking at open inquiry and better pedagogy, and here I feel I should mention my favourite handy little book Five Easy Lessons (a play on the title of the famous Feynman lecture collection Five Easy Pieces). These approaches, however, typically remain teacher-focussed with some room for experiments where students can hopefully explore, but more likely confirm, the theory. There is no room for students to own their learning, because the pedagogy remains heavily assessment focussed. Students can choose to learn what they like, as long as it is examined content. At the Physics teacher's day last year I attended a workshop to learn how to assess Modern Physics in a project format rather than a test, and the discussion during the workshop convinced even the person taking it that a test is a better format, mainly because it is easier to mark. Obviously, this is a problem which affects all students, not just Maori learners. While other students can feel included in the learning community, however, Maori students are often on the outside looking in. Which brings me to my next point.

Physics teachers do not realise that physics is a culture as well as a lump of content. It is a culture that stems from European empiricism, and remains very European in its outlook. It comes in part from belief in the scientific method, in that the only things which can be said to be true are those backed up by experimental data and can be described in mathematics. At the same time, there is a semi-mystical element to physics culture, which comes across in a great deal of popular science. Often we talk about 'beauty' in mathematics and physics, 'wonder' at the universe. Now, all this isn't to say that I think this culture is a bad thing. I consider myself part of it, and have often found beauty in symmetry and wonder in cosmology. The difficulty comes where there is a tacit denial that this is a culture which students must become part of, or at least be aware of, if they are to really 'get' physics. Physics teachers get it, and have a reputation for being zany (or boring, but I think the boring ones don't 'get' it either). Without it physics is a series of tasks, mastering looking up formulae on a sheet. So we hope that some students will just 'get' it eventually, and they will be the successful ones, the ones who really enjoy the subject and will be eager for more. The thing is, this is much easier for someone who has already grown up in a culture which is compatible with physics. In order to really engage physics students, I think we need to acknowledge the culture of physics and explore it. We need to make it accessible to Maori culture, by perhaps incorporating some elements from it, but at least by acknowledging this difficulties Maori students face.

My time is up; looks like this weekend is going to be Maori themed. I like it.