Friday, August 16, 2013

Put Your Problems "in the Wild" to Create Better Learners

"Hey, can any of you guys do #4?"

I've been to zoos and seen lions before.  As fortune would have it, I have twice in the past 3 years been to South Africa and experienced a safari.  On my safari's, I also saw lions.  Let me tell you here and now, there is a world of difference in the two beasts when confined or in the wild.

  • The zoo lion is right where I expect, when I expect it.  I chose to go to the lion cage and, to no one's surprise, I encountered a lion.  I also know the lion is fed regularly and is therefore not really looking to waste energy trying to get to me.  I feel safe that the lion is also unable to get to me even if it wanted to.  This is a dependable situation where I know exactly what to expect and to do.  While there, I am in awe and have fun and am relaxed.  Yea for the lions!!
  • The lion in the wild is a not anywhere in particular...they don't have houses and tend to be nomadic. So, if I am looking for a lion, I may or may not find one, and I certainly cannot pick the time of day to find one. Once I come upon the lion, it may have eaten recently or it may be very hungry.  It may be angry with my presences or not care.  It isn't in a cage so I am not safe in that way.  While in their presence, I am nervous, excited, unsure, hopeful, and in awe.  Yea lions...but be prepared to get me out of here if they act suspicious!!

I'm sure you are thinking, "why is this talk of safari's on an education blog?"  Well, it goes to the point that homework we assign for our classes is always of the zoo type.  When we are in chapter 4 or are studying the emancipation proclamation, the homework assignment is about those topics.  It's easy for the student to know to use this idea/concept/technique to answer the question when you can narrow down what part of the class the material pertains.

I sent my students a "preclass review" earlier in the week, which is a set of questions covering the basic skills they should have mastered in their previous chemistry course.  And at a preclass meeting, termed by my colleague as an Open House, I let students ask some questions.  11 of the 71 enrolled students showed up on a rainy day, before classes began (a number I am more than pleased about).  But all 11 had issues with one of the problems I assigned.  Their issue was that they had no idea how to start the work at  Yet, after just getting them started, they all remembered how to do the problem.

So, there are two points to the story here.  First, we need to give our students more practice at experiencing problems in the wild so that they are calm, cool and collected when they encounter them.  Because, let's face it, when you work in the chemistry industry, problems don't come in a specific order within a particular chapter of your work.  Instead, you must be able to understand whyThe second point is that the technique used to answer the question has been obviously memorized instead of understood, so I need to work on making the concept behind the technique more important.

Let's make our students better thinkers and learners...let's give them some problems in the wild!!

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