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.


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