kitchen table math, the sequel: "owning" the content

Monday, May 2, 2011

"owning" the content

From an edutopia post entitled Project-based learning made easy:
Academic Rigor -- Ask a Question

In addition to mapping from state content standards, we use inquiry as driver for almost all projects, units and lessons. A physics teacher who has a solid lab unit on bridges need only change the focus. Instead of a recipe lab that produces structurally strong bridges, she can ask the students the question, “What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?” She can teach the content as she always has but now students will need to apply that knowledge to their bridge design. Not all of the bridge designs will be strong but many will. Most importantly, the students will own the content because they applied it.
I don't exactly understand what this passage means, possibly because I don't know what happens in a "recipe lab."

Do teachers teaching "recipe labs" not ask questions?

And if the teacher teaches the lesson the way she has always taught the lesson, i.e. as a recipe, how does explicitly asking the question "What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?" transform the activity into a project instead of a recipe?

And what does own the content mean?

If own the content means remember the content, it's rare to remember content you've practiced just once.

If own the content means understand the content, the same principle applies: once you forget the details of what you did, you may still have a feeling of understanding, but if you had to explain the concept to another person you couldn't do it.

I know this from long personal experience.

The feeling of understanding is not the same thing as understanding.


Bonnie said...

Not only do I understand this, I am writing a grant proposal to do something very much like this. I always thought the standard cookbook labs were dreadful. I sleepwalked through mine - we all knew exactly what the outcome would be, so why go through the pain of doing the lab. I learned nothing from those labs. If we had been forced to stretch our brains a little, by trying to figure something out on our own, I suspect I would have learned a lot more. Of course, that needs to be coupled with enough background knowledge so that the student is equipped to figure out the right way to proceed.
A lot of engineering schools use methods like this, in conjunction with lots of background knowledge too. MIT, for example, has its "Conceive-Design-Implement" initiative.
You can't just throw a group of clueless students at a bridge building exercise, but it is reasonable to teach the laws underlying the bridge design, and then ask them to try their hand at building a bridge

MagisterGreen said...

Too often "own the content" is simply doublespeak for "students do it themselves while teacher watches," or some variant thereof. If done in an environment where students have been given the relevant background information and can reasonably be expected to produce certain outcomes, then exercises like this can be beneficial. When I give my students a particularly difficult piece of Latin to translate I do so in the knowledge (hope?) that they can apply the mechanics of what they know (grammar, syntax, etc...) to the unfamiliar setting and achieve an expected result (a reasonably accurate, even pleasant, translation). But throwing students at Latin without the requisite background information is only a recipe for disaster.

Sadly, it's just this disaster that occurs in classrooms where the background knowledge is either assumed or dismissed as "drill-and-kill," or some such.

Final thought...sometime the "recipe lab" isn't a waste if used as the model for later work to build upon the basics. Rather like learning to make a white sauce is the basis for a whole cornucopia of other still need to learn, and master, the basic recipe of the white sauce first.

Parker said...

This is the problem with a lot of inquiry based science classrooms, the projects tend to focus more on application in order to make it relevant. Basically, students try to do engineering without knowing much science. Actually understanding the science and how this knowledge was formed is often ignored as irrelevant.

On recipe labs being boring and the results obvious; I find that most of my students may be able to predict the results but most cannot even come close to coherently explaining the results. And unfortunately, most have been trained to think that science is only testing something and seeing if it works or not; no emphasis on explanation (theory) which is at the heart of the scientific process.

I still think inquiry based learning can be very useful in science classes but it must be extremely well designed or students end up coming to incorrect conclusions with must time wasted. In order for it to work for most students, the teacher must be behind the wheel. Guide on the side must also be a sage on the stage.

Parker said...

Also, students have been making toothpick bridges for decades in schools all over...nothing new.

I remember doing it in school. I learned some shapes that were stronger than others but it took a few days of class and I didn't learn WHY the shapes were stronger.

SteveH said...

Why are they building bridges in physics?

My son's school had a popsicle stick bridge contest in 5th grade. They had a big parent night where all of the bridges were tested with weights until they broke. Lots of active learning or some such thing. Or not.

"she can ask the students the question, “What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?” "

Do they learn how to calculte moments of inertia, along with shear and bending moment diagrams first? Do they learn about properties of materials? Even after taking the engineering statics course in college, designing the "strongest" bridge (truss only?) is not a simple matter.

While studying statics from a textbook (not in project form), one learns a lot (math) about what makes a strong bridge. How would a lab improve on that? ... by creating a bridge out of sticks and not steel with proper pin joints? How about S-N diagrams?

"own the content because they applied it"

That's just crap. Lot's of students apply content and skills (and theory!) with homework. I still remember a 40 page homework assignment of calculating moments of inertia and shear and bending moment diagrams. PBL is just one more attempt to justify "guide on the side".

Students need to own the math.

Anonymous said...

Strongest design for what? spanning a great distance? supporting very heavy loads? withstanding high winds? using available materials?