AAPTSM18: Saturday “Can We Do a Group Test?” Workshop

Saturday morning was an adventure! I had read an email wrong and thought there would be a bus to take me to the workshop, but nope! I ran into a long-time twitter bud while trying to figure out what to do, and we undertook the journey of the DC Metro together, along with about two dozen other physics teachers who ended up there at around the same time.

The workshop was Kelly O’Shea and Danny Doucette’s “Can We Do a Group Test?” workshop about doing Lab Practical Assessments. We started out with Kelly’s style of activity. Students are asked to think through a novel task, do the work to model it, solve some sort of relational problem, and then test their solution with Kelly and Danny watching. Everyone got randomly assigned to a task, such as building a pendulum to strike a car traveling past it at constant and then accelerated velocity, doing something with a cart on a ramp with photogates where it took a specific time for the cart to travel between the two gates, and using given materials to find a friction force between two surfaces.

I got randomly assigned to the last task, the Egg Drop (Not The One You’re Thinking). We were given a spring, a few spring scales, a set of masses, a lab stand, and an egg. Our job was to decide what mass we wanted to hang on the spring and from what height we wanted to drop it so that we got as close as possible, but didn’t touch the top of the egg. It was an very interesting problem, and I started doing some scratch work to find relationships, but I had ended up sitting farthest away from the material and without me realizing it I became That Group Member who is not allowed to touch anything or be a part of the conversation. I would have had to physically body check one of the other two people in my group out of the way in order to get at the stuff, and they pretty much made all decisions between the two of them and then seemed annoyed when I asked questions and for them to explain the choices they were making to me.

It was aggravating to be in “Student Mode” in that situation, and I didn’t want to call them to task about their group skills, so I just stepped into “Teacher Mode” and tried to watch what was happening from that perspective. This let me think more deeply about how to avoid that situation happening to students in my classroom. I knew it was a thing, but I didn’t realize just how quickly and thoroughly it could happen, even to me, and how hard it is as the person relegated to the lowest status to generate any changes in the situation. It was also surprising to me how easy it was not to recognize an unbalanced group dynamic when you are in it, even when you are a trained professional overseeing students working in groups and trying to avoid that situation there. Lots to think about regarding setting group norms.

This also came up during a whole-group discussion where one person completely dominated and would not let anyone else participate. Even a short list of Norms can set intention for inclusivity. One I like that I’ve taken from the Exploratorium is “Step up/Step back”, which means actively monitoring your own participation and making sure there is space for others and/or finding space for your contribution. “Monitor Your Airtime” is another. This is one that I try to keep in mind a lot, because there is usually a lot for me to say about any given topic in education that I’ve spent time considering, but I know my perspective isn’t always necessary, and always jumping in to give it first might make someone else feel like their contribution isn’t necessary. Sometimes it’s even more validating when someone else makes the point I was thinking about than it is to share it, because it reinforces that I’m not in this alone, and often their contribution will have some angle I haven’t fully considered.

I don’t have a pithy Norm for small group situations, but I have previously done a lot of work in small group roles where each person has one or two specific Norms to keep track of during the activity. There’s obviously not enough time in one four-hour workshop to do all of the norm-building, but, again, things to think about in my classroom where I have kids every day and some time to do that community building.

So, they did the thing, and we called over Kelly and Danny to test it. We were pretty dang far away, and our impulse was to go back to our work and check over everything very carefully, but we didn’t find any mistakes or major sources of error. So, we set it back up and tried again and discovered that all our numbers were correct, but the initial release of the mass had been goofy somehow. How often do I ask my students, “Is one observation good science?” so they’ll try things a couple times before coming to any conclusions, and yet once more we teachers tested exactly once and used that as conclusive evidence. All I had really done was get left out and then fail as a group, but holy smokes had I been given a gift basket full of experiences to keep in mind when designing for my own context. Honestly, having been included and successful in our attempt would have removed every learning opportunity I received from this. I’m not sure what to do with that idea.

After this was that whole-group discussion that got dominated, and one topic was  gaming the system. Yes, trivial solutions exist, and some students are masters at finding loopholes. Put smallest mass on spring for almost no extension and no risk. Make a super short pendulum for super fast period or super small amplitude so there will always be some part of the pendulum in the path of the cart. Ball set very close to bottom of ramp so it has very little horizontal velocity when it drops off. A suggested solution was to bring these up to the students and have them get it all out ahead of time so they can focus on the physics relationships.

I’m still working to process that into my thinking since I have a slightly less charitable vision of students being “clever” like that. I’m a spirit-of-the-law person whose goal is student learning, not technically meeting some requirement without showing any understanding of physics. Any justification that starts with, ‘Well, TECHNICALLY…” will probably not really show a solid knowledge of physics concepts and their inter-relationship. It’s one reason among many that I am looking forward to using standards-based and mastery-grading this coming year, to avoid the TECHNICALLY…[insert loophole] conversations. If something is unclear, ASK. You try to game my assignment, then I get to game your grade. Because, well, TECHNICALLY that doesn’t demonstrate your understanding of THIS… Anyway, that brought forth another thing I want to think about front-loading is the focus on demonstrating knowledge and not checking off a checklist of requirements without connecting them back to the purpose of the action.

The second part of the morning we did Danny’s style of Lab Practical, which is divided into three tasks.

  • Task 1: write down relevant thinks you know about this situation that could be useful and could help you solve an example problem.
  • Task 2: Plan and conduct an investigation into the novel situation given. His tasks were using freezing and boiling water, make a set of water that’s exactly 37 degrees C, find the internal resistance of a battery, two-slit interference, and rolling projectile.
  • Task 3: Do a fairly in-depth group reflection.

Groups were reshuffled. I specifically asked if I could get my hands on the materials this time, and they pretty much told me to go nuts. I checked in often to see what ideas they had and if they wanted to trade out fiddling with stuff, mindful of hogging it all, but they were fine with it. After finishing that and doing some analysis, we got results that were hilariously high. One group member is convinced it’s just because the multimeter was off by a couple orders of magnitude, but different settings were giving us answers that were completely different. I wanted to keep fussing with it to sort it out, but another group wanted to try this station, so we moved to another table (the water-mixing one). Fair enough. We traded the material handling this time, and they were more procedure while I did more analysis, and in both situations everyone got to contribute meaningfully, yet differently. Yay! I still want to know what was going on with that multimeter, though. Those things are the worst.

After the previous debrief, the format changed from whole-group to tables so more voices could be heard, and then it was time for lunch. It felt really great to be invited along for lunch with Kelly and Danny. I met them both at the 2016 AAPT National meeting in Sacramento. I’ve kept in touch with Kelly on weekly-ish PLC calls and followed Danny on twitter. Joining them for lunch to talk teaching in a small group with people who aren’t new was incredibly recharging before the afternoon of working with people I met the day of to build a rubric, which was basically four hours of arguing. What did we argue over, you ask?

Everything. What categories? How many buckets? What should be the value of each bucket? Ok, to be fair, they were discussions where everyone listened and gave due consideration to each other’s context and experiences and some minds were changed and some agreements were reached to disagree respectfully. We ended up using one teacher’s rubric who had five buckets for the basic structure and Danny’s structure of dividing the assessment into three distinct tasks. We ended up with four rubrics, dividing Task 2 in to separate rubrics for plan/conduct and the analysis/results. There were still a LOT of discussions about practically every aspect before we divided up the three tasks between three groups and each group worked on filling out a different part of the rubric. Then, we came back together as a group to do final discussions of details and word-smithing.

I’m super glad we put together a relatively huge rubric with lots of detail and spent four hours in a group all working together to make it happen. It was a major team-effort, and everyone had quality input. I ultimately gave in on a lot of my personal sticking points, because I knew I was going to edit the hell out of it as soon as I could get somewhere quiet with the time. I changed it to have four buckets instead of five, made sure each box included what students must do or demonstrate, word-smithed it to my tastes, and took out a bunch of stuff I didn’t want. I hope everyone else did the same thing so it is more fitting to them. Here is the link to my edited rubric.

One thing I learned from this is that it is incredibly difficult to come up with a good task for these types of assessment. The tasks have to be straight forward enough to be possible, challenging enough to be interesting, require more sophisticated thinking to solve compared to any other lab activity I have ever planned, and be just the right amount of messy that there’s interesting errors that can be discussed. I was hoping one of the groups in the afternoon session would come up with some sort of guiding principles or questions to ask yourself when choosing something, but the other groups all came up with specific ideas for tasks. Maybe if I have time I will try to synthesize the tasks from Kelly, Danny, and the afternoon work session to see if I can find some commonalities or patterns.

Major Take Aways:

  • This type of assessment must be built up to and will not work when pulled on students who have never done anything at all similar before, which requires significant and careful planning of class activities and labs. There is pretty much no way I can get this implemented as assessment this year, but I can definitely start laying groundwork for building these skills and discovering what works for my population.
  • There are learning opportunities to be found in every situation, regardless of whether it is personally enjoyable in that moment. I knew this, but the experience with the first group reminded me how true it is. The best part is, learning is personally enjoyable, so it ended up being great anyway!
  • Students are capable and amazing and can do so many things if you set them up to succeed at difficult tasks, even though setting them up for success takes a hell of a lot more effort and time and messing up than giving them easy things or putting arbitrary barriers in their way to rank the kids or weed out the ones that require more support.
  • Overall, it was a brilliant day, and I think the rubric will be useful to me when planning out my labs this year, especially in conjunction with the Sunday afternoon discussion on that topic that you’ll get to read about in my next post!

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