I’ve attempted whiteboarding a couple of times, years ago, but the students and were never really happy with it. (Don’t know what whiteboarding is? Check out this page by Dan MacIsaac, and this page from whiteboardingUSA, both links from this whiteboarding plug by Frank Noschese.) I tried again this week, and I think I’m getting some good from it.

Two classes of frosh physics tried out whiteboarding momentum problems. I probably should have been goading them on to the next topic, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Both classes were tentative about it. Not surprising, this is a new mode for them (and me). In both classes, I described the process, and said I was going to stay out of the discussions as much as possible, and get the class to work it out themselves. Each class did two rounds: Once where everybody worked the same set of problems, and each group was assigned one problem to write out. So first time through, everybody was familiar with each problem.

One class: all went smoothly and fast, and was in fact a bit dull. Maybe I didn’t give hard enough questions. So the second round, when each group got an individual problem, I had them play the Mistake Game: each group puts in a subtle error, and see who can find it. More attention: to catch the mistakes, you had to understand a problem you’d never seen. The variety of mistakes was gratifying: unit conversions, math errors, missing negatives. All were caught fairly quickly.

Other class: In the first round, a couple of the students I called on randomly were not prepared to explain their group’s work. Some snickering. Before the second round, the next day, I started off with a story about the school’s cross-country ski team: that I go their meets (my kids are on the team), that everybody knows who’s fast and who’s slow, and everybody cheers for everybody else, wanting them to do their best… I went on a bit, and the kids may have gotten the point.

I had decided not to go to the Mistake Game so soon with this group, and things were kind of ho-hum for the first two or three presentations. Then I told the class to look at one of them again, and somebody realized it was a problem. He sketchily described how to fix it. Then I called on somebody else to restate the problem and the solution. She stated the problem, but had not caught the solution. I said I wanted lots of people to be able to explain, not just one, and called on somebody else, then went back to the others to have them restate it. And then somebody volunteered to rephrase it again for the class in a different way. And I think that’s when people started to see how whiteboarding can work.

As the discussion continued, a student form the group with the last problem whispered to me: “Can we ask the class to help us with this problem? We don’t know how to solve it.” And I said yes, and was delighted. So they took theirs up, and there was no snickering when he said they couldn’t solve it. Probably helpful that nobody could figure it out right away (the problem had them find the mass of one object, whereas the previous examples sought the velocity). And three or four people got involved in working it out (I was one, mea culpa, but they’d been worrying at it for so long…).

And I should probably edit this or come up with a deep moral, but then I would never get around to posting it. So there it is: my adventure into whiteboarding.



Last year, I first tried standards-based grading in my astronomy class. Good stuff, definitely worthwhile, definitely needed revision. And this entry is about part of my next generation.

The standards I used last year were prescriptive, detailed, and loaded with content. For example:

Describe the gravitational force acting on astronomical objects, and apply Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. This includes proportional reasoning.

I wrote my quizzes and tests based on these standards, and found the going easy. There were some areas where I needed to write up a substantial number of new questions, yet my path was pretty clear, and I’ve got no complaints with how it turned out.

The coming year, however, I’m aiming at giving the kids more of an inquiry-based approach. Last year the students produced some good work with Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry by Stephanie J. Slater; Timothy F. Slater; Daniel J. Lyons. The projects in the book start the students out with prescribed procedures and questions, but leads them into designing their own procedures and posing their own questions. We’ll do more of that next year.

Also, for a while I’ve been kicking around the idea of the class as something of a literature course: Take astronomical new reports, websites, articles and read them closely, somewhat in the style of an english class going through novels, poems and plays. I see this as a flip side to the inquiry I described above. In this case, students will look at reports of other people’s inquiry, and by comparing scientists’ research to their own investigations, they will get a deeper understanding of the science. At least, that’s my hope.

This brings me to my objectives for the class, which I’ll include below. The first two objectives are what I described: evaluating other’s reports related to astronomy, and conducting inquiry of their own. Then I have three content objectives: astronomy-specific methods (observing, basically), related topics from other disciplines (math, chem, physics), and structure and evolution of cosmic objects (divided into solar system, stars, galaxies and universe).

Enough with the introduction, here is my current version of the objectives.

Astronomy Objectives 2012-2013

You will be able to understand, analyze, evaluate, and write about reports of astronomical objects, phenomena, and discoveries. This requires you to have an understanding of scientific inquiry and essential astronomical concepts, and to apply that knowledge to the reports.

I.               Obtain and evaluate astronomical reports, and communicate information. 

A.             Interpret and evaluate astronomical reports and images
B.             Research astronomical topics, showing command of various sources

II.              Conduct astronomical inquiry, using telescopes, lab work, and astronomical databases. 

III.            Observe, describe and predict celestial phenomena:

A.             Describe and predict the appearance and motions of stars in the night sky.
B.             Describe and predict the apparent motions of the sun and moon.
C.            Make celestial observations with a telescope.

IV.           Apply concepts and skills from related disciplines to astronomical observations

A.             Apply mathematical reasoning to astronomical situations.
B.             Apply concepts of light propagation, and analyze spectra to reveal information about light sources.
C.            Explain and analyze astronomical motions in terms of newtonian gravitation.
D.            Apply atomic and nuclear chemistry concepts to the composition of astronomical objects.

V.             Describe and account for the structure, scale, and evolution of the cosmos,

A.             Solar System and other planetary systems


B.              Stars


C.             Galaxies and Universe


(Apologies for the formatting, I didn’t mean TO SHOUT AT THE END THERE. I plan to get better control of WordPress.)

So how will I evaluate whether the students have met these objectives? With the Astronomical Inquiry tasks, along with some other projects (like a spectroscopy lab, and I’m trying out the MicroObservatory “Other Worlds” project this week). And then I’ve got a selection of articles and essays for close reading, which I intend the students will supplement by finding their own. And if I have trouble pulling off my big plan, I’ve still got plenty of pencil-and-paper content questions to fall back on.

Thanks for reading this far. I’ve been putting off this entry for days, because I keep revising the objectives, but it’s time to move forward. I’d appreciate any and all feedback on what I’ve got here. Thank you!

My First Year of SBG

So I’ve now completed my first year of Standards Based Grading (SBG), and it is definitely just the first year. I’ll be doing this again, oh those lucky incoming students this fall.

SBG just made a whole lot of sense. Nowhere near the stress level of traditional grading. Missed an assignment? No problem, just show me you know the stuff. Bombed a quiz? Try another on the same topic. And with the high resolution of the objectives, there was little question about exactly what to review.

One particular instance that stands out in my mind:
Two students in particular were doing rather well. In each case, they got one particular, specific concept quite wrong. Because of the fine-grained scoring we used, and the heavy weighting I gave to the lowest score, they both paid attention and got straightened out. One learned that while the pairs of forces described in Newton’s Third Law do each act on different objects, they are both the same type of force. Another had centripetal forces pointing out from the center of a circle. In both cases, these were significant errors of physics, but involved only a few assessment questions. In a traditional system, the points lost for these would have little effect on their grade. With SBG as we used it, the problem stood out starkly. There was a strong incentive to find out what they did wrong and get it right.


I will adjust my methods, however:

• Clearer descriptions up front. Last year I was uncertain, and I kept things fluid. I was afraid to stick myself with a system that would produce unreasonable grades at the end. Know that I’ve seen how it plays out, I can be more decisive.

• Hierarchy of objectives. I want to keep lots of objectives, so we can be very precise about what kids know and don’t know. Last year, our grading software produced a long, monolithic list of objectives that overwhelmed students. I am working on a way to group the objectives by unit, and have the students track the objectives for each unit. So they will generally look either at the aggregate scores for the units, or at the detailed list of objectives for a single unit.

So over the summer I’ll be rolling SBG around in my head and on my computer. And by September I should have a new and improved SBG system to wheel out for the classes.

It’s been over nine months since I’ve posted here, and the school year has come and almost gone in that time.

Last summer, I was afraid I would not be able to keep up a blog. I get overambitious, and I procrastinate, and I don’t really enjoy writing. But in this case, I let the blog lapse due to a death in the family a few days after my last post. Since then, it’s been a difficult time for me. To get through the school year, I’ve hunkered down and gone into turtle mode.

Now the year is winding down. I’m coming out of my funk enough to start being disappointed that I did not make any bold experiment this year. I’ve seen even more interesting modes of education I want to explore. And my astro class has been scheduled for a computer lab, giving us constant web access and an opportunity to go all digital.

So the time has come to get out of my shell, and figure out how to make the most of what we’ve got.

Today was the first day of school for teachers, and I had a dream last night. No, it was not one of those stressful dreams about being unprepared. It was actually pretty cool.

In my dream, my classroom was not in a school. It seemed to be a former store in a mall, one that had been decorated in a tropical motif: islands and ocean mural, fake palm trees. Mostly the kids and I were deciding how to set up tables and chairs. I didn’t have a plan, but that was OK. Mostly I was telling the kids not to do the usual, to sit wherever, to talk to each other.

The front was wide open to whoever walked by. Not many folks did, and we weren’t doing anything interesting yet so nobody really looked. But I figured eventually we’d have visitors and some interaction.

Yikes. My dreams are usually nice and entertaining, and I’ve never given them much attention. I’m often clueless about metaphors, but this seems pretty obvious.

I’ve got some work to do. Time to stop writing and get to it.

Fodder for an Edugeek

So what kept me awake reading until 1AM Friday morning? Was it the latest issue of Physics Today? My Twitter feed? The book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (birthday present from my teenage son)?

No. It was A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. What an edugeek I am.

Why am I reading this on my summer vacation? Because this outlines the future of science education in the US, and thereby influences the next twenty or so years of my professional life. There’s a long way to go before the framework is implemented, and much can change, but there’s always that urge to look ahead and try to predict the future.

And besides, there’s some intriguing stuff in there. First a summary of the three “dimensions”:

  • Science and Engineering Practices – As the committee writes, this is “inquiry”, but they call it “practices” and get much more specific about what students should actually be able to do, such as “Asking Questions…” “Planning and Carrying Out Investigations” and “Engaging in Argument from Evidence.”
  • Cross-Cutting Concepts – This identifies several ideas that apply across many aspects of science, such as “Patterns,” “Cause and Effect,”  and “Structure and Function.”
  • Content – The last dimension outlines specific content knowledge. Four disciplines (Physical, Life, Earth Sciences, and Tech/Engineering) each get two to four “core ideas” (e.g. Energy). The authors elaborate those core ideas with three or four sub-topics (e.g. Energy Conservation and Transfer).

So the content list is short. Here in Massachusetts, our one-year ninth-grade physics course has thirty-two standards, some of which get really specific (distinguishing between static and kinetic friction is one). This new framework has forty-four items spread out over all of K-12, and an explicit call to limit the breadth. Some will see this as disrespecting their favorite topics (astronomy is my personal fave, and only one item applies). But I  think of it as leaving time for each of us science teachers to work on our favorites/strengths. Big Question: Will this narrow focus survive the next stage, the writing of testable standards?

Which brings me to the question of assessment. What is the test going to look like? The pessimist in me worries that we will end up only testing the content part, and that at a low level. Something like this happened in Massachusetts: the state frameworks list science inquiry skills, yet they are not assessed in our statewide test.

I’m not sure what the authors have in mind for testing the cross-cutting concepts, but I like the idea. I’ve had some half-baked ideas along these lines for my astronomy and intro physics classes. These new frameworks urge me to focus and figure out what I would like such assessment to look like. Maybe I’ll write about it here.

In the meantime, if you’re an edugeek like me, take a look at the frameworks. What do you think?


How am I going to teach my astronomy class to take advantage of Standard Based Grading ?

I’m revising my course over the summer, and I started doing a little research. Turns out one idea I’d had already has a name: Standards-Based Grading (aka SBG, or #sbar on twitter). I believe it was this blog entry from Terie Engelbrecht whose blog  first clued me in. I’ve been reading a bunch about it, and there’s a good description by Jason Buell at his Always Formative blog.

So the grading part seems to make sense to me. I’ve got my objectives for the class already, I’m a big believer in objectives. (“Objectives” is the term I tend to use instead of “standards.”)  Now I’m chugging through my objectives, figuring out what exactly I expect students to be able to do to meet expectations, exceed expectations, and so on. In the process, I cut back on thenumber of standards

The class is an elective, and the students have very diverse prior experience and preparation. I expect some are going to whip through the standards at a high level, others are going to struggle to master a few. This worries me.

My half-baked solution is to add back a few of the objectives/standards, and somehow count those as “exceed expectations.”

So my questions are:

1: Have teachers had issues with running out of standards for their students? Maybe I don’t need to worry.

2: How do teachers using SBG handle extra topics?

While I let those percolate, I’ll be pondering how to actually choreograph the instructional and assessment parts of the class…

And that concludes my very first blog post. Thanks for reading!