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.

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