Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Learning how to teach physics (and probably math)

Eric Mazur, a Harvard professor, talks about his experience discovering that in spite of good in-class exam scores and good end-of-the-semester teacher evaluations, his students shockingly weren't internalizing elementary physics concepts e.g. in the context of everyday situations. He had only learned this because he had seen the result presented at a conference and didn't believe it, so decided to test his own classes to disprove the result. He was shocked that it was true in his classes as well - year after year.

He could have left things as-is - all the standard metrics (exams, evaluations) showed there was no dire need to change anything. But true conceptual internalization wasn't taking place.

Where was the problem? Wasn't he a good teacher? And weren't his students of the highest quality?

Dr Mazur discusses the characteristics of the concepts he wanted his students to internalize, the tests he used to test them, the metrics to measure the results and his multiple attempts to change his teaching style to achieve those results.

The process that in the end produced good outcomes (and has been validated in programs throughout the country) turns out to focus less on lecturing and more on directing peer-instruction. Well worth a watch...

Eric Mazur presents Confessions of a Converted Lecturer

There seems to also be good evidence for peer-assisted instruction for elementary level mathematics as well.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What makes a great teacher?

What makes a great teacher? Probably not what you think. Here is an article in the Atlantic describing data collected and analyzed by Teach for America (the non-profit organization that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in low-income communities throughout the US).
Starting in 2002, Teach for America began using student test-score progress data to put teachers into one of three categories: those who move their students one and a half or more years ahead in one year; those who achieve one to one and a half years of growth; and those who yield less than one year of gains.

According to the article, the characteristics could be summarized as:
  • set big goals
  • continuously seek to improve effectiveness
  • recruit students and families into the process
  • plan exhaustively and purposefully
  • work backwards from desired outcome
  • refuse to surrender to [...] bureaucracy and budgetary shortfalls

    At the moment, TfA claims larger gains than can be independently verified (which are also only for math) but their approach still looks promising...

    So far, only one independent, random-assignment study of Teach for America’s effectiveness has been conducted. That report, published by Mathematica Policy Research in 2004, looked at the organization’s teachers and found that, in math, their students significantly outperformed those of their more experienced counterparts. (In reading, though, the teachers’ students did the same as other teachers’ students.) Another study is due out in 2012 or 2013.

    For the teaching of reading, Siegfried Engelmann's Direct Instruction seems to have years of evidence. And you can purchase an e-tutor that implements the method for home use