Sunday, 17 August 2014

The uncomfortableness of learning

One of the incredible opportunities of teaching in a cross-curricular, modular-based format at HPSS is that there is the chance to approach everything the students learn with real purpose. Focusing on doing less, better; emphasising a deep skill base in these early secondary years, rather than rote-learning facts that google could have showed them (NB: I am not saying that there is no need for content teaching - especially in science as there are many misconceptions to avoid - however I deeply believe that skills are an immensely valuable part of science, too often skipped over. See here for an earlier post on this).

So over the last couple of weeks, in my Small Module (Transport Us - a combo of science & design-visual communication that I'm teaching alongside the fab Liz - in which students explore things like designing their own vehicle, being informed by the science of fuel sources, using evidence to form opinions and make decisions) I had the chance to incorporate some physics into the module.

Initially I wanted to 'do' a friction experiment with them, because I could see how relevant the links would be between friction and their vehicle design, but the idea and planning never sat well with me, and as the time approached (incidentally also the day HPSS had 300 educators join us for the #edchatnz conference), I decided to ditch the lesson plan in favour of a more deep & robust (but slower) option - exploring forces first, then giving students the choice of which force they wanted to look into further.

This last week we continued our exploration, as students had decided on 'their' forces - and I asked them to continue with their planning... this wasn't the 'fun stuff' they had expected (playing with paper aeroplanes, rubber bands, balls, water and forcemeters), but I explained just how important the skill of being able to plan & write their own methods/approach was, and so they graciously took up the challenge....

... It was a very challenging lesson though - to ask these year 9 students to come up with their own question/aim, decide on variables and write a method from scratch - they found it hard, and to be honest the lesson didn't have that 'feel good' factor that you sometimes get. I came away to lunch feeling a bit disheartened that they had found the task so hard, and it hadn't felt satisfying. The wonderful Lea @leavellenoweth pointed out that she had also been placing emphasis on the importance of planning before the 'fun stuff' in her English module about developing passion projects, and also reminded me that the feeling of being uncomfortable and outside of your comfort zone means that you are learning

I went back after lunch and pointed this out to students, also letting them know that usually at a Year 9 level, it would be far more common for them to be given a method to follow - recipe-like - and to not have to devise the whole thing by themselves. However, as I wrote about in this earlier post about method-writing - I strongly believe that we have to stop giving students pre-formed instructions, and just let them figure it out for themselves when the stakes are not high. It is too late to leave this skill-development until Y11 or Y12 when NCEA comes into play, and the stresses of getting things right are much higher.

My plan is to give them some feedforward on their methods before our next lesson, and then get them to carry out these experiments, making notes where their methods weren't detailed or accurate enough, and then re-write, and give to another student to see what the peer-feedback is, whether someone else could follow their method.

Yes, it will take (much!) longer than giving them a recipe, but my hope is that they gain something far more valuable than just being able to jump into the 'fun stuff' without a second thought about the why, how and what. And who says planning isn't also fun?! ;)

Things lost in becoming a teacher

Two years ago, I was part of a panel that talked to 2nd and 3rd year University of Auckland health science students at a careers evening. I was the sole representative from the education sector, but also talked to students about my pathway to teaching, including a doctorate, and post-doctoral research in industry (rather than staying in academia). While many questions from students focused on how I got a job post-study, and what the process of a PhD was like, there were a couple of questions about teaching, and one specifically that I hadn't expected:

"what skills & approaches that you developed during your career as a researcher were transferrable to teaching?"
At the time (after feeling stumped and saying what a good question it was!) I replied that to be honest, I couldn't think of many that were that transferrable, mostly because as a researcher you have to be very self-confident with quite a large ego - after all, it is your belief in your own work that drives the experiments that you do (or ask others to do) - it is this belief in yourself that leads to grants being applied for, connections made to other research groups' work and the ability to get through the daily slog of many experiments not working, data not quite matching, until you occasionally get those incredible break-through moments.

Whereas in teaching, there is no place for ego, no place to believe that you are more important than the students in your classroom - after all, the students are the whole reason you are there, and they must take priority over how great you may think you are.

If I were to answer the question now, I would answer the same way about ego, but I do now recognise that many skills I developed during my time as a researcher are so vital to my teaching. Below are just a couple of skills that I believe I gained through research, but now I see are skills we are trying to teach at school (which is pretty amazing!)

  • Critical thinking: Secondary school in my day was truly about rote learning and being right or wrong, and the critical thinking skills that I appreciate now, I certainly didn't develop until postgraduate study. 
  • Resilience: This is certainly something that was built through years of less-than-amazing experimental results (but let's keep doing it anyway, because we believe that the amazing data is just beyond our grasp!)
  • Problem-solving: I pride myself in having a 'number-8-wire' approach to tacking problems, and through having to solve my own practical/experimental setup issues myself, I know how to think laterally around a problem.

So all up, becoming a teacher has resulted in the loss of the 'luxury' of being able to focus so deeply on one specific area of cutting-edge knowledge and understanding (although it certainly didn't feel like a luxury at the time - in fact I still feel being a researcher is an incredibly tough career choice, especially for women.... but that's another post!), the main thing I have lost in becoming a teacher is my ego.... something that drives research but can't drive a classroom.

Love this image I stumbled across, especially with the NZ focus (from ).....

postscript: I want to clarify that ego in research really is necessary, otherwise nothing would get done, no-one would have the confidence to believe that their research could make the difference and to continue despite setbacks. This isn't to say that every researcher is an ego-maniac, simply that the very process of being so closely focused on one small area of work (for which you may be the only person on the planet who is looking into that particular area of interest) leads to (necessary) ego forming.