Friday, August 19, 2011

welcome to twitterville, tweets allowed

Today we had our first day using twitter in world religion class. It was an experiment. I had six of 20 students who had devices capable of tweeting. I also had a student at my laptop taking down notes and I think we might have audio as well. Students were doing presentations. Those without electronic devices were to take some handwritten notes, but primarily pay attention.

The biggest difference that I noticed in the class was that it felt like we were all working together to capture the information. Each group had time to present a rather impromptu summary of about two pages of information on a traditional religion. We were comparing and contrasting religions of Papau New Guinea, Aborigine religions, Native Americans, etc....

The classroom felt alive. It wasn't perfect. There were glitches and it felt clunky, but there's something gratifying about being about to point to a twitter feed and say, "This is what we learned together today."

Monday, August 15, 2011

One of my favorite days

The third day of class is one of my favorite days of class every year. By this time, the students have learned a thing or two (or more), yet they still have a "this is all new" feel about them. When we were almost done with our World Religions lesson on traditional African religions today, I did a quick round of oral questions for my students. I asked question after question about our content and their ideas and all students answered. At the end of the question session, I asked, "Now, how much of that did you know one week ago?" Faces lit up as students realized that they had learned quite a bit in just three lessons. It is important to point out learning to students so that we can celebrate their achievements with them.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Experimental learning - setting up for success

I teach four blocks of introduction to philosophy. Last year between two semesters, I taught ten blocks of the same subject. In each class, we jump into activities with students sharing their ideas, doing thought experiments, and participating in activities immediately. So even though I have yet to see all my classes twice this year, I've already seen the results of the famous "cinnamon experiment" and had time to dissect the results and my approach.

What is the cinnamon experiment?
If you close your eyes, plug your nose, and put powdered cinnamon in your mouth, you will not taste the cinnamon. Your sense of smell influences our sense of taste so much that the hot taste of cinnamon is usually undetectable without the help of your nose. You simply sense a powdery substance in your mouth.

My classes become guinea pigs as I test the cinnamon experiment on them. The students come to first-hand knowledge that senses can mislead or not provide a full picture, and realize that other evidence may be needed to confirm or deny a proposition. Out of the groups that did the experiment in the 2010-2011 school year, the experiment worked with nine of ten. For the group in which the experiment did not work, most students thought it did, except the student that I had singled out to be my guinea-pig. So, realistically, the experiment worked on approximately 149 out of 150 students last year.

In setting up the experiment this year, I tried to use the same approach, but I did say that it failed with one group last year. Sure enough, the experiment failed the first time I tried it this year. Not only did it fail with the student I had sitting in front of the class, when the other students tried the experiment, it failed.

I wondered if my cinnamon had gone bad and hoped for better in my next class.

Same set-up. Same results that defeated my purpose.

Take three. I thought about ditching the experiment altogether, but I was still holding out hope that it was a fluke. No such luck. Boom, the experiment fell flat. It wasn't that the students could name the cinnamon when it was in their mouth with their noses plugged, it was that they would not acknowledge that there was any difference in taste when their nose was plugged instead of unplugged. They essentially denied that the ground cinnamon had any flavor at all.

I had one last class to try the experiment on. I again considered abandoning the exercise, but at the last minute I decided to change my approach and make the exercise perhaps more about my selling of the experiment (at least in my mind) than about cinnamon.

"I have this amazing experiment. It always works. Always. You will be amazed by it. You will say, 'Oh wow!' and be stunned. And it always works. Do you want to try?"

I felt bad lying to my students, but it was in the name of experimental learning.

I was ready to fall flat on my face yet again but was trying my hardest to sell the success of the cinnamon experiment.

Guess what? It worked! First the student sitting in front of the class could not tell us what was in his mouth. "It's powdery, but I don't know what it is." He unplugged his nose, and his face lit up with recognition. "It's cinnamon," he said confidently.

One-by-one the rest of  the students in the classroom tried it, and even knowing it was cinnamon before they put it in their mouths,they could not perceive its taste. It was a delight to see both experiments work - the cinnamon experiment and my experimental setup for success.

Hopefully I have learned my lesson early this school year, with only three days behind me, go in with full confidence, expecting things to work. Be flexible if learning doesn't go as planned, but quickly regroup and teach as if you are tasting cinnamon for the first time. Go ahead, try it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Classroom inquisition of the third kind

Words carry with them various connotation; but the dictionary definition (as found at of the word “inquisition” encompasses some of the serious flaws of education as well as what can be one of the most productive classroom practices. 

Here is what says for the word inquisition:
1. An official investigation, especially on of a political or religious nature, characterized by lack or regard for individual rights, prejudice on the part of the examiners and recklessly cruel punishments.
2. Any harsh, difficult, or prolonged questioning.
3. The act of inquiring; inquiry; research

American public school education is characterized by inquisition as defined in numbers one and two above. Students do not reach their full potential because classroom teachers are not allowed to treat their students as individuals, demonstrating a “lack or regard for individual rights.”  In his recent address to the Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action in Washington, D.C., when the actor Matt Damon spoke of his mother’s teaching career and his experience as a student in public schools he said, “My teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.”

The standardized tests themselves that American public school students must take in order for schools to demonstrate Annual Yearly Progress could be considered harsh, difficult or prolonged questioning. Certainly the seat-time spent on preparation for these high-stakes tests could be considered prolonged.

Classroom inquisition of the third kind
However, the word inquisition has a positive connotation as well. Inquisition can mean “the act of inquiry; inquiry; research.” So while I may hope to avoid a classroom inquisition of the first and second type, I structure my student activities to promote classroom inquisition of the third type.  To foster a love for inquiry in students and the ability to do the research or thinking necessary to answer the questions that inquiry poses is a great gift that teachers can share with students. 

One of the most beautiful things students ask is, “Why?” What I love about the classroom inquisition is that the best answer I can give to that question is to answer back, “Why do you think?” and to encourage the act of inquiring, inquiry and research. Now that's classroom inquisition.

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