[Inquiry Mistakes] Authority in the Classroom

In addition to writing about [Back to School], my experience being a student again pursuing a minor in secondary education, I’m also hoping to write about mistakes I make during inquiry teaching. Mostly by mistake, I mean not supporting students in their own inquiry. Here’s my mistake of this week.

Using My Authority To Undermine My own Goals

One group is getting really interested in how projectors work, seeing it as possibly analogous to how our box theatres work. They did some tinkering around with our overhead projector, noticing that the lens also flips the image. They explored with and without the mirror, and tried other investigations to see if they could get images to flip using mirrors. Being kind of stuck or just interested in what the different parts of the project might be they started looking some information online. When I came by, I noticed they had some diagrams on their iphones. Instead of engaging them with what they were doing, asking them to tell me about the diagram, what they were thinking, or what they were hoping to learn from the diagram, I sort of came over and “shot down” getting on the internet. My secret concern was that using the internet would lead them to use such information authoritatively in an unproductive way. I just assumed that they would use it unproductively, instead of engaging with them and trying to help them engage with it productively. I even could have, after engaging them, voiced my concern in a friendly way, while still letting them know that I trust them as adults to make decisions about how to research and pursue their topic. Instead, I actually created the situation I was worried about–I came over as an authority and told them “not to get answers from the internet”. Ugh! The biggest problem is I as a teacher don’t know what they are thinking and doing, because I failed to do any meaningful proximal formative assessment.

What I really appreciated was that one of students from the group wrote on her “Daily Sheet” that she was concerned that I was stepping in too early with their group, not giving them time and space to do their thing. I feel bad about the mistake I’ve made, but glad that this student felt comfortable sharing their concern with me.

Anyway, what do you think about mistake? What mistakes have you made this week?

9 thoughts on “[Inquiry Mistakes] Authority in the Classroom

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  1. Great idea to post these mistakes! I’ve definitely done the “shot them down” with the internet before, and I like your ideas about engaging with them instead.

    Here’s my mistake: I was doing a “measure the speed of sound with what’s in your pocket” lab and I immediately told them they’d have to go outside to do it. On reflection, I realized that I should have let them figure that out, as the notion of needing lots of space was really one of the take home messages of the lab.

  2. Brian, I remember that Mac was really shocked when he found out that we let Energy Project teachers use the internet for whatever they want in our PD… and fascinated when he observed that it didn’t shortchange the inquiry at all. In our case there is no threat to the inquiry from their doing internet research, because the questions we are asking them (e.g., the energy dynamics in a refrigerator) don’t have answers you can look up online. Do you think they might find The Answer online in your case?

    And if they did, would that ruin the inquiry? I’m thinking of PhET sims — those often have the answer visible in them [the current isn’t used up!] but research shows learners still have to go through the whole reasoning process. It’s like they don’t even see the answer until they’re ready for it. Sam would know what paper that result was in.

    1. Yeah, logically I don’t think it would ruin their inquiry. But that doesn’t mean in the moment of interacting with them I wasn’t acting on the fear that it would.

  3. I let time get the best of me. I had students working in groups to answer some questions about standing waves on a string. Near the end, two students drew a sketch of a standing wave with an anti-node at one end and asked if that was possible. I was in a hurry to help other students and just answered “Yes, that will come up when we look at standing waves with sound.” I didn’t give the question the respect it deserved nor did I assess their current understanding by asking how that would change the results they found for standing waves with two fixed ends.

  4. Hi Brian! (This is Colleen from UMD) I’ve been reading your blog for a while and it’s very insightful since I’m teaching high school physics now.

    Anyway, this post makes me think of an issue I’ve been thinking about for a while: we (loosely referring to UMD folks) know we shouldn’t be the *conceptual* authority in the classroom, that we should be listening to students’ ideas and using their ideas to create the curriculum. But we often act as if we are the *epistemological* authority in the classroom. Are we? Should we be? Maybe? I don’t know.

    I think your example speaks to this, that in the moment you thought they should be constructing their ideas without the help of the internet (even though you later realized these things aren’t mutually exclusive). One way I’ve seen this show up in my classroom was when I started last year by trying an extended key drop unit that *I* thought was great and leading to some really powerful learning. But after a few days students got frustrated because they didn’t think they were learning, since it didn’t match their epistemological expectations. I haven’t figured out how to deal with this, to get them to “buy into” what I think constitutes learning, and in fact this year I’ve started out much more traditionally, with this issue in mind. And I’m experiencing lots of tensions because of it!

    1. in other words: How do you get them to see that they are learning in extended inquiry-type things without TELLING them that this is what real learning is – more authority! agh! I’d love to know if you have ever experienced this issue…

      1. Hey Colleen,

        So good to hear from you. So, I don’t have answers, but here are some thoughts about what I’m trying to do with respect to this really important issue.

        (1) Providing early and repeated opportunities for your students to reflect on meaningful learning. Not to “tell” them what meaningful learning is, but providing activities and contexts in which students are likely to draw on ideas they have about meaningful learning–whatever that may be–participation, learning through failure, building on what you know. What that looks like is different for different students. In physics, I use the Marshmallow challenge to start, but follow up with a variety of activities everyday that reinforce those “epistemological resources”. In inquiry for future teachers, we participate in mini-inquiries and watch video of children participation in same activities, before doing any long-term inquiries of our own. This is then sustained by readings that allow them to reflect on the importance of learning this way. With future physics teachers, I really tap into their view of themselves as future teachers, and link meaningful participation to skills they need to develop as teachers.

        (2) The role of the teacher as a key “summarizer” and communicator of progress. It’s easy to end the day with students not knowing what’s been accomplished. You see meaningful learning, but they don’t. So I find myself more and more saying things like, “When we started today, we only had just a few different ideas about what might happen. But now, after sharing ideas and listening, we now have arguments and reasons. Some of you have even changed your mind. That’s real scientific progress we’ve made, and we did it just by listening carefully to each other and thinking hard about what’s been said… Now, I want you to take a moment to write about the progress you’ve made in your thinking today, because tomorrow I’m hoping we’ll make some more progress by…”

        (3) The importance of descriptive praise. Students are used to knowing they are doing a good job when they get right answers or get points or whatever. We take that away, and we have to replace it with meaningful descriptive praise about the specific things they are doing well. Just today, I wrote to a student, “Your pictures are really helpful in understanding your findings. A really scientific thing you’ve done is to not only make careful observations but to interpret what you think they mean. A sophisticated thing you are doing as a learner is keeping track of what you are thinking and noting when it changes and why.” They’re response was, “Thanks! Yay! I can’t believe how much I’m learning.” It’s likely that they wouldn’t have felt that way if I hadn’t described what I saw what they were doing, and wrote about it in a positive light, letting them decide that they were learning.

        Don’t know if this helps, and I’m certainly not always good about doing these things, but they are kinds of things I’m working on getting better at.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response! I see your 3 suggestions as part of a broader strategy where (2) and (3) are articulating and modeling what good science learning is, and (1) is giving students an opportunity to “take up” some of the ideas you articulate in (2) and (3) and using them to verbalize their intuitive notions of meaningful learning.

    I guess I was being a bit hyperbolic when saying the alternative is “telling” them they’re learning; instead, I see it as a continuum, with telling them on one side, and them discovering it themselves on the other. What you described seems like somewhere in the middle of this continuum. You are still acting as an epistemological authority when summarizing the progress for a day, and partly they do need to buy into you, that this is progress. They could (and mine did) respond with, “but where are the vocab words, equations, and practice problems?” And then knowing how to navigate that is tricky.

    It was hard for me to get them to reflect on what we had done without that seeming like another schoolish exercise… and to refine the reflections to be specific and discriminating enough to be helpful… like learning to identify specific things that are both MORE and LESS scientific, vs. just saying “oh we connected it to everyday life, and that is what science is because science is everywhere” which was a common sentiment in my class last year, but was often followed by “okay now where are the equations.” Again, I would try to honor their concern and reflect on learning, and respond with something like “would me giving you the equation help your understanding of what’s going on? are we ready for one yet?” but it is always a tough balance that I feel like I haven’t gotten quite right…

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