Apr 29, 2012

Intervention in Modeling

Concept-related intervention by teachers to correct or redirect student thinking can interfere with processes of peer-instruction and inquiry, but without intervention into the complex social dynamics of a high school classroom, the trust and courage required for these processes to be effective can be slow to develop.

As I've visited various ninth grade physics classes, I'm often faced with a question that teachers who employ inquiry-based instruction face every day: When to intervene in student thought-processes that are headed down the wrong track? For an outside observer like me, a policy of little to no intervention is almost always best, as it's crucial to the observation process to tread very lightly on the environment a teacher has created. But for the teacher who has committed to an inquiry approach, this question gets wrapped up in all sorts of conflicting impulses. Just how helpful is concept-related teacher intervention during, say, the small group discussion phase of a whiteboarding activity?

Anecdotally, my observations have suggested that the short answer is, "not very." In situations when students will be presenting group work to the entire class, pointed Socratic questioning seems most efficiently used when the entire class can benefit from witnessing and participating in another group's thought process. Rerouting this group's thinking prematurely denies every other student in the room the opportunity to think about why that particular line of reasoning doesn't hold up. Teachers might limit a group-by-group Q&A to "one question per group," but in practice this gives students an excuse to sit around doodling cartoons on their whiteboards while they wait for that one question to be answered. I've talked with teachers who like to plant correct ideas throughout the room in the group phase of a whiteboarding process in the hopes that this understanding will grow throughout the class as the whiteboards are presented. However, this takes for granted that such "idea planting" is effective in the first place. Surely these conceptual seeds can be more effectively sowed through a short hands-on activity or a more targeted "auxiliary" whiteboarding problem than by teacher-driven explanations.

It's essential, however, to draw a distinction between concept-related intervention and social intervention into the dynamic between students that can make peer-instruction succeed or fail. In one class I observed, a teacher intervened to delegate responsibility when two members of a group didn't seem to be contributing to a lab activity: "Why don't you help "M" work on the algebraic representation and you help "E" with the motion map?" These students made an attempt to obey these instructions, but "M" and "E" clearly didn't want any help from them, and they eventually gave up and resumed their previous unproductive behavior. I got the impression that the students were used to having their contributions shot down, probably in quite a few more environments than this one physics class. It's unrealistic to expect ninth graders to navigate the sometimes vicious hierarchies of academic or social capability on their own, yet we often ask them to do so. An inquiry-based physics class can provide a more level playing field for these types of interactions than a locker room, but in order to generate trust and courage in students, a teacher has to act as a constantly vigilant referee.

Colleen Megowan's PhD dissertation out of ASU describes four paradigms of the roles teacher play in four modeling-based courses she observed: teacher as scout leader, teacher as stern but kindly parent, teacher as coach, and teacher as general contractor. Here is an excerpt from her description of a ninth grade physics class (illustrating the stern but kindly parent paradigm):

[Students] appeared to feel comfortable saying what they thought to each other and to the teacher, even to the extent of challenging the teacher’s assertions (about physics) if it conflicted with their own commonsense concepts. There was no evidence that they were afraid of ‘looking stupid’ to one another or to the teacher. They behaved as though knowledge resided in their peers as well as their teacher... However, there was very little effort invested by students who took the lead in whiteboard preparation in making sure that their disengaged group-mates could make sense of the whiteboarded information. The teacher often put these disengaged students on the spot by directing questions to them in the whole-group discussion, and when this happened, their more engaged groupmates often rescued them with whispered cues and gestures.       (Megowan, 82-84)*

The classroom environment described here is a direct product of the teacher's "stern but kindly" interventions that have directed class discussions, whiteboarding, and hands-on work since the first day of school. As the latter half of the citation reveals, there are certainly aspects of the peer-instruction process that might still be improved upon, and the teacher's behavior suggests a very gradual, deliberate intervention intended to do exactly this.

Most of all, it is clear that the students in this class are operating within an environment of mutual trust. Over a few months in this classroom, they have gained the courage to examine their own thinking, and to learn from mistakes they and other students have made. It's the challenge of each individual teacher to determine when their interventions enrich this process for students and when they detract from it, but resources for teachers (in the form of Modeling Instruction workshops, or support material for an activity or worksheet) can provide some assistance in meeting this challenge.

*Megowan's dissertation is a fascinating read! It's available from the ASU "Resources" site linked here, near the bottom of the "Doctoral Dissertations and Masters Degree Theses" section.
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