Talking Teaching

October 13, 2012

why kids should grade teachers

Next week my first-year biology students will be doing an appraisal of this semester’s paper, & of those academic staff involved in teaching it. They’re asked about the perceived difficulty of the paper, the amount of work they’re expected to do for it, whether they’ve been intellectually stimulated, the amount of feedback they receive on their work, how approachable staff are, & much else besides. (The feedback one was always my worst scoring attribute – until I asked the students what they thought ‘feedback’ met. It turned out that they felt this described one-to-one verbal communication. We had a discussion about all the other ways in which staff can give feedback – & the scores went up.) The results are always extremely useful, as not only to we find out what’s working, but we also discover what’s not (or at least, what the students perceive as not working) & so may need further attention.

Anyway, my friend Annette has just drawn my attention to a lengthy post in The Atlantic, by Amanda Ridley. It made fascinating reading.

In towns around the country this past school year, a quarter-million students took a special survey designed to capture what they thought of their teachers and their classroom culture. Unlike the vast majority of surveys in human history, this one had been carefully field-tested. That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most – and least – effective teachers.

Ridley, reporting for the Atlantic, was able to follow a 4-month pilot project that was run in 6 schools in the District of Colombia. She notes that about half the states in the US use student test data to evaluate how teachers are doing.

Now, this approach is fraught with difficulty. It doesn’t tell you why children aren’t learning something, for example (or why they do, which is just as interesting). And it puts huge pressure on teachers to ‘teach to the test’ (although Ridley says that in fact “most [American] teachers still do not teach the subjects or grade levels covered by mandatory standardized tests”). It ignores the fact that student learning success can be influenced by a wide range of factors, some of which are outside the schools’ control. (And it makes me wonder how I’d have done, back when I was teaching a high school ‘home room’ class in Palmerston North. Those students made a fair bit of progress, and we all learned a lot, but they would likely not have done too well on a standardised test of academic learning, applied across the board in the way that National Standards are now.)

So, the survey. It grew out of a project on effective teaching funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which found that the top 5 questions – in terms of correlation with student learning – were

  1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
  2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
  3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
  4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
  5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

and the version used with high school students in the survey Ridley writes about contained 127 questions. That sounds an awful lot, to me, but apparently most kids soldiered on & answered them all. Nor did they simply choose the same answer for each & every question, or try to skew the results:

Students who don’t read the questions might give the same response to every item. But when Ferguson [one of the researchers] recently examined 199,000 surveys, he found that less than one-half of 1 percent of students did so in the first 10 questions. Kids, he believes, find the questions interesting, so they tend to pay attention. And the ‘right’ answer is not always apparent, so even kids who want to skew the results would not necessarily know how to do it.

OK – kids (asked the right questions) can indicate is a good, effective teacher. What use is made of these results, in the US? The researchers say that they shouldn’t be given too much weighting, in assessing teachers – 20-30% – & only after multiple runs through the instrument, though at present few schools actually use them that way. This is important – no appraisal system should rely on just one tool.

That’s only part of it, of course, because the results are sent through to teachers themselves, just as I get appraisal results back each semester. So the potential’s there for the survey results to provide the basis of considerable reflective learning, given the desire to do so, & time to do it in. Yet only 1/3 of teachers involved in this project even looked at them.

This is a problem in the NZ tertiary system too, & I know it’s something that staff in our own Teaching Development Unit grapple with. Is it the way the results are presented? Would it be useful to be given a summary with key findings highlighted? Do we need a guide in how to interpret them? Do people avoid possibly being upset by the personal comments that can creep into responses (something that can be avoided/minimised by explaining in advance the value of constructive criticism – and by being seen to pay attention to what students have to say)?

Overall, this is an interesting study & one whose results may well inform our own continuing debate on how best to identify excellent teaching practice. What we need to avoid is wholesale duplication and implementation in our own school system without first considering what such surveys can & can’t tell us, and how they may be incorporated as one part of a reliable, transparent system of professional development and goal-setting. And that, of course, is going to require discussion with and support from all parties concerned – not implementation from above.

October 10, 2012

sending mixed messages

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:48 pm

I attended a presentation today that just didn’t sound right. It was one of several about teaching and learning, & I’m afraid that if I’d been doing a formal appraisal I’d have marked it down.

Why? Well, for starters the presenter seemed a bit confused about IP & copyright. (OK, they had a fairly jokey way of presenting that could have clouded things, but still…) Students’ work is their own, it doesn’t ‘belong’ to the institution or the teacher. This means that if you’re going to make it available to subsequent classes as, say, an exemplar, then you really do need to make sure you get their written permission for this. This, of course, opens a whole new can of worms, & the wriggling is due to the power imbalance that exists in any classroom.

By which I mean that students may feel that they can’t really refuse a request such as the one I’ve mentioned. They may not actually want it to happen, but their response is always going to be tempered by the awareness that the person doing the asking is also the person doing the assessment of their performance. This shouldn’t matter – but the student may still worry about it. (This is why, when we get a paper & teaching appraisal done, the lecturers never get the original handwritten responses back until after the semester’s grades have been finalised – just in case they recognise the writing, or can in some other way identify the respondent: it protects the student.) If I was in this position, I’d be waiting to ask about using their work until after I’d finished teaching (& assessing) them. And maybe that’s what happened, but it wasn’t made clear.

The other thing that bugged me a bit was how the students were presented almost as acting as research assistants – unknowing aides, in that their projects could be mined for useful information that would inform future lectures. OK, from time to time (actually, reasonably often, & it’s one of the things I enjoy about teaching as it creates the opportunity to model how scientists think) my students will ask a question I can’t answer, or tell me about something I’ve not heard of before. In the former, I’ll find out the answer & let them know in a subsequent class (that’s how I learned about s*x determination in mosses, for example), & maybe incorporate what I’ve learned in next year’s lectures; in the latter – well, I’ll probably go & check it up. But that’s not the same as regularly ‘mining’ information to use in future classes.  Especially if the students aren’t aware that someone’s doing it, but even if they do know – well, should they be acting as unpaid research assistants? It comes back to that power imbalance thing again :(

Jokey or not, that presentation wasn’t my style.

October 6, 2012

falling numbers in physics – what do teachers think?

A topic that gets quite a frequent airing in our tearoom is the decline in the number of students taking physics. This issue isn’t peculiar to my institution – a quick look at the literature indicates that it’s a global problem**. The question is, what can be done about this? It’s a question that Pey-Tee Oon & R.Subramaniam (2010) set out to answer.

They identified (from the science education literature) several reasons why students don’t like physics: it’s perceived as boring, with signficant mathematical demands; the passive teaching methods used in many classrooms are off-putting; and the curriculum is crowded. They also noted that teachers‘ perceptions  are important as they can affect students’ subject choices, and so they sought the help of physics teachers in Singaporean secondary schools, noting that

[physics] teachers are in a position to this debate [around declining interest in studying physics at university] as the intent to study or not to study physics is made by students at the school level – the influence of physics teachers on students taking physics cannot thus be underestimated.

In addition to collecting data on teaching experience and educational background, Oon & Subramaniam asked the teachers (all 166 of them) for suggestions on how this might be turned around:

Suggest one way in which more students can be encouraged to study physics at the university.

Several key points came up again and again in the teachers’ responses to that open-ended question: reviewing the current school physics curriculum, “making the teaching of physics fun”, improving graduates’ career prospects, publicising career opportunities, and running enrichment programs.

Now, the NZ physics curriculum was recently redeveloped, as part of the rewriting of the National Curriculum document; more recently, the Achievement Standards were rewritten to align them more closely with that document. So, if that redeveloped curriculum doesn’t “go beyond the classical topics and include more modern topics which are related to current applications” (& Marcus can probably give more informed comment on that than I can), then we may have missed the boat on that one. Of course, the teachers’ suggestion that more modern topics be included means that – when we do get the chance to spring-clean – that it may be necessary to drop some ‘traditional’ content. Otherwise we’d simply be cramming the curriculum ever fuller – and the perception of an overloaded curriculum can make the subject seem more difficult (a problem that Biology shares), and which other research has found to be a definite turn-off for students. There’s also the ‘fun’ aspect to consider – how do we address that?

It’s hard to see how the universities can improve physics graduates’ career prospects (something that probably needs a push at government level, if the government of the day is serious about the importance of studying the sciences) but we can certainly help to promote those options that are available. Among other suggestions, the teachers thought that the following could help: careers talks emphasising the value of physics, roadshows fronted by high-profile research scientists, better marketing by university physics departments, and enhanced career guidance (at both secondary and tertiary level). On the career front, Oon & Subramaniam point out that “Wall Street has a high concentration of physicists”, which suggests that career opportunities are more diverse than many students might think.

As for physics enrichment programs – again, a significant majority of the teachers surveyed felt that the following steps would be valuable:

  • creating opportunities for physics researchers and lecturers to go into schools to promote the subject;
  • running workshops in schools to raise awareness of the importance of this subject;
  • offering ‘popular’ physics seminars;
  • running on-campus physics enrichment camps;
  • and developing outreach programs supporting and promoting physics.

The teachers felt that university-level teaching also needs a review (ie, the problem of declining enrolments won’t be solved solely by changes in & support for physics teaching in schools):

One of the most striking findings from this study is the urge by teachers for a rebranding of the university physcis curriculum. Creating innovative interdisciplinary programs at the undergraduate level – for example, marrying physics with other disciplines (eg, finance, management etc) to meet the growing needs of current market demand, deserves consideration… For example, students can gain scientific training in physics and technical skills in finance if physics is integrated with finance… It is a win-win solution with minimum sacrifice… [that] will not only increase the employability of physics graduates but will also further the attractiveness of undergraduate physics programs.

The researchers note that such interdisciplinary programs are already being offered at some overseas instititutions, and certainly we are beginning to see an increasing emphasis here in New Zealand on the value of interdisciplinarity.

Oon & Subramaniam have definitely provided some food for thought. And given the nature of the problem, perhaps it’s time for physicists around New Zealand to work together to address it?

P-T Oon & R.Subramaniam (2010) Views of physics teachers on how to address the declining enrolment in physics at the university level. Research in Science and Technological Education 28(3): 277-289. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02635143.2010.501749

** Having said that, Michael Edmonds has just drawn my attention to this talk (shown on Youtube) by UK physicist, Professor Brian Cox.

October 1, 2012

how do kids learn about dna?

My significant other is forever telling me that Facebook is a total time-waster. Sometimes I do tend to agree – but also, one can Find Out Stuff! Like the study I’ve just heard about via Science Alert, on how children get information about genetics and DNA – things we might regard as being in the ‘too hard’ basket & so best left for senior high school students to grapple with. That grappling begins in year 11, when one of the NCEA Level 1 Science standards asks that students be able to “demonstrate understanding of biological ideas relating to genetic variation”.

Is that too late? Jenny Donovan and Grady Venville suggest that it is, arguing that with the rapid growth of knowledge in and applications of molecular biology,

[citizens] of the future will be called upon to make more decisions, from personal to political, regarding the impact of genetics on society. ‘Designer babies'; gene therapy; genetic modification; cloning, and the potential access to and use of personal genetic information are all complex and multifactorial issues. All raise ethical and scientific dilemmas.

They give the example of jury trials, where jurors may hear quite complex information about DNA and be asked to consider this in coming to a verdict, and note that people may have acquired a range of misconceptions around DNA from sources such as the popular program CSI and its various spin-offs.

Children, for example, have a lot of opportunity to hear about genes, DNA, & their uses well before we start formally teaching these concepts at school. Donovan and Venville already knew (from their own previous research) that by the end of their primary schooling many students were already developing misconceptions about genetics; for example, the idea that ‘genes and DNA are two totally separate entities.’ This time, they wanted to examine the impact of the mass media on children’s conceptions (& misconceptions) around this subject. The misconceptions part is particularly important because misconceptions, once formed, can be extremely persistent – affecting learning into the tertiary years.

Using a combination of interviews and questionnaires about media use, the researchers found that their subjects (children aged 10-12) spent around 5 hours a day using various media (TV, radio, print media, movies, & the internet), with most of that being watching television. This included crime shows, and the children felt that they gained most of their ‘knowledge’ of genetics from TV. Donovan & Venville chose to question children from this age group because, with falling numbers of Australian students taking science subjects in upper secondary school, ‘exposure to genetics may be their sole opportunity to develop scientific literacy in this field’ – where ‘scientific literacy’ encompasses literacy both within and about science.

So, what did they find out?

Most children (89%) knew [about] DNA, 60% knew [about] genes, and more was known about uses of DNA outside the body such as crime solving or resolving family relationships than about its biological nature or function. Half believed DNA is only in blood and body parts used for forensics.

Very few – only 6% – knew that DNA and genes were structurally related. Around 50% of the children surveyed felt that DNA & genes are found in only some tissues & organs. (I was half expecting them to say that DNA is found only in genetically-modified organisms – with GMOs in and out of the news, it’s odd that this didn’t come up.) And 80% of them felt that TV was ‘the most frequent source of information about genetics (with teachers confirming that the subject hadn’t been taught at school). As a result of these findings, Donovan & Venville argue very strongly that instruction in genetics should take place much earlier in students’ time in school, noting that other researchers suggest that

giving students opportunities to revisit science ideas and build deeper understanding over time, enables them to grasp and apply concepts that typically are not fully understood until several years later… [and that] students need to be exposed to background knowledge from early ages in order for them to make sense of what they absorb from the world around them.

So, if kids are going to watch programs like NCIS, CSI, and Bones on a regular basis, then maybe early teaching around genetics concepts could use

lively discussions around what they have seen and heard about genetics in the mass media [as this] may ultimately help children to make informed decisions in their future lives.

An interesting suggestion – and one which reinforces yet again how important proper resourcing and support of science teaching are, if we are to develop real literacy in and about science.

J.Donovan & G.Venville (2012) Blood and bones: the influence of the mass media on Australian primary school children’s understandings of genes and DNA. Science & Education (published online 23 June 2012, doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9491-3

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