Banana Batteries & Dan Meyer
Ok, Dan Meyer is quite obviously the man with the plan. Honestly, watch this whole video. I dare you not to. Every time I think I have a handle on his ideas and start to incorporate them into my own lessons, he says something so simple and perfect that it causes me to completely recheck all of my practices for goodness:
Seriously, watch all 12 minutes. I owe my current (and better) classroom dynamic to Dan Meyer, Matt Townsley, and my wife. I definitely would have been a part of the teacher attrition statistics, if it hadn’t of been for them.
I showed Dan’s video to my freshmen study hall. The first thing it showed me is how much they still need to read. They had a hard time following Dan’s vocabulary, which, while he is well spoken, he isn’t exactly Mary Shelley or anything.
Second, they totally agreed with him. I have a really great mix of high and low achievers in this study hall. All of them responded the same way. They said, why can’t we just ask simple questions that need math? One kid said he hates doing math, because he does every homework problem and repeats the same thing that he either understands or doesn’t. Notice that he said he can still do his homework whether he understands the concept or not. Yikes.
What Meyer is saying here is that we’re sabotaging students with the way we package their educations. We’ve listed standards and curricula up to the heavens, and in our effort to include more “rigor” we’ve had to figure out ways to include all of this garbage into a few classes that are for some reason required.
I hope this isn’t too reductionist, but what Dan seems to be implying is that, in our rush to teach a bunch of math to people who honestly don’t need/want it, we’ve had to water down the spirit of mathematics into something that resembles the gross, watery mess at the end of a shampoo bottle. Example: Most of the math teachers I know have some sort of motivational messages on their walls about how “Math is a Way of Thinking.” or “Warning: Critical Thinking Zone.” But their curriculum seems to be in direct contradiction with those statements.
We want kids to be able to think logically and critically, but yet we give them word problems with all of the set-up done for them? No wonder they hate word problems; they’re fake! Word problems really are just over-complicated versions of the more concise problems you’re making them do already (Why are you making them do homework at all?)
I teach physics. Physics is word problems. Hell, the world is a word problem. If we teach kids an aversion to actually thinking of a problem on their own, then we are really truly damaging them instead of teaching them. Did you see the example in Meyer’s video about the Kinetic Energy problem? That problem makes me convulse. What’s worse is that kids LOVE it when books do that. Too bad they don’t understand any physics. This kind of practice really needs to take a backseat role; how it ever got into the driver’s seat is beyond me.
Dan gives a great view on this from the math side of things, I’d really like to offer a view from someone who walks the math/science divide. I spend equal amounts of time with my science hat on as I do with my math hat. I had a moment in my teacher prep program where I realized that the same things need to change about science ed. that need to change about math ed. I just hadn’t realized they were equivalent (or that I’d be teaching math at any point in my life…)
Cornally, You Forgot the $@#&ing Lemons.
I was a practicum student in my science education graduate program. This was my second practicum of three, and I was placed in an 8th grade classroom. The experience wasn’t the best. The teacher had a pretty shallow dedication to inquiry and seemed to think that boredom was an effective management strategy.
They had this textbook where each chapter had about 10 pages of reading, then a few questions, and an experiment at the end. The par for this course was to read the chapters, do the questions, then do the lab. The kids turned in their answers to the lab’s “analysis” questions and then moved on to the next chapter.
SBG hadn’t even entered my vocab at this point in my life, but the SBG Bulldog burgeoning in me started to get riled up — wait, let’s try to have one post without an SBG explosion, sorry.
What’s worse is that I was only in the classroom two days per week, so my continuity really didn’t give me much street cred with the kids.
I was assigned to teach about batteries. The kids had “read” their prescribed 10 pages on batteries, which defined a lot of vocab and the parts of a standard D-Cell alkaline battery. Young Cornally thought, “There’s no way they know what a reducing and oxidizing material are. There’s sure as hockey sticks no way they know why there has to be the different chemicals in layers like that.
However, the kids’ responses to the book’s questions indicated that most of the kids had master’s degrees in chemistry. How was it possible that these average eighth graders were using words like reduction potential and oxidizing agent? It wasn’t possible. The questions in the back of the chapter literally said what page the answer was on, and the kids copied it. (The vocab word was even emboldened) What a bunch of crap.1
I thought to myself, how can I inject my inquiry methods into batteries? What makes a battery go? I naturally drifted towards something I had been show in school, the lemon battery. I thought, “OK, at least they’ll be able to build something. At least they’ll be able to see the parts before they are fabricated by Duracell into a nice case.” So, my little flustered self got all of the things together so I could have as many groups a possible. Really it was the standard prep for a science teacher: about 6 identical sets of equipment so that each group can do the same thing. (barf)
I got to my practicum and started setting up in the back room while my cooperating teacher gave his introduction to class. My adrenal glands did their thing: I forgot to get lemons. This was awful. I didn’t know whether to cry or to interrupt the teacher and tell him to go on with something else. At that moment I heard, “…and Mr. Cornally can now begin his lesson on batteries.”
I stepped out with my cart of supplies, and had quite possibly the only good pedagogical idea of my entire life: Just tell the kids what’s up, and let’s see if they can help me fix it.
“Alright kids. Who has seen a lemon battery before?” Almost all listening hands went up — they had done this in 7th grade. Nice, job pre-assessing Cornally, but who cares, I forgot the lemons. I went on, “Well, I was going to do that with you today, but I didn’t bring in any lemons.” I had decided that I was going to make them a part of the planning process. “How do batteries work?” I asked. A few kids responded showing the true shallowness of their understanding of the concepts at hand.
A kid in the back shouted, “Why do we need lemons? I have a banana in my bag, can we use that?” They all thought this was funny.
“I don’t know,” I responded.
“Can we use my apple?” said another, heaping on to what they thought would be the end of Mr. Cornally.
It hit me. The inquiry train that is. “What else about the lemon battery doesn’t make sense to you guys?” We made a list on the board. They didn’t understand the metals. They wanted to know what a voltmeter does. They wanted to know if it had to be a citrus fruit.
Did I mention my university supervisor was there that day? Yeah, so I was pretty stoked that this failure was moving at all.
I had the kids pick the question they liked the best and design an experiment around that. This took the rest of the period because they had no idea how to design an experiment. We got at the basics of an experiment, and in eighth grade I’d say that’s a pretty good lesson. When I came back the next time, I had brought in some of the materials they had asked for. All different kinds of electrodes, books about voltage, and the instruction manual for the voltmeters. I brought in apples, oranges, lemons, limes, watermelons, bananas, apples, and kiwis. The kids went nuts. Not everyone was into it, but the total net level of excitement skyrocketed.
They asked, developed, and answered some great questions. Does the citrusness [sic] of the fruit effect the battery voltage? Does the closeness of the electrodes effect how bright the light bulb gets? Which metals work the best for making the battery? They were living the word problems. As Dan put it, I wasn’t just giving them the small cracks to step over, they were laying the whole sidewalk.
What I realized is that kids love and need to be a part of the authoring of the “word problem.” I had crated patient problem solvers, because the problems weren’t contrived. They were willing to think about what they needed in order to answer their question instead of demanding all of the information so that they could get done as fast as possible.
The rest of my career will be devoted to developing this idea into an extensible model that teaches great content and great inquiry skills.
I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize that best practice in math is nearly the same as best practice in science, with a few logistical tweaks. Thanks Dan and Matt, you guys rule!
1. If you are reading this and you are the cooperating teacher I worked with: I really appreciate that you let me into your room even though you didn’t have to. I feel kind of like an ass for writing about how bad it was, but, in the end, it was pretty bad. I won’t say I’m sorry, because that implies I didn’t mean to write this post, but I will say that I feel bad that this might be hurting your feelings.