Author: Peter Newbury

What do you mean by that, again?

Oh sure, trust me to turn a fun Twitter #hashtag into a posting about education. Well, sorry, I filter everything I read and experience through my education filter (or my will-my-kids-have-a-meltdown? filter).

I’ve been reading my tweeps #tweetmy16yearoldself messages on Twitter, thinking to myself, Geez, that kid was way more with it than I was. Like my #spacetweep friend @Zarquil, who tweeted

#TweetYour16YearOldSelf Honestly, you’ve got it all figured out already. Listen to your own heart and don’t put so much reliance on others.

Or my math teacher friend @ptruchon who wrote to himself,

Thanks for spending so much awesome time learning the guitar. I wouldn’t have time now, and I’m still enjoying it. #tweetyour16yearoldself

And then my education friend @janniaragon tweeted something that I’m paraphrasing from memory because the tweet was a couple of days ago and it’s slipped off the timeline.

“slim-leg jeans, black hair with bangs, t-shirt from [somebody’s] concert”

You see, @ptruchon and @Zarquil are tweeting TO their 16 year-old selves, sending a wise message back in time. But @janniaragon is tweeting ABOUT her 16 year-old self, a 140-character snapshot of herself back then. That’s the way I interpreted #tweetyour16yearoldself and I’m wasn’t keen to recall and share those awkward years.

Different people have completely different interpretations of the word “tweetyour16yearoldself”, producing completely different responses. Just like I see in undergraduate physics and astronomy classes every day! The instructor says an important word which sits, in his or her mind, at the pinnacle (or is that “apex”, @ptruchon?) of a pyramid of background knowledge and concepts. But the students interpret the word in a different way and attach none of the background the instructor assumes is there. Or worse yet, attach a different background and then struggle to hang the instructor’s version of the concept on scaffolding that isn’t there.

The biggest offender in my field is “theory”. To astronomers, physicists, scientists in general, “theory” is the pinnacle of science. Why, if you produce even one outstanding theory in your career, you’ve made a valuable contribution to the field. But to students, “theory” is often a vague guess, a stab-in-the-dark. Actually, let me quote from a new astronomy textbook, “Investigating Astronomy – A Conceptual View of the Universe” (W.H. Freeman and Co, coming soon) by @caperteam and @rogerfreedman. They say it much better than I can:

In everyday language the word “theory” is often used to mean an idea that looks good on paper, but has little to do with reality. In science, however, a good theory is one that explains reality and that can be applied to explain new observations.

It’s all about interpretation. Instructors, be sure to share the pyramid of background knowledge behind key words when you use them. And students, interrupt your instructor and ask, “What do you mean by that, again?”

We're all on the same team

I work at a huge institution. In 2009, there were more than 45 000 students and 10 000 faculty members at UBC, and enrollment continues to climb. We’re split into a handful of Faculties and Schools and many Departments.

With that many faculty members, it’s no surprise that people in different departments are doing the same things. And sometimes there’s mild hostility (or more) as different departments compete for bums-in-seats, grants, recognition and so on.  Sometimes there’s a feeling of, “Why are you doing that for them? They have their own people” as if we’re giving away our department’s secrets.

And that’s too bad.

Which is why I’m so glad to be working and collaborating and sharing with a couple of colleagues who don’t live in my building.

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Clicker questions should be integrated, not jammed in later

The CWSEI group at UBC gets together every week to discuss a journal article. This week, it was a new article by Melissa Dancy and Charles Henderson “Pedagogical practices and instructional change of physics faculty,” Am. J. Phys. 78 (2010).

One of the questions explored in the paper is, why don’t physics faculty members adopt the research-based instructional strategies that so many have already heard of? Mazur-style peer instruction (PI) using clickers, for example.

Dancy & Henderson discovered that nearly two-thirds (64%) of the 722 faculty who completed their survey were familiar with PI and 29% actually used it in their classes. But on further probing, it turned out only 27% of that 29% (we’re down to about 8% now) had students discussing ideas and solving problems multiple times per class. It appears that a lot of physics faculty members equate “peer instruction” with “yeah, I’ve got clickers in my class.” The technology is there but it’s not being implemented in a way that promotes learning. Continue reading

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