Today, I visited a high school physics class of a brand new teacher. Here’s the low down.
The good stuff
The students I saw were eager to learn. When you ask them questions, they engage with you and share ideas. They are capable of noticing patterns and working through problems. They are nice and carry themselves well.
The teacher has students working on problems in groups using whiteboards and they mostly work well together. They are on task almost all of the time.
These students are also willing to put their heads down and do some work. The teacher has a good command of his classroom, as well as rapport with his students.
The “getting there” stuff
The problems students are working on were end-of-the-chapter exercises, which mostly fail the Dan Meyer litmus of giving too many sub-steps. My sense is that problems being pulled are somewhat also random. For a new teacher, this is a OK starting place, because at least he is using textbooks as a resource for getting students to do things. It’s not the worst he could do, but we’ll want him to start choosing problems not just because they are on topic but because they help students make contact with problems that will nudge them forward in their learning.
The students are basically just playing plug-n-chug games with equations–part of this is because the problems are built this way. But another reason is because we have a new teacher who doesn’t know yet how to emphasize reasoning and understanding of concepts. When I asked students what the symbols mean, they didn’t know. The good things is that students will engage with you and work out the meaning in their group if you ask them about it. Someone needs to be there to ask good questions, and that’s something we’ll want to help this teacher with.
Students are working in groups, but those groups work in complete isolation of the broader classroom. There are many missed opportunities for students to learn from each other across groups. I saw lots of examples of students solving the same problem different ways, or coming to insights that either could or really need to rise to the level of the classroom. The way it played out was early in the day was that when students finished, they got assigned a new problem. Once again, not the worst things students could be doing. They are getting a lot of chance to practice problems and figure it out with peers, but we’ll want to eventually leverage what happens during problem solving for deeper learning.
The teacher at one time unintentionally steered a group of students away from a productive and correct solution path, because I think he couldn’t quickly makes sense of what students were doing and anticipate where that would lead them. This is one the hardest things to develop for teachers and is where strong content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge is important. The ability to quickly listen, understand, assess, project into the future, and decide is one that comes with practice, practice, practice.
My overall advice would be something like:
Things are going pretty well. He is engaging students in problem-solving and having them work in groups. They are engaged and willing to put in work. The classroom also just has a nice feel to it–students are comfortable and so is the teacher. There are a lot of positive things to build on.
While students are engaged in doing problems, there needs to be more focus on concepts and understanding, not just equations. Some ways of beginning this is getting them to use multiple representations-graphs, tables, diagrams. This will help build connections. But asking them to explain their thinking–what they are doing and WHY–is always important.
With small groups, be patient and listen to your students as they work, and then ask questions about what they are doing and thinking. Figure out what they know and what they don’t know before you offer some help. Also, it helps to have some ideas ready about how to extend these problems for those groups that finish early.
Have students share some of the work they are doing so they can learn from each other, and so you can help them make connections. You don’t have to do this all the time, and you don’t have to have every group share when you choose to do it. This helps build community and also makes everyone responsible for teaching and learning.
Overall, the fact that this teacher is looking for help, for ideas, and mentoring is a promising thing. There is a lot of good things to build on, and I’m excited to see where he goes.