Tag Archives: flipping

Disrupt This: My Challenge to Silicon Valley

Over the past few months, Audrey WattersDan Meyer, and Keith Devlin have been critical of Silicon Valley, edtech startups, and iPad textbooks which hope to “disrupt” education. In my opinion, the real stumbling block to meaningful change is students’ formal reasoning skills – analytical thinking that cannot be cultivated by pausing and rewinding video or playing Math Blasters.

Here are my 5 points:

  1. Many of our students are transitioning from concrete to formal reasoning.
  2. A significant barrier to learning for understanding is students’ own formal reasoning skills.
  3. Formal reasoning skills (and thus learning for understanding) can be developing when instruction is structured around the Learning Cycle.
  4. Silicon Valley and edtech startups have been focusing on (often inappropriately) just a small fraction of the learning cycle.
  5. My Challenge to Silicon Valley: Help students learn for understanding by innovating around the rest of the learning cycle.

1. Many of our students are transitioning from concrete to formal reasoning.

Below are 3 reasoning puzzles, each followed by a video of college students attempting to solve the puzzle while explaining and discussing their logic. It’s a highly illuminating look at students’ reasoning processes.

I. The Algae Puzzle (Combinatorial Reasoning)

II. The Frog Puzzle (Proportional Reasoning)

III. The Mealworm Puzzle (Scientific Reasoning)

2. A significant barrier to learning for understanding is students’ own formal reasoning skills.

You’re probably thinking, “So, what? Just because Johnny can’t figure out all the possible combinations of algae doesn’t mean he can’t learn physics.” But the research strongly suggests that it does, even in interactive engagement classes.

In a previous post, I presented this graph from Hake’s famous six thousand student study:

As you can see, interactive engagement course outperformed traditional courses in learning gains as measured by the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). The FCI is the most widely used test of physics understanding. But why is there such a wide range of FCI gains among the IE courses and (not shown) among the individual students within a particular course? A study entitled “Why You Should Measure Your Students’ Reasoning Ability” (Coletta, Phillips, and Steiner) suggests reasoning ability is strongly correlated with physics success.

In the study, several different physics courses administered both the FCI (to measure physics gains) and the Lawson Test of Classroom Reasoning Skills (to measure formal reasoning ability). The Lawson test contains several items very similar the three puzzles above. Here’s what they found:

The data were split into quartiles based on the Lawson scores. The light green bars represent the average Lawson test score for each quartile and the dark green bars represent the average FCI gain for each quartile. There is clear correlation between reasoning ability and learning gains in physics. I’d wager this correlation extends to other subjects as well.

3. Formal reasoning skills (and thus learning for understanding) can be developed when instruction is structured around the Learning Cycle.

According to Piaget, intellectual growth happens through self-regulation — a process in which a person actively searches for relationships and patterns to resolve contradictions and to bring coherence to a new set of experiences.

In order to get students to experience self-regulation and further develop their reasoning skills, classroom experiences should be constructed around the Karplus learning cycle, which contains the the stages of EXPLORATION, INVENTION, and APPLICIATION. From Karplus’s workshop materials on the learning cycle:

EXPLORATION: The students learn through their own actions and reactions in a new situation. In this phase they explore new materials and new ideas with minimal guidance or expectation of specific accomplishments. The new experience should raise questions that they cannot answer with their accustomed patterns of reasoning. Having made an effort that was not completely successful, the students will be ready for self-regulation.

INVENTION: Starts with the invention of a new concept or principle that leads the students to apply new patterns of reasoning to their experiences. The concept can be invented in class discussion, based on the exploration activity and later re-emphasized by the teacher, the textbook, a film, or another medium. This step, which aids in self-regulation, should always follow EXPLORATION and relate to the EXPLORATION activities.  Students should be encouraged to develop as much of a new reasoning pattern as possible before it is explained to the class.

APPLICATION: The students apply the new concept and/or reasoning pattern to additional examples. The APPLICATION phase is necessary to extend the range of applicability of the new concept. APPLICATION provides additional time and experiences for self-regulation and stabilizing the new reasoning patterns. Without a number and variety of APPLICATIONs, the concept’s meaning will remain restricted to the examples used during its definition. Many students may fail to abstract it from its concrete examples or generalize it to other situations. In addition, APPLICATION activities aid students whose conceptual reorganization takes place more slowly than average, or who did not adequately relate the teacher’s original explanation to their experiences. Individual conferences with these students to help identify and resolve their difficulties are especially helpful.

4. Silicon Valley and edtech startups have been focusing on (often inappropriately) just a small fraction of the learning cycle.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has been dumping its disruptive dollars almost solely into the INVENTION phase and on the tail-end of the phase at that. It views education purely as a content consumption process and ignores the development of formal thinking and reasoning.

Remember, in the invention phase, “The concept can be invented in class discussion, based on the exploration activity and later re-emphasized by the teacher, the textbook, film, or another medium.” That’s Khan Academy videos, flipclass videos, iBooks, an similar technologies designed to present content via direct instruction. However, “Students should be encouraged to develop as much of a new reasoning pattern as possible before it is explained to the class.” Which means that this type of direct instruction should be as minimal as possible, because it robs kids from reasoning and making meaning. In other words, Silicon Valley is putting its energy into the portion of the invention phase that should be as small as possible!

Now let’s look at the application phase. There has been some development here as well, most notably in apps and exercise software which seek to gamify the classroom. But the application phase isn’t about getting 10 right answers in a row or solving problems to shoot aliens. Remember, Without a number and variety of APPLICATIONs, the concept’s meaning will remain restricted to the examples used during its definition. Real learning with understanding means students can reason about the concepts well enough to use them in new and unique concepts (aka transfer). Applications should require students to examine their own thinking, make comparisons, and raise questions. Great applications examples are open-ended problems, problems which present a paradox, and student reflection on both successful and unsuccessful problem-solving methods. Deep learning does not end when the Application phase begins.

5. My Challenge to Silicon Valley: Help students learn for understanding by innovating around the rest of the learning cycle.

Real disruption isn’t going to come from skill and drill apps, self-paced learning, badges, YouTube videos, socially-infused learning management systems, or electronic textbooks. Students must be continuously engaged in the learning cycle. We need to equip our students with the reasoning skills to learn how to learn anything. Focus on experiences in the exploration phase, meaningful sense making in the invention phase, and worthy problems in the application phase.

But, in reality, we only have ourselves to blame. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when students can’t think — the status-quo in education has been to spend most of our time on content delivery while robbing students of exploring and reasoning opportunities. And current edtech trends aren’t fixing this problem; rather, they are making it easier to make the problem worse.

To be fair, a few “good disrutptions” have occurred in the other phases of the learning cycle. Motion detectors allow students to “walk a graph” so they can easily explore position-time and velocity-time graphs. GeoGebra allows students to explore and play with geometry and functions quickly and easily. PhET simulations allows students to conduct open-ended planetary orbit experiments that would be impossible in real life. And VPython programming gets students to apply what they learned to write their own simulations and visualizations.

So when presented with the next great edtech “disruption,” ask yourself: has this innovation actually changed how student think about math and science concepts? Or has it just allowed students to get a few more questions correct on the state exam?


For further reading:

The next two articles:

  • “Promoting Intellectual Development Through Science Teaching” (Renner and Lawson)
  • “Physics Problems and the Process of Self-Regulation” (Lawson and Wollman)

are found here: Module 11: Suggested Reading (Workshop Materials for Physics Teaching and the Development of Reasoning)

Khan’s School of the Future

From Hacked Education:

Khan Academy announced this morning that it has raised $5 million from the O’Sullivan Foundation (a foundation created by Irish engineer and investor Sean O’Sullivan). The money is earmarked for several initiatives: expanding the Khan Academy faculty, creating a content management system so that others can use the program’s learning analytics system, and building an actual brick-and-mortar school, beginning with a summer camp program.

“Teachers don’t scale,” I remember Sal Khan saying to me when I interviewed him last year. What can scale, he argues, is the infrastructure for content delivery. And that means you just need a handful of good lecturers’ record their lessons; the Internet will take care of the rest.

But online instruction clearly isn’t enough, and as “blended learning” becomes the latest buzzword — that is, a blend of offline and computer-mediated/online instruction — Khan Academy is now eyeing building its own school. The money from the O’Sullivan Foundation will go towards developing a “testbed for physical programs and K-12 curricula,” including an actual physical Khan Academy school.

What might Khan’s “school of the future” look like? 

In his video interview with GOOD Magazine, Khan said:

As far as the future of learning is concerned, the school is going to be one or two really big classrooms, and because everyone can work at their own pace, we are going to see the best be a higher bar and you’re going to see everyone having access to that and they can move up with the best.

One or two large classrooms where everyone works at their own pace? That sounds a lot like Rick Ogston’s Carpe Diem school:


Matt Lander reports the following from his visit to Carpe Diem:

Carpe Diem is a hybrid model school, rotating kids between self-paced instruction on the computer and classroom instruction. Their building is laid out with one large computer lab, with classroom space in the back. They had 240 students working on computers when I walked in, and you could have heard a pin drop.

Carpe Diem has successfully substituted technology for labor. With seven grade levels and 240 students they have only 1 math teacher and one aide who focuses on math. [emphasis mine]

Carpe Diem also  touts they get great results with less per pupil spending. How? Well, as implied above, they have fewer teachers and staff. Also, take a look at the Carpe Diem Parent/Student handbook and you can see why: they have NO nurse and NO food service. Other ways I bet they save on money, compared to a regular public school: there is very little equipment to buy (aside from computers and furniture) — no art supplies, no science labs, no physical education equipment, etc. It seems Carpe Diem also lack special programs: no special education, no athletics, and no performing arts. We also have the problem of using standardized test scores to measure success. I think what is more important is: How many are successful in college? How many stay on past freshman year?

Carpe Diem is really an online school that also has a few brick and mortar campuses. The curriculum they use for both their virtual and physical schools is called e2020. From e2020′s website:

e2020 then designs each lesson with student-centered objectives that maximize the use of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Lessons are designed in order to provide the student with an optimal learning experience that is unique for each course.  Students progress through the lesson with a series of activities such as, direct instruction videos by certified teachers; vocabulary instruction: interactive lab simulations; journals and essay writing; 21st century skills; activities that include projects, design proposals, case studies, on-line content reading; and homework/practice before being formatively assessed with a quiz. Topic test and cumulative exam reviews are provided to reinforce mastery prior to students’ taking summative assessments.

So the kids work through the modules at their cubicles and can seek out extra help at “workshops.” You can test some of the modules if you register here. For the science modules I tested, there are periodic multiple choice assessments. The in-module labs are all simulations — no manipulation on any physical equipment. It seems kids can pass the state exams based on their module work, but I wager they will be severely ill equipped for college or the real world, especially in STEM fields.

My issues with this blended/hybrid model of school:

  • The conception of learning seems to be isolated, rather than group.
  • It appears to teach/assess mostly low-order practices.
  • I can’t see how physics and chemistry could be done well, and thus contribute to  developing the STEM workforce.
  • How can ONE teacher be versed in pedagogically appropriate ways of helping students across SEVEN grade levels?

Blended learning schools like Carpe Diem pale  in comparison to what schools like High Tech High are doing:

Where would you rather go to school?

Interview on NSTA’s Lab Out Loud Podcast

In which I talk with the hosts of Lab Out Loud, science teachers Dale Basler and Brian Bartel, about blogging, active student engagement, flipped classrooms, pseudoteaching, and the Khan Academy:

Episode 66 – But Are They Really Learning?

Upcoming Flipped Classroom Webinar

Thanks to my Khan Academy rants of late, I’ll be participating on the panel for a one-hour webinar on the “flipped classroom.” It’s hosted by Scott McLeod, an education professor at Iowa State University and Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). Here’s the info on the webinar, taken from McLeod’s blog:

WHAT: Webinar – The ‘flipped classroom’

Despite its now-famous Dan-Pink-sponsored affiliation with our esteemed colleague, Karl Fisch, is the ‘flipped classroom’ a true innovation or just a new label on the old stale wine of lectures? Is it something we should be encouraging or discouraging? If it has benefits, are they worth the accompanying drawbacks? Please join us for a lively, 1-hour online discussion about the ‘flipped classroom.’

WHEN: June 15, 2:00pm to 3:00pm Central Standard Time (Chicago). Yes, we’ll record it and put the link here for those who can’t attend.

WHERE: https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/flippedclassroom [enter as a guest]

WHO: An all-star lineup of educators who have been writing and thinking about this topic lately!

Not familiar with the ‘flipped classroom’ concept? Read the Dan Pink link above and/or click on the names of the participants above. Anyone is welcome to contribute questions for discussion beforehand. It should be a lively discussion. Hope to see you there!

I’m honored to be taking part with these great teacher-thinkers. In particular, Karl Fisch, Jerrid Kruse, and Syliva Martinez have helped further my thinking about technology and inquiry in math and science. Go follow them on Twitter and subscribe to their blogs!

At the webinar, I’d like to address the intersection of flipping and inquiry. And so I ask you: What do you see as the pros/cons of flipping in an inquiry-centered (physics) classroom?