Reflections on a Bad Day of Teaching

On Monday, I wrote about some of the theories and puzzles about light that my class is making contact with. I was excited about their ideas and excited about their puzzles. In this post here, I want to tell you about the mistake I made in moving forward. I had decided that my goal for class should be to help them bridge the gap between their ideas and their puzzles. My idea was to give them a question that would act as a stepping stone.

First, it  is safe to say that didn’t go all that well. Not at all. Students really struggled to understand what I was asking them to do. They struggled to apply some of the ideas they or others had come up with. They struggled to work out their implications. They didn’t see why I was asking them to do this. In general, the day was also just a combination of boring or frustrating–not just for them, but for me as well.

No point lamenting over a bad day. So, the question is why? I came up with three categories of things I failed to do: anticipate, implement, and, finally, maintain the big picture I have for this course, which is student generated scientific inquiry.

How I failed in anticipation:

I totally underestimated the difficulty of the task, both in general and for my students.

I totally underestimated how we (as a class) understood the ideas I was asking them to apply. These ideas were brand spanking new.

I underestimated their propensity to carefully construct diagrams, which would be necessary for carrying out the task.

I underestimated the difficulty we would have in agreeing about what we observe.

How I failed in implementation:

I let my own exhaustion be at forefront of my classroom demeanor. I had worked at 14 hour day the day before and was both mentally and physically fatigued. I was certainly not at my best in terms of of patience, listening, and empathy. Rather, I came off as tired, disinterested, and impatient. I do think that good demeanor can go a long way in diffusing a troubled lesson, but I was making a bad lessons worse.

Second, I forgot that my whole plan was to talk about careful diagramming AFTER the activity. Instead, I became a nit-picker during the activity. I pressed too hard and obnoxiously with several student groups. I felt like I was nagging students, which is not where I want to be. By not sticking to my plan, I let the worst of my classroom demeanor snowball into frustration for everyone.

How I ultimately failed in vision:

Ultimately, the failures above are trumped by the two big failures:

My activity was inherently about deception. In my plan, I wasn’t going to tell them that they had really specific and strong theoretical ideas, which I thought they could try to use to explain the puzzles they are interested in. Instead, I concocted some secret plan to sneak them from where they are to where I wanted to be. To me, deception in teaching is something to be avoided; and I fell for the trap, not only in the moment (which happens), but by design (which is scary). Designing deception into my curriculum is far far from where I want to be.

Lastly,the activity  inherently took agency and authority away from my students. Instead of letting them continue to pursue their great ideas, questions, and puzzles, I strangled them in an activity that I thought was more worthwhile than their own curiosities. And I was wrong to do so, and wrong about the activity. If I really thought there ideas and puzzles were so great (which I do), why didn’t I let them run with them until they really needed me to step in.

So what next?

I don’t believe I did any permanent harm, but there is certainly some repair that’s going to be needed. Fortunately, I have a 5 days to think this over.

What am I going to do now? Nachos and beer.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on a Bad Day of Teaching

Add yours

  1. Hi Brian, thanks for the sobering and thoughtful post-mortem. I live in fear of the damage I could do to the sense of agency that I hope we are cultivating, through carelessness or my own ignorance. So I’m grateful for your warnings about these booby-traps, and glad to hear that the group dynamic in your class seems to be resilient enough to accept an instructor’s human-ness. I’d say that’s kudos to you (and your students of course). I’m raising a glass from over here.

  2. So the question for me is how to have a certain goal for my students – some kind of scientific rigor, sticking with a theory, etc. – and still have the agency from within the class, so that they adopt these goals themselves? (This is the central problem/question of assessment, I think.) I think I’m getting better at this, but it’s so hard to do. In particular, because any kind of “bar”/expectation/rubric/standard that comes externally starts to feel like what you were just writing about the 5-E’s – it can all too easily turn into “what-the-teacher-wants.”

    In my class today we handed back exams – which weren’t as thorough or well-diagrammed as we hoped – and a student notes “I didn’t know you wanted so much detail.” And suddenly the feedback I gave seemed all about what *I* wanted and not what kind of answer was … I don’t know … thorough? complete? Maybe it’s the nature of tests that they MUST be all about what the teacher wants and it’s time to ditch them?

    1. Agency and accountability are two tough cookies to balance. Sometimes, just sometimes, it seems so easy.

      If you look around the physics blogs of the people around here, you’ll find a big culture of teachers not using tests, and still having high accountability standards. Here are just a few

      I’d love to sit down over an extended period and rethink about assessment in our inquiry courses. It’s the one place in the course that I’m least happy with.

  3. I really appreciate your point about deceiving your students, by accident or by design. It is making me think a lot about why some questions/activities/etc fail in the classroom and some don’t. If we are asking our students to authentically engage in something, we need to make sure authentic engagement is at the fore for both the teacher and the students. When we play games that feel like “Guess what the teacher wants you to do/say..”, whether intentionally or inadvertently, we are playing games of deception.
    Much to think about.

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