Mar 23, 2012

Khan Academy II: Discussions and "Khanversations"

"Khan Academy" style instructional YouTube videos could be more effective for introductory physics if they used a discussion model rather than a lecture model.

I had a fine time last week at the WNET Channel 13 Celebration of Teaching and Learning (which consisted of about 30% substance, 20% patting teaching on the back for doing "such an amazing job," and 50% advertising), and I wanted to follow up on the post I wrote about Khan Academy.

Over the course of the day, I saw Sal Khan (the Silicon Valley superstar shown in the camera-phone screens to the left) give his standard talk, and then follow it up with an hour-long question and answer session. In general, I came away convinced that Khan's heart is in the right place, and that Khan Academy strives to be far more than a YouTube channel. The goal of Khan Academy, he said numerous times, is to off-load a number of tasks traditionally done by teachers in order to free up the teacher's time to do more valuable things. During the Q&A, I got a chance to ask Khan essentially the questions that I posed in the last post: What is the role of an explanatory video when we know that clear and concise explanations can be counterproductive to student learning? His answer was basically that students should have access to whatever resources that might be helpful to them, and they're taking seriously their responsibility to measure the effectiveness of the videos to identify which ones aren't working. Here's a quote from his response:

When I think about my own learning, there are some times when I learned something through the experiential, where finally when I had to write a program when I was doing some computer graphics, trigonometry finally kicked in... But for some things, you know, especially when I was doing higher level math, it really sometimes was a friend in a coffee shop giving me a clear and concise explanation. And I was just like, "Wow, that really hit the spot. That was really much better than what was in the book, and that got me through my stumbling block."

I agree with what Khan is saying here, but this response reveals a slightly simplistic view of how learning works. I can't deny that clear and concise explanations from friends or teachers have gotten me through some tricky spots as well. However, I'd also suggest that hearing those explanations in clear and concise terms sometimes didn't actually help me as much as other approaches might have. Precisely because I was hand-fed exactly what I needed to fill in the gaps in my understanding at that moment, a few days or weeks later, those gaps sometimes returned.

When I think about what Khan Academy videos might look like if they were truly out to correct student misconceptions about, say Newton's Third Law, I imagine something more like the "dispute between students" prompts you find in Lillian McDermott's Physics By Inquiry books (see my previous post on this topic). In the Khan Academy model, picture a "Khanversation" between two voices, in which both individuals make arguments supported by diagrams to support a claim their view is consistent with observations in the natural world. This approach would provide opportunities to bring common misconceptions out into the open and model effective argumentation for students as they practice these concepts and skills in their classroom.

In a 2010 review paper in Science, Stanford School of Ed Professor Jonathan Osborne calls attention to a great irony in many science classes - traditional science teaching fails to develop the skills of argumentation and debate that are at the heart of the way science actually operates. Not only do student-centered teaching methods help to develop these essential skills, they also facilitate learning of science concepts far more effectively. Osborne writes: "Learning is often the product of the difference between the intuitive or old models we hold and new ideas we encounter. Through a cognitive process of comparison and contrast, supported by dialogue, the individual then develops new understanding. Consequently, learning requires opportunities for students to advance claims, to justify the ideas they hold, and to be challenged." We should be teaching our students first and foremost how to navigate their way through this process, as this is a skill that will be far more relevant to them than any science concept. (excepting, of course, Newton's Third Law...)

One of the most productive aspects of whiteboarding is that students are expected to formulate a verbal argument to support their answer, and present this argument to the teacher and their peers. Not only does this give a teacher instant access to their students' reasoning, but the students themselves are constantly exposed to effective and ineffective arguments. What role might other methods play in this process? I have tried to use handouts to structure and spur dialogue between students, but I've never gone so far as to upload such a dialogue to YouTube. At first glance, however, this possibility seems intriguing.

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Mar 14, 2012

What's to Learn from Khan Academy?

The video lectures on Khan Academy don't address the complexities of how people actually learn. What might these videos look like if they did?

I was lucky enough to secure a free ticket to the Channel 13 Celebration of Teaching and Learning this Friday in Manhattan. Sal Khan is giving a talk about Khan Academy, the series of YouTube tutorials that have been touted as a revolution in education. Here's an example of Sal Khan layin' down some knowledge about Newton's Third Law:

There's a healthy discussion in the physics teaching blogosphere about why these videos aren't the revolution to education that 60 Minutes might lead you to believe. Physics teacher Frank Noschese makes a very strong argument on his blog in this post and others (there is also a nice set of links to other blogs at the bottom of this page).

Khan Academy lectures seem to me to be a new type of textbook for a sort of curriculum that has been around for ages. The problem is, we've seen that this curriculum just isn't effective. The idea that YouTube lectures can be useful to students isn't flawed in itself, but video resources for more effective pedagogical approaches just aren't posted on Khan Academy. Rather than bashing Khan, let's think about what types of videos might be used as part of more effective curriculum, like Modeling Instruction.

Modeling isn't about lecturing, of course. It doesn't matter whether the lectures take place in a classroom or on YouTube, lecturing just doesn't work. So, what video resources would be effective in a Modeling course? Much of the most valuable student experiences in a Modeling course can't be replaced by videos - hands on lab work, interpreting unique data, discussions with other students, presenting a whiteboarded solution to the class. Somewhere in the midst of all this I imagine there's room for, say, example problems worked out using language and representations specific to a Modeling course, but how would you prevent such concise explanations from interfering with a student's natural struggle to build their own understanding? Perhaps, as Derek Muller suggests in this video, students might benefit from watching a conversation between students as they gradually work toward a correct understanding of a concept or problem.

For me, the takeaway from Khan Academy is simply how easy it is for individuals to make simple instructional videos that are available to a very wide audience. There's still a ways to go in thinking about how such videos might supplement progressive pedagogy, but the method is there for the taking.
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Mar 8, 2012

Whiteboard Everything

 Whiteboards should be central to any inquiry-based approach. Whether students are asked to present their solution to a problem, their interpretation of lab results, or anything else that requires them to think independently, whiteboards are an ideal tool for this process.

The more I observe, it seems, the more opportunities I see for effective applications of whiteboarding. Whiteboarding is simply a highly effective way of getting students' thoughts out of their heads and into the classroom, where they can be critiqued and discussed. There are other ways of doing this, of course (simply asking students to raise their hands is one such way, "clicker" response systems are another, higher-tech approach), but whiteboards have unique flexibility and versatility. When a group of students works together to prepare a whiteboard for presentation, the peer discussion that goes into this activity is the first step toward correcting individual students' misconceptions. Plus, whiteboards are extremely economical!

On a recent visit to a school teaching Physics First, students in a rather large class were asked to present their results from a lab experiment. Each student was given one or two poster-sized pieces of sticky paper, and wrote out a summary of each section of a conventional lab report (hypothesis, procedure, results, analysis, etc.), which they then stuck to the wall for the class to see. This was a challenging task, and some groups took much more time to complete it than other groups. When everyone was done, the teacher then asked each group to present their posters, in turn. The room was rather restless, and during each group's five-minute presentation students in other groups found it hard to sit still. To save time, the teacher asked latter groups to skip the parts of their report that were essentially similar to things other groups had already spoken about. When the period ended, most of the groups in the room hadn't had a chance to present their posters at all.

Imagine the same activity done with whiteboards. The whiteboard is too small to record all the information in every section of the lab report with a big, bold dry erase pen, so the activity would have to be broken down into pieces. For each section of the report, a few groups would present what they'd recorded on their whiteboards and other groups would look on. Each of these presentations would be less than a minute long, and even the most restless students would find it easier to pay attention to their peers for this short time. The teacher would have the opportunity to focus closely on the aspects of the activity that differed most from group to group (in this case, the data and analysis), and could spend more time discussing with students the significance of these differences. Since each group's presentations were only a minute long, every group in the room could be assured an opportunity to present at least once, and the threat of being called on to present again would encourage all students in the room to stay alert.

On another visit, I witnessed a very successful application of whiteboarding that faltered a bit when many students in the room had made a similar mistake in the free body diagrams they'd recorded (the whiteboard pictured here doesn't show this mistake...). What followed was a lengthy, lecture-style instruction about how to correct this mistake in the students' diagrams. In talking with the teacher of this class later in the day, we agreed that one might instead make up a new free body diagram problem on the spot designed to hone in on this common mistake, or perhaps even refer to a database of problems specifically designed for this purpose. Students would be asked to set their original whiteboards aside and solve the new problem for class discussion on a new whiteboard. Rather than lecturing about how to correct the common mistake, the correct solution would arise out of this group discussion.

My Modeling workshop leader, this past summer, mentioned that whiteboarding is so entrenched in his current teaching that he wouldn't know how to teach any other way. If he was asked to teach a European history class, he would teach it using whiteboarding. I'm starting to see what he means as I begin to appreciate the power of creative whiteboarding in physics class!

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