Tag Archives: student engagement

My TEDxNYED Session: Learning Science by Doing Science

Many thanks to the TEDxNYED 2012 crew, especially True Life Media, Basil Kolani, Karen Blumberg, and Matthew Moran for an awesome event. Be sure to check out the rest of the TEDxNYED 2012 talks.

Learn more about Modeling Instruction in Science.

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?

Pseudoteaching: MIT Physics

What is pseudoteaching?

This term was inspired by Dan Meyer’s pseudocontext, which sought to find examples of textbook problems that on the surface seemed to be about real world problems and situations, but actually were about make believe contexts that had little connection to the real world, other than the photographs that framed the problems.

After reading many of Dan’s pseudocontext posts, John Burk and I had the idea of pseudoteaching [PT] which we have defined as:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

We hope that though discussion, we’ll be able to clarify and refine this definition even further. The key idea of pseudoteaching is that it looks like good teaching. In class, students feel like they are learning, and any observer who saw a teacher in the middle of pseudoteaching would feel like he’s watching a great lesson. The only problem is, very little learning is taking place.

The Scene

Take, for example, Walter Lewin’s amazing physics lectures at MIT, which are available online at MIT OpenCourseware [Mechanics | E&M].

Professor Lewin is full of energy. He clearly loves physics, and he also loves sharing it with his students. His demonstrations were thrillling. His board work was impeccable. Lewin worked hard to make it look effortless — he ran through each lecture 3 times before presenting it to students.

The Breakdown

So what happened result as the semester progressed? Attendance at his physics lectures fell 40% by the end of the term and an average of 10% of students failed Mechanics and 14% failed E&M. Surprised?

If you look past his enthusiasm and his displays of physics awesomeness, Lewin was pseudoteaching. It looks like good teaching, but he was the one doing all the talking. It looks like the students are learning, but they were just sitting there watching. It’s like trying to learn to play piano or play a sport by watching your teacher or coach. It doesn’t work well.

Ironically, it was over 30 years before Lewin’s famous lectures that the great physicist Richard Feynman realized more interactive engagement is necessary. From page xxix of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces (a “greatest-hits” of his lectures to freshman when he taught introductory physics at Cal Tech from 1961-1963):

I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modem times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal. Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures. Perhaps they will have fun thinking them through—or going on to develop some of the ideas further.

June 1963

The Resolution

So what did MIT do after Lewin’s show-stopping lectures failed to change declining attendance and large failure rates? They created interactive learning spaces like TEAL, which stands for Technology Enhanced Active Learning. From the New York Times article “At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard”:

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

For more information on TEAL, I suggest reading “Why TEAL Works” and “Lessons Learned from TEAL”.

But you don’t need a high-tech classroom filled with bright-and-shiny gadgets to do what M.I.T. did. A class set of  $2 Interactive Whiteboards will do just fine.

I admit I was “doin’ the Lewin” my first years of teaching. I was up late each night, creating Powerpoints and crafting worksheets. All students had to do was follow along and fill in the blanks. Then I’d work a problem on the chalkboard and the students would finish the rest for homework. The next day, the whole cycle would repeat with a new topic.  I planned lessons by answering the question “What am I going to do in class tomorrow?” Now, I plan lessons by answering the questions “What are my students going to do tomorrow? How will it help them progress towards our learning goals?”

Pseudoteaching was relatively easy. It fit nicely with The Hidden Contract that exists in the majority of classrooms. I still fall back lazily into pseudoteaching on occasion, especially when I feel pressed for time or when I sense student resistance to work. Real teaching provides struggles (large and small, for teachers and students) each day.

What’s your pseudoteaching story?

Head on over to my pseduoteaching page where you’ll curretly find links to other new pseudoteaching posts from John Burk, Dan Meyer, Rhett Allain, and Jerrid Kruse, which all went live today. (You can also access the pseudoteaching page from the menu in my blog header.)

We all hope pseudoteaching will become a valuable lens for critically examining our own teaching, and that the idea will spread to other teachers as well. We’d love for you to contribute your own examples of pseudoteaching. Just email me a link to your pseudoteaching post and I’ll add it. Thanks!

Vote for Student Engagement

The voting for the 2010 Edublog Awards has begun! I am stunned that my blog post The $2 Interactive Whiteboard has been shortlisted for Most Influential Blog Post. In the comments, you’ll see many teachers across disciplines and grade levels have gone out and started whiteboarding with their students.

And from across the Blog-o-Twitter-verse:

Micheal Doyle wrote in his post Technology Even a Luddite Can Love:

I cut up two 4 x 8′ white shower boards ($25.87 including tax) into twelve 24 x 32″ white boards.

Best money I’ve spent on a classroom, and I’ve spent a lot.

Mistakes are no longer permanent red marks. A quick swoosh with an eraser or back of a hand, and the board is clear.

Mistakes do not simmer for a day or two; I walk around and we work together to fix misconceptions on the spot.

I know immediately where the students stand, a bit humbling when you realize maybe your brilliantly scripted lectures posed as directed discussions are no more effective than the textbook you sneered at with your fellow twits on late summer eves.

And (drum roll please….) the kids dare to think. I mean think as in “Look at me I’m coming up with solutions and I want to share them!” think.

Physics and chemistry teacher Brian Post recently tweeted:

John Burk started an entire Posterous blog called Physics Whiteboards for teachers and students to share their whiteboards with the world!

My post was even written about in Sweden: Interaktivitet? Dialog! (translate into English)

Enough about me. Please look at my other nominations below. All these teachers are working hard to engage kids everyday and make their time in school as meaningful as possible.

Best individual blogScience Teacher
Michael Doyle wants his students to experience science, not regurgitate it. Take, for example, his recent post Un-teaching Science.

Best individual tweeterjerridkruse
Jerrid Kruse is a former middle school science teacher who now teaches pre-service elementary teachers about inquiry in the classroom.

Best new blogQuantum Progress
John Burk, physics teacher and modeler, is trying to change his students mindset about learning, grades, and getting into college. He wants his students to change the world and he is helping them get there.

Best teacher blogThink Thank Thunk
Shawn Cornally’s students are doing amazing inquiry in physics and calculus. Plus his standards-based grading posts are bar-none.

Best educational use of video / visualdy/dan
From basketball parabolas to filling up a water tank, Dan Meyer series strives to make math more meaningful to students through carefully constructed videos and pictures in his “What Can You Do With This?” series.

Lifetime achievementDan Meyer
Dan’s was the first blog I read regularly. His “How Math Must Assess” manifesto is what put me and many others on the road to better grading practices. Follow that up with an appearance on Good Morning America for his WCYDWT-Groceries and  a TEDxNYED talk about a makeover for math curriculum, and you’ve got a math guy whose influence is being felt in all subject areas.

These are not votes for us, but rather votes for improving science teaching and for engaging and helping students. ANYONE can vote, not just fellow bloggers. (Only 1 vote per IP address to prevent cheating, so you may have to vote at home rather than at school.)

So follow the links above and vote! Thank you for your support!


Several times during the school year, I ask my students to complete a teacher evaluation. It’s great: I get feedback from them, they see that I care about their opinion, and they see the changes in the classroom based on their responses. On our final survey at the end of the school year, I received the following reply to the “Anything else you’d like to add?” question:

By being allowed to be part of the class not just a student in a class really helped.

At first, I was happy. It was a huge compliment. A classroom culture of community is something I strive for.

But then I felt sad.

What was going on in this student’s other classes?

So, what do you all do to help students be “part of the class” rather than “in a class?”

The $2 Interactive Whiteboard

Yes, you read that correctly. The TWO DOLLAR interactive whiteboard.

But first…

The $2,000 interactive whiteboard

While watching the video, count how many times the kids are interacting with each other while using the board. Mouse over here for the answer. But I guess that’s OK, because, according to one teacher, “It really does cut down on behavior problems ’cause they’re really motivated and interested to sit and look at the board and pay attention.” Is that what good teaching is?

Before you jump to the conclusion that I am some technology-hating Luddite, I want you to know that I love technology. I train other teachers how to use technology effectively. In my physics lessons, I use technology with my students, but only when the pedagogy demands the technology.

I have a SMART Board in my classroom. I’m a SMART Exemplary Educator. My waves lesson on the SMART Exchange website has over 400 500 600 700 downloads — the most of any high school physics lesson. There was an article written about me when I first got my SMART Board. Some students say I’m the best SMART Board user in my school. But no one said the SMART Board helped them understand physics.

According to this Washington Post article, some educators question if electronic interactive whiteboards raise achievement:

As he lectured, Gee hyperlinked to an NBC news clip, clicked to an animated Russian flag, a list of Russian leaders and a short film on the Mongol invasions. Here and there, he starred items on the board using his finger. “Let’s say this is Russia,” he said at one point, drawing a little red circle. “Okay — who invaded Russia?”

One student was fiddling with an iPhone. Another slept. A few answered the question, but the relationship between their alertness and the bright screen before them was hardly clear. And as the lesson carried on, this irony became evident: Although the device allowed Gee to show films and images with relative ease, the whiteboard was also reinforcing an age-old teaching method — teacher speaks, students listen. Or, as 18-year-old Benjamin Marple put it: “I feel they are as useful as a chalkboard.”

The word “interactive” for the the $2,000 electronic interactive white board (eIWB) means interaction with a piece of hardware to manipulate virtual objects on a screen. And most eIWBs only interact with one person at a time.

The $2 interactive whiteboard

The word “interactive” for the $2 IWB means interaction among students. Students are working together to collectively construct knowledge, explain their reasoning processes, and get feedback from the teacher and each other. Students are interacting with each other in small groups when preparing the whiteboards. Then they interact with the whole class when they present and field questions from the class and the teacher. At all times, the teacher can see and hear student thinking and challenge them with questions. This process is called “whiteboarding.”

So, what are some of the benefits of whiteboarding with $2 whiteboards?

  1. Encourages students to think, question, solve problems, and discuss their ideas, strategies, and solutions.
  2. Allows students to articulate their preconceptions so the teacher can confront and resolve them.
  3. Allows for regular classroom and evaluation and interpretation of evidence. Students come to know not only what they know, but how they know it.
  4. Provides opportunities for students to learn from and correct their own mistakes, and to learn from the successes and mistakes of others as they check and critique each others work.
  5. Helps create a culture of questioning. (<– go read this!)
  6. Allows for the discussion of student-generated ideas rather than the teacher merely presenting information.
  7. Engages students in a collaborative learning community.
  8. Promotes strongly coherent conceptual understanding while decreasing traditional lecture.
  9. Provides opportunities for students to teach one another, practicing using the language of the science to one another in order to develop personal meaning.

(List compiled from Whiteboarding in the Classroom and Whiteboarding.)

In my year-end survey, my students frequently comment about how the whiteboarding process was an effective teaching method for them. For example:

The whiteboard discussions are different from the traditional “put your answers on the board” in that we can really see what went wrong and explain our understanding. I feel as though we learn through the explanations we have to give and the little question prompts you give us.

Districts spend tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars on electronic interactive whiteboards, plus thousands more for professional development to show teachers to use them in order to write, move, reveal, and resize virtual objects. How about taking all that money and spending it on professional development for learning how to engage students in Socratic dialogue, effective questioning, reformed science teaching methods like modeling instruction, and other inquiry learning methods? How about using the money for substitutes so an entire department can go and watch other teachers using these instructional methods in other schools?

Teachers should be spending their precious lesson planning time designing lessons to engage kids mentally and push them to higher levels, not creating flashy Powerpoints.

What skills do we want our students to have when they leave our classrooms? How to use a piece of technology? Or how to work collaboratively, ask great questions, think critically, and problem solve?

Please, instead of thinking about how to get your students to interact with a $2,000 electronic whiteboard, think about how you can get your students to interact with each other using a $2 whiteboard.

Where should we place our time and money?


Or here?

credit: whiteboardsusa.com

Resources for whiteboarding

Where to buy them:

  • Home Depot and Lowes sell large 4’x8′ sheets of white shower board or tile board for about $12 each. You can have it cut at the store into 6 pieces that are 24″x32″ in size. Hence, the $2 whiteboard. If you say you’re a teacher, they may do the cutting at no extra charge.
  • Whiteboards USA sells the 24″x32″ boards for $9 each with rounded edges and a handhold cut. (I am not affiliated in any way this company.)

How to use them (including academic references):


If anyone knows of a lesson where the pedagogy demands an electronic interactive whiteboard, let me know. I’m talking about the $2000 physical IWB itself. If you can do it with just the computer, software, and projector, it doesn’t count. I do think those are a necessity for many classrooms.

I like my SMART Board because it is convenient for ME. The ability to save digital ink is useful to ME. Yes, eIWB are just tools. And, yes, what you do with the tool matters. But the things that are most effective for student learning do not require an electronic whiteboard.

I realize that you can have both types of whiteboards in class at the same time (my classroom does). I also realize that most teachers don’t use their eIWB everyday or all period and shift to student-centered instruction. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it improves student learning.

Update: Whiteboards vs. Chart Paper

Please check out this great follow-up post by Thomas Ro. In it, he talks about how student collaboration dynamics are different when using whiteboards instead of chart paper, including “the power of the eraser.” Students are more likely to take risks with their work when using whiteboards and more students get involved.