Friday, July 24, 2020

Whose idea was that, yours or theirs?

The problem -- We give students our questions to answer and our problems to solve.

Before I dig into this issue and offend all of the teachers reading this, I want to say that I am a huge fan of questions. I am also a huge fan of teachers collaborating about cool questions we could be asking in interesting and engaging ways. It's super important. But we should not be forcing our students to answer our questions as often as we do. I am a guilty party here. If I am writing about an issue here it is often because I first saw the problem in myself and what I do, and then I noticed it was bigger than just me.

This problem with asking all of the questions for students, or giving students pre-arranged problems to solve, is a trend in physical science education. It probably extends into other subjects and fields as well, but my experience is mostly with science teachers. A teacher spends a bunch of time and energy dreaming up some really impressive questions for students to engage and then gives them to students. This often takes the form of a really well thought-out problem, lab exercise, challenge, or project. It might involve a fairly complicated setup, maybe even some equipment arranged in a creative and clever way. Most often, though, there is a question or problem involved. And the teacher is the one who came up with it or found it.

We should try to avoid defining questions and laying out the format for students to answer them. Both steps of identifying questions and organizing their answers are essential parts of the creative design process. Completing those steps for students takes away much of the possible meaning of solving a problem, and is often nothing more than setting up hoops for them to jump through. We take the majority of the possible meaning out of a problem and keep it as our own. Even if there are multiple routes to explore with creative freedom for solving our problem, they still have no ownership of the problem, so we greatly diminish the chance that they will take anything useful away from it.

Let me give some examples of where I see this in physics education.
  • A teacher comes up with a clever "real world" physics problem with only one solution.
  • A teacher comes up with a clever "real world" physics problem with multiple solutions.
  • A teacher come up with a clever physics problem and lays out empty graphs for students to fill out.
  • A teacher invents a really cool lab where students all use the same equipment to investigate the same thing. There is a template for responses.
  • A teacher gives a demonstration and leads a discussion about testable questions, guiding students to use the lab equipment which is all laid out on the table obviously set up for the question the teacher guided them to.
  • A teacher sets up some really cool physics demonstration(s) and then asks students challenging questions about them.
  • A teacher assigns an engineering project with either prescribed solution or obvious pigeon-holed solution.
  • A teacher writes some code that almost solves a problem and asks students to finish it.

There is nothing necessarily wrong or bad about any of those, except for the fact that they all start with "A teacher". This is a big part of what is wrong with education now. Our teachers are doing the dreaming up of cool questions, of awesome problems to solve, of fun lab questions to investigate. Students are just jumping through the hoops. Sometimes we make them find the hoops and stand the hoops up in the right order themselves before they jump through them, but they are still jumping through our hoops. They might be super fun meaningful hoops, where they get to learn and collaborate and explore, but they are not as meaningful as they would be if they were exploring their own questions and problems.

This is definitely a trend I see with the actively collaborating science teachers, the ones who all pat each other on the back and nominate each other for awards, but it is an issue for any teacher trying to get new ideas. We can be super creative and fun and outgoing and awesome, and we all get together and share ideas (mostly things for student to do) which are often super impressive, but they are impressive because a quite capable physical science teacher dreamed them up. We all take those ideas for problems for students to solve with our solutions in mind and push them on our students, instead of giving students the room to be super fun and creative and awesome in our subjects. Those problems show a teacher’s understanding of content. Students answering them is their attempt at showing they brushed up against the teacher’s understanding.

How often do we see science teachers passing around lab ideas, or problems/challenges, or project ideas? They seem to change hands regularly in many teacher groups. We trade them like currency and worship the teachers with the best ideas with the best typography. We get stuck in these weird teacher echo chambers and can't see outside of the noise of them. Our ideas bounce around getting perfected and polished and reworked until we have this perfect problem for students to solve. And then we wonder why the students are not as excited about it as we are.

Almost everything I see shared by teachers with other teachers are plans for students to do something. How uninteresting and uninspiring from the students perspective. It's no wonder we manage to crush the creativity out of them.

The solution -- Let students ask their own questions and make their own meaning.

Stop giving students our wonderful dreamed up complex problems. Let them dream them up. I'm not just talking about leading students to what we want them to explore in the manipulative way all of us effective teachers can. Let them actually come up with their own testable question and explore it. Let it be okay that it is not the same as another group's. Don't give them a template to fill out, but rather guidance for technical communication. Let them dream up their own problem to solve with a project, just help them keep it relevant. Let them help decide what successful solving will look like. Let them figure out what kind awesome problems they can solve with their findings and let them solve them. Let them crash. Let them try again.

That's it. That will solve the problem. Easier said than done, of course. That solution has chaos and failure worked into it at every turn, but it should. Those are things we should be embracing, but we often try to avoid them like they are bad. Students don't need more practice hoop-jumping, they need opportunities to ask questions about the chaos that is the physical world, find a problem to solve, design their own solutions, fail at that, and then try again.

That was short

My solutions to big problems with education are always much shorter than my defining and complaining about the problem, but that is because the solution are all attempts to try to solve the same major issue with modern science education systems -- we, as educators, too often do way too much to try to establish all of the meaning, context, and questions for students and then we expect them to make meaning jumping through our hoops. Let the students ask the questions and make the meaning. 

Every solution I have ever crafted to this problem is stupid simple. They always look like I did almost nothing, which is kind of the idea. My new systems are all empty vessels for students to do the creative work. Guides to be a better guide. We should stop doing all of the creative thinking for our students and spend our time and energy creating systems that will allow them to safely explore their own questions.

The ones doing all of the creative thinking in our classes are the ones doing all of the meaningful learning. Let's make sure that is the students, not just the teachers.


  1. This is terrific! Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I love this post and I think it's crazy. In literacy, students are often given "scaffolds" to help them express thoughts and frame thinking. Maybe it's a gallery walk of quotes, and students gather around to decide what phrase or sentence is worth talking about. Or perhaps a five finger graphic (who-what-where-when-why) to help them frame up a retell of a news report. If in science, one of our end goals is to help students participate in the "scientific community", shouldn't we be sharing these models of thinking?


    1. Thank you for the feedback and your thoughts, Stella. You make a great point about building and participating in community. The modeling science and similar approaches to science education work some of those elements in, but much of what students do outside of their minimal freedom to design labs and the discussion follow-ups is all hoop-jumping in science education. Most of the end goal is still flawed — for everyone to solve all of the same abstract word problems. If we are only modeling how the scientific community works in restricted labs and lab result discussions, I’m not sure that is enough. Whiteboarding problems can be great, but the teacher most likely did all of the relevance-finding by choosing them. How do we get students to ask the questions and invent the problems? Are there ways to do this while still keeping them targeted at some common goals and outcomes? Besides helping students stay on track with relevance, what does the teacher role become? What does assessment become? These are all questions I am having fun working my way through. Thanks for joining the journey.