Status Quo Ante
Several years ago (I almost wrote “a couple of years” but realized it has been 7 or so…) I was at the CA Science Teacher Association conference and sat in on a talk about inquiry learning. As a new-ish teacher I was happy to hear about less rigid lab methods being used by others. In my credential program we were encouraged to do inquiry labs in our classes.
I liked doing them because I had a chance to see the students explore and figure things out on their own. The students rarely liked these inquiry labs. Even the guided inquiry labs, where I gave them a rough outline of what to do, were met with sighs. It seemed that the students didn’t like having to think.
At the CSTA conference I was introduced to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1971). I bought the book and it blew my mind! Over twenty years before I started teaching, Postman and Weingartner were preaching that inquiry activities and question-asking were the keys to an education revolution. They also lamented the static methodology of teachers: despite the rapid increase in available technologies, teachers still lectured and gave exams just as they did for the previous 50+ years. They were griping about this before VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, and the Internet! How bad did I feel that I had a bazillion times the technology at my fingertips as they did and I still lectured and gave exams? I felt horrible.
So where did this lead me? At first I was emboldened and made my students write out questions, that I would answer, and did ONLY inquiry labs (sighs be damned!). And while I also tried to make my kids not get stressed about state testing, I still tried to get them as prepped as possible. Unfortunately, over the course of the year, I reverted back to some cookie-cutter, follow the direction labs, and withdrew a bit on the inquiry front. I capitulated to my students desire to amass information in order to regurgitate it on tests, and quickly forget it.
But now I am at a new school! And I am doing the flipped classroom! And implementing some mastery learning methods! And I still see the same desire from the students: just give me the information so I can memorize it… when is the test?. Not having lectures in class has really thrown some students for a loop: how was I supposed to know that? You never taught me! …even if the content was presented in several videos, online simulations, tutorial websites, and in-class work. And students still, on a slightly lesser scale, bemoan labs. But why? I remember loving labs the most in HS and College.
The Big Question
This question has been bugging me for weeks: why does it seem that given freedom to learn at their own pace, unhindered by the tyranny of a strict exam schedule, are my students still, for the most part, behaving as if I were boring them with lectures?
My gut reaction answer is that a large number of students, even those in AP classes (and maybe more so in AP), have conditioned themselves to place a higher priority on the metrics of performance than the sense of understanding that should come with learning something new.
I ran across a video clip of a Taylor Mali poem the other day and it really hit home. The opening line: In case you hadn’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about… or believe strongly in what you’re, like, saying. While this is intended to be half humorous, it is also half dead-on. At least in my experience in the last few years. Being the “smart” kids has always had an uncool stigma attached to it in the general population (despite making people laugh the guys on Big Bang Theory still have to dress as uncool as humanly possible…). But I’ve noticed even my college-bound, top-20-in-the-class kids brushing off misunderstanding of a subject because they (luckily) did well enough on the exam to appease their parents. And students in my general physics course getting upset because I demand they explain how to solve a problem before I give them credit.
Shouldn’t students in high school physics be the sort that crave learning? Isn’t that why they are taking physics, and not some other elective?
I’ll ruminate on this some more and make a second post about what I want to do, and why, to attempt to reduce this problem…