Jul 26, 2012

Notes on Consensus

Tomorrow is the last day of our Modeling Workshop here in NYC. Everyone involved, from the workshop leaders to the participants (Big digital shout out to @elbee818, @jsb16, @d2thelhurst, and @fernwig!) have been amazing, and to say that I'm going to miss hanging out with these folks all day long is a gross understatement. On the bright side, though, looking back through my notebook on the train ride home today got me chomping at the bit to spend some much-needed alone time working out how I'll be putting this stuff to work with my ninth graders in the fall. As anyone who's completed a workshop has seen, Modeling Instruction is a method, not a curriculum - the worksheets and activities used in any workshop are meant to serve only as a starting point for applying the method to your student population. As I've mentioned before in this blog, it's a fascinating experience to leaf through other Modelers' revisions of activities, and take inspiration for what to include in revisions of my own.

One thing that came up a couple times in our workshop discussions was the role of note taking in a Modeling course. In a classroom that's using a Modeling method, students build all knowledge through consensus. This consensus emerges slowly as students struggle  collectively to interpret empirical observations of a unit paradigm lab, present solutions on a whiteboard, and ask questions about these solutions of their peers. Flashes of insight will come at unexpected moments, often when the class is at its most exciting and engaging, but a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of a model must be built gradually over many days. It seems to me that only the most sophisticated note takers will emerge from a lab or whiteboarding session with detailed records of the knowledge developed during that class period. Students new to Modeling are suddenly asked to think about science in a radically new way, and (by necessity to the inquiry process) often denied access to the resources that they've come to rely on during their previous years as a science student. Sure, some teachers pass out a textbook, but these books turn out to be more useful for building inclined planes than for working through most worksheet problems or lab practica... For ninth graders in particular, this whole new ballgame begins on their very first day of high school, simultaneous to a transition that already induces utter panic. It's my hunch that some minor restructuring of worksheets and other Modeling curriculum resources can go a long way in helping younger students get the most out of this complex process of knowledge-building.

When I was teaching Physics First in a "lab, lecture, & discussion" format, I developed a system of handouts to try to provide students some hierarchical structure for their class notes. (A description of these Notes Outline handouts was published in the "For the New Teacher" column in The Physics Teacher in September of 2011, and you can find an old blog post about my approach here.) Through these handouts, I felt I succeeded in providing a consistent and reliable resource for students in a class where very little emphasis was placed on textbook readings. As I've delved deeper into Modeling Instruction, I've become more convinced that providing some similar structure is crucial to helping ninth graders succeed in a class with such a strong emphasis on higher-order thinking.

I recently revised a few worksheets on force diagrams (click to view, then click on the "Print" icon in the view to download: 1a, 1b, 1c, 2), designed to be used at the beginning of a Balanced Force Particle Model unit with ninth graders. At the end of each of these documents, I've included a blank box labeled Notes on Consensus. In this box I've placed one or two very general questions that are directly relevant to the content of the specific worksheet (I've included one example to the right, mostly just to fancy up my post with a picture... Check out the worksheets themselves to see the scope of the prompts I'm suggesting!). In using these handouts, I plan to call attention to these Notes on Consensus prompts at the beginning of the whiteboarding session for a given worksheet. At the end of the session, I'll direct students to them again with language like, "Remember, it's your responsibility to write down anything that you might need in order to answer this question on your own later on. Can anyone offer suggestions about what would be helpful to include in these notes?" (From my experience with ninth graders, it's necessary to devote verbal cues and class time explicitly to this process.) As the course progresses, I plan to remove the prompts from the Notes on Consensus boxes, and ask students to give their own suggestions about what questions they think should be the focus of their notes. By isolating the most sophisticated and personalized form of note taking in these Notes on Consensus sections, I hope to provide a forum for students to both practice note taking explicitly and construct useful resources for developing content understanding over time.

The idea of prompting students to record notes on class consensus is far from new. Debbie Rice, a co-developer of a collection of Modeling materials designed for use with ninth graders, told me in a phone conversation that if teachers aren't explicitly drawing out class consensus from work done, then they aren't doing true Modeling. On the Modeling Instruction revisions of handouts to accompany Melvin Steinberg's excellent CASTLE curriculum (downloadable from the "Legacy ASU Modeling site"), most worksheets include a blank space marked "Consensus." However, such direct prompts are by no means the norm in most Modeling resources I've seen. Most Modelers encourage students to record corrected solutions to worksheet problems somewhere in the space provided, but I'm not sure that this alone sends the right message about the role of worksheets in the consensus-building process. As a Physics First teacher pointed out after looking over my revisions, placing Notes prompts on the worksheets themselves illustrates explicitly to a student that "the worksheets are a learning process on par with the lab activities... Ninth graders need a clear understanding of when they're expected to be building knowledge and when they're demonstrating knowledge." Furthermore, having specific conceptual targets for a whiteboarding session can help novice Modelers, since "a teacher can pace discussions better when they know they need to uncover certain consensus points by the end of the period."

In thinking about the value of inquiry, I've always wrestled with the degree to which "less is more." That is, when students are building knowledge for themselves, how much top-down scaffolding is too much? For example, it's become strikingly clear to me through this workshop that worksheet problems must be sufficiently ambiguous or open ended to allow for a variety of relevant interpretations. I'm very aware that providing Notes on Consensus prompts will put limitations on how a given worksheet or lab can be interpreted by students, and that this may seem in opposition to others' visions of true modeling. Indeed, one teacher's response to the Notes on Consensus format on these worksheet revisions was more along the lines of a general template for "whiteboarding notes" that includes separate spaces for recording points of confusion and similarities and differences with other groups' whiteboards, but no content-specific prompts. At this point in time I'm convinced that the content-specific prompts will be useful, but only time will tell.

In any case, it's clear to me that there is value to including consistent reflection activities throughout every step of the Modeling cycle. If students learn better note taking skills in the process, that's all the better! I'd love to hear any comments that YOU have on either the Notes on Consensus format, or the specific worksheet revisions I've posted here. If you end up introducing similar modifications to the curriculum resources you use, please, please send 'em my way!!

PS - A huge THANK YOU to Leah Kanner Segal and Lucas Walker for their feedback on the collection of materials I've posted here!

PPS - If you want the MSWord files of the PDFs I've posted, just ask! They're revised versions of the 2010 Modeling materials (revised by Mark Schober, one of the co-leaders of our workshop!), which are available on the main AMTA site, but I've included some fancy new pictures that you might feel like using.

PPPS!! - Speaking of which, those amazing cartoon hands in the worksheet revisions are drawn by cartoonist Jamie Sale. If you feel like trying to draw some hands yourself, Jamie will show you how to do it!!

5 Responses so far

  1. Anonymous says:

    I haven't taught 9th graders physics, but that level of dictation on how they should write on their own papers would be way, way overkill for the students that I do teach. I taught some of CASTLE last year to a group of my sophomores, and they found the consensus box a waste of space (as an addition to a conclusion box). They already knew how to have discussions, come to a conclusion as a class, and record that information in a way that made sense to them. Anyone not making edits to their work based on class discussion would be almost certain to never fill out an additional box like that. I have no basis to say how it would be helpful or not for 9th graders.

    In general, I try to give them a structured space, but not structured prompts, for making marks on their papers. Their packets belong to them and I will never collect them. I, therefore, absolutely do not dictate what they write there. They do not have to do what I expected them to do in the spaces (though most do).

  2. JK says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Kelly! From your description of the Sophomores you worked with, it sounds like these students had some pretty sophisticated study skills, so maybe this tool wouldn't have been useful to them. (That's awesome that they recognized on their own that the class consensus IS the conclusion!!) The student population I'm working with next year is probably pretty similar to the students you're alluding to, so Notes on Consensus may indeed prove to be superfluous. I'll report back later.

    In the long run, however, we're not just concerned with applying MI to such sophisticated learners. Students who would never "fill out an additional box like that" are exactly the students who might benefit most from this format. I'm hoping that this tool can to be a step in the direction of applying Physics First Modeling to student populations that have more pronounced limitations in everything from note taking skill to assembling abstract concepts. That is, I imagine some better documentation procedures can help students develop these skills directly. Similarly, Modelers working with more challenging populations have told me that attendance rate alone is a huge limitation to the effectiveness of the method. In my experience, Notes Outlines can be a big help in encouraging frequently absent students to take some responsibility for the material they missed.

    To be clear, this design is definitely NOT about telling students what to record in the box. I agree that there's a fine line between too much scaffolding and just enough, as I tried to explain in this post, but finding that line at a given moment during the year has to be a process of trial and error. A structured space without structured prompts is definitely my goal, but I'm not confident that I can start out with this on the first day of high school, especially while simultaneously asking students to use their brains to solve problems in challenging new ways.

  3. Anonymous says:

    When I talked about student "who would never fill out an additional box like that", I was talking about my students. I have plenty of students, especially the juniors in the regular classes, who refuse to write much down (and usually one or two each year who do refuse to write basically anything at all in their packets).

    Also, my students come in with rather poor study skills.

    I've found that if I put very detailed spaces in the packets (like the "notes" sections you are describing), many students will just focus on knowing what the "right thing" is to put in every box. It is a way for them to disengage from the class. I think the whole deal with MI is that by actually engaging in the learning and getting rid of that kind of worksheety, "memorize this" type stuff (which, I know you're going to say you're not asking them to memorize, but is the message that a box like that sends to students), they don't need that.

    I think it also looks like prescribing the conversation ahead of time, confirming for students that there is a "right" class discussion to have (aka "guess what's in the teacher's head"). I don't know. The more that I look at that "notes" box, the more uncomfortable it makes me.

    Again, I have never taught physics to 9th graders, so I am not speaking from experience with a physics first class.

    Also, this is going to kill a lot of trees.

    One more point from the post. When you say "Remember, it's your responsibility to write down anything that you might need in order to answer this question on your own later on." Are you implying that you will test them on the same exact questions? Or basically the same exact questions with different numbers? I don't find the idea of having things written down that would help them answer the same question later to be very motivating.

  4. JK says:

    ep, like I said, I'm eager to see the implications of including these prompts on worksheets vs. leaving them out. In observing Modeling classes I've seen plenty of disengaged students, though this may not be what I'd see in your class. I think this is probably more complex than just what types of boxes are the worksheets.

    The Notes on Consensus prompts are not meant to be questions that would show up on a test at all. If well designed, I think they can be questions that are central to the process of solving the types of the problems that we're trying to solve in the class. That is, they're a way of focusing students' attention on big ideas, rather than on specific details that may only be relevant to one situation. I think it's generally very difficult for students to make this "forest vs. trees" distinction if they don't have the perspective of an expert.

    The answers to some of the questions aren't so obvious... Specifically, in the revision of WS2, referring to Newton's Third Law: "If you wanted to write down this pattern as a rule, what are some reasons you could give to defend this rule if someone asked why they should believe it?" Are you saying that your average student would write down thoughts on this question in their notes without being prompted to do so, or are you saying that these thoughts don't need to be written down?

  5. Craig Buszka says:

    A good conversation on an important topic.

    My $0.02 is that Notes on Consensus prompts may not be useful for the student who gained a solid understanding of the as a result of active participation in the preceding discussion. Nor will they be motivating for certain students who for whatever reason do not want to write stuff down.

    But they may be a good way to communicate to the whole class that in a scientific community, understanding is developed via group consensus, which is an idea absent from many transmissionist classrooms.

    Also this kind of structure may help fend off criticism such as "My kid is struggling because you're not teaching properly. S/he doesn't have anything to study from."

    They may also be a good way to formatively assess student understanding. I can imagine asking students to complete the Consensus box based on their understanding of what the consensus was, and then providing feedback using the comment feature of my gradebook along the lines of "Gertrude showed a strong understanding of the connections we made between an acceleration and a constant unbalanced force," or "Billy did not fill out a consensus box. He may need extra help to clarify these concepts. I'll be after school this Wednesday at 3:00."

Leave a Reply