Traditionally, a nation’s prosperity is measured in terms of macroeconomic metrics, namely, GDP or per capita GDP, but this shouldn’t be the case says Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and legal scholar, in her book, ‘Creating Capabilities.’ Instead, she says, we need to examine the extent to which countries are successful in providing specific life-changing opportunities, such as the ease of gaining admission to a quality primary school, or securing a bank loan to open a small business, or even availability of broader skills-based training opportunities for the unemployed. The prospect of leading a life of dignity, even in a downturn, where all individuals have the means to unlock their potential is a true testament to a country’s economic development (Nussbaum, 2011). The same could be said about education – an individual’s worth is not determined by average measures.
Earlier this month, I had the great fortune of participating in a series of virtual workshops hosted by Eric Mazur, a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, Isaura Gallegos of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and Krastan Blagoev at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where like-minded educators from Europe and North America spent a week listening and collaborating on ways to strengthen teaching and learning of science and physics education.
The ultimate goal of these ongoing conversations is to build an international network of high school educators and map out strategies that will enable learners to find and solve authentic problems and make decisions like experts, where a premium is placed on the process of thinking. For example, when a student is told that the extreme weather conditions she experienced last year is due to the ongoing climate change, she should be able to verify this statement using a broader framework based on trustworthy science. To build this capability, educators should facilitate deeper analysis and debate where learners justify their claims using explicit vocabulary and reflect on the appropriateness of quantitative methodologies employed. Here are four major themes that captured my imagination:
1. Active engagement is often cited to narrow gaps in student learning and there are several meta-analyses to support this claim. However, to build this capability effectively, educators should have a clear understanding of all the processes associated with this method. Prof. Mazur in his interactive workshop, ‘Promoting Social Interactions,’ asked us to think of one skill we are good at and reflect on how we got better at it over the years. Many of us attribute the finesse acquired more to practice than being constantly lectured about this skill. One of the common questions teachers are asked after a test/exam is, “Did we cover this in class?” To encourage students move beyond their comfort zones, they should be consistently trained in solving authentic scenario-based problems that will allow them to unlearn ways of approaching conceptual questions in a linear manner. Mazur’s dual-strategy of giving concept tests followed by moderating rich peer instruction enhanced both his students’ conceptual understanding and curricular confidence by over 40%, particularly among non-physics majors and pre-med students.
2. Decision-Making: Recent advances in cognitive science and machine learning led to the development of evidence-informed practices in education and good decision-making by learners is at the heart of developing critical mindedness. In his presentation titled, “Taking a Scientific Approach to Physics Education,” Carl Wieman, a Professor of Physics and Education at Stanford University and Nobel laureate (2001), encouraged us to employ Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) to understand the differences in the performance of novices and experts by comparing the development and evolution of mental models in these two groups. He suggested educators should fill class time with questions and problems that call for explicit expert thinking, address novice difficulties, and are challenging, but doable. Providing frequent specific feedback to guide and refine scientific thinking should become the norm as opposed to standard feedback where student work/thinking is simply labelled incorrect and are provided with correct solutions (Wieman, 2020). Research from neurobiology and cognitive psychology suggests that when learners act on the former, it would result in structural changes that are believed to encode the learning in the brain.
3. Algorithmic Thinking: To leverage the full power of data, one needs to define the problem at the outset and own it by visualising the key variables and their conceptual connections. This could be done by infusing meaningful technology into collaborative inquiry projects. Algorithmic thinking can be actively promoted among learners by customising activities on digital platforms and manipulating software (Staudt, 2020). For instance, using graphs generated from a simple digital sensor, students could be asked to explicitly explain the methodology behind computing the resulting temperature when equal volumes of cold and hot water are mixed together in a container. The focus is not on what the final temperature is, but how and why one would rearrange the variables in creating an algorithm to compute the final value. The upside of this digital strategy is that educators could develop granular expert-like thinking even in resource-scarce schools. In a three-year Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) conducted by Walden et al in 2014 on a diverse group of over 2000 middle school students showed that incorporating such supportive multimedia strategies led to a deepening of science knowledge and understanding, particularly among second language learners and those with learning disabilities.
4. Integrated Interdisciplinary Learning: We work and reside in spaces designed and driven by synthesis of ideas and constructs and learning happens when students successfully build an internal model of the diverse outside world. Catherine Crouch of Swarthmore College offers a narrative that focuses on taking advantage of student interests in offering a robust interdisciplinary perspective to learning of physical sciences. Concepts, such as energy and entropy are traditionally taught with a restrictive focus without paying heed to their life science or medical science dimensions. One strategy is to amplify physical science topics, such as optics, thermodynamics, radiation-matter interactions etc., that are meaningful to all learners, and reduce time spent on content, say kinematics and induction. Doing so will provide learners with the much-needed justification for their time spent in understanding these topics, particularly to those who may not specialise in physical sciences post-high school. Learners in this instructional cycle should clearly understand why it is important what they are learning, how their new understanding is connected to things they already know, and how they could use their new learning (Crouch & Heller, 2014). For interdisciplinary learning to flourish in schools, external examination boards need to formally embrace this 21st century methodology by reimagining their curricula and assessment practices and offering greater flexibility to learners.
From “Advanced Modelling Strategies” to “Uniting Science and Math with Data Science” and “Building an Experiential STEM PD Model,” several meaningful lessons were learned during this five-day workshop. One overarching theme that resonated most is that to create an impact on learners and their thinking processes at scale, global partnerships between educators, administrators, and policymakers need to be forged and sustained. Building robust pedagogical capabilities in STEM or other subject areas is a shared responsibility and tangible activism will be key to influencing and improving learner outcomes. Differentiated professional development models and subject-specific mentoring will be two important first steps in this direction. As Prof. Mazur rightly pointed out in his closing remarks, “We want our students to become better problem-solvers than us and ‘stand’ on our shoulders to see the future.” I couldn’t agree more.
Thanks to Carl Wieman (Stanford University), Catherine Crouch (Swarthmore College), and Eric Mazur (Harvard University) for allowing me to use some imagery from their presentations.
Crouch, C. & Heller, K. (2014). Introductory Physics In Biological Context: An Approach To Improve Introductory Physics For Life Science Students. American Journal Of Physics. Volume 82, Issue 5. 378-386.
Mazur, E. (2019). Peer Instruction Method in 4 Steps. Https://Www.Wooclap.Com/En/Blog/Brain-Education/Flip-Your-Classroom-in-4-Steps-with-Eric-Mazur/.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.
Staudt, C. (2020). Practical Activities with Digital Sensors. Http://Physicsoflivingsystems.Org/Events/Physicseducation/Talk-Abstracts/.
Terrazas-Arellanes, F. E., Gallard M., A. J., Strycker, L. A., & Walden, E. D. (2018). Impact of interactive online units on learning science among students with learning disabilities and English learners. International Journal of Science Education, 40(5), 498–518. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2018.1432915.
Wieman, C. (2020). A Scientific Approach to Physics Education. Retrieved from http://physicsoflivingsystems.org/events/physicseducation/talk-abstracts/.