Category Archives: Reflections on Teaching

The Second Time Around

This time around, I know where to sit.

This time around, I know where to sit.

I’m heading out to my ceramics class for the second time.  Because I have a fairly precise idea of my route and how long it took the last time, I leave the house allowing enough time, taking previous traffic patterns into account. When I arrive, I know the best and safest place to park (having been advised at the first class). I make my way into the building, up the stairs, a quick visit to the bathroom, and right to the studio.

I recognize my fellow students, nod hello, store my bag on one of the hooks, and don an apron from the supply nearby. I know where the clay is kept and which board to use for wedging. I pick out an open table area and start to work, applying the procedures demonstrated to us in the first class.

I pause for a moment and realize how much more fun and interesting – less stressful – learning feels tonight.

When learning something new, the second time through gives us such a measurably different experience.  You have a context, you see the whole, you can better estimate the time it will take, you feel less lost, you feel less anxious.

This post from Annie Murphy Hall talks about the added expertise an older adult brings to a learning situation.  Apparently researchers report that older people (as in over 65 years of age) show less variability in their cognitive performance over 100 days of testing than younger people.  The researchers cite “learned strategies” – their problem solving ability, along with a balanced daily routine and stable mood.  I would add that, due to their years of experience, they are more likely to have faced a similar problem and can retrieve a solution (or a partial one) that makes for approaching this new cognitive task as if it were the second time.  Easier.


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What Else am I Learning?

Ride Bike

Think on this a minute.  Can you come up with a scenario where the skills you acquired learning one thing, helped you do another?  For instance, did learning how to ride a bike help you learn how to ski?  Did learning how to tie your shoes help you to learn how to braid your hair?

This week I watched this happen with two people learning to work with social media and virtual worlds.  In one case, the person had previously worked with Blackboard Elluminate (running regular webinars).  I went into the virtual world of Second Life with her and she took to it like a duck to water.  All that pesky troubleshooting around sound issues in Second Life?  Not a problem.  She had the whole “triage” problem solving method down cold.  As in….first check your computer volume (on mute?), then your headset (plugged in the right way?), then your computer sound preferences (set to the right thing?), then SL preferences….and so on.  I didn’t have to explain a thing.  You wouldn’t think that a webinar platform like Elluminate and a 3D virtual world like Second Life would have all that much in common!

In another instance it was someone learning how to use Pixton. She had never used the comic creation tool before but because she was a photographer, she quickly grasped the notion of frames and layout.  In addition to that, Pixton has these somewhat confusing case-sensitive tool buttons where you only see the tool buttons that relate to what you are doing. In other words, you see a different set of buttons if you’ve clicked on a character than if you clicked on a speech bubble. Many people get muddled with these.  But not in this case.  As we worked further, it became clear that this person was transferring an understanding of case-sensitive tools that she earned using Photoshop.

Fascinating. In addition to the pleasure in seeing media skills transfer from one situation/tool to another, there’s another, harder to describe, benefit that seems to come along for the ride. I observed that my friend in the first scenario was just more patient, more resilient with the Second Life technical issues because she’s been there before.  She’d seen similar technical problems through to a positive conclusion, and that gave her the confidence to press on.  She possessed the certain knowledge that, eventually, she’d figure it out.

When I’m working with learners on new skills or concepts, all too often they just seem to give up – abandon ship – before they get to the fun part. Perhaps one way to diffuse this tendency is to reassure them – online tool use and technical problem solving are a cumulative things.  The more you do, the more you can do.


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Getting Your Feet Wet


Peggy Brickman

Peggy Brickman

Peggy Brickman (University of Georgia) lead a terrific workshop this week at the Biology Leadership Conference (#BLC10).  The workshop focused on conducting education research, even if you’re not an education researcher.  She gave a useful summary of the characteristics of good research questions:

  • Yield results that move the field forward
  • Firmly situated in the literature
  • Actionable, feasible, sharply focused
  • Reveal meaningful underlying mechanisms 

To companion those, Peggy outlined the most common mistakes people make in formulating their research questions.  Here are common problems that reduce a research question’s interest to others (and to publications):

  • Questions that have answers with limited interest (limited scope)
  • Questions that have been previously addressed
  • Questions that aren’t expressed in a testable way
  • Underdeveloped or insufficiently defined questions
  • Questions for which there was inadequate or poor assessment.

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Doing Biology with AP* Biology Teachers

Peggy Skinner’s APSI crew

The College Board (the non-profit administrator of the Advanced Placement program) regularly sponsors special Summer Institutes for high school AP teachers.  These week-long, discipline-specific professional development workshops – or APSIs, as they are called – are a tremendous opportunity for instructors to dig deeply into their AP course, run through resource material, learn new methods, reflect on their own course, and get their questions answered.  They are also a wonderful opportunity to network with other educators, teaching the same course, and learn from each other.

While always popular, this summer’s APSI offerings for biology educators are particularly well attended because of the brand-spankin’ new AP Biology Curriculum Framework published by the College Board in February 2011.  High school teachers around the country are being asked to rethink their course, in light of the new framework, and submit a syllabus to the College Board for audit.  Failure to comply with the requirements means that your high school could no longer call the course “Advanced Placement” and that students enrolled would not be eligible to take the AP exam or carry AP credit on their transcript.  Given the AP program’s popularity in United States high schools, the stakes are pretty high.

Peggy Skinner (left) and Allison Kittay (right) master facilitators.

In July, I had the good fortune to attend an AP Biology Summer Institute in Menlo Park, California.  There were two concurrent sessions, each with 30 high school biology teachers.  AP Biology veteran teachers, Peggy Skinner and Allison Kittay, facilitated the workshops.  The attending teachers were mostly from California, with a few from other western states and one from a high school in Shanghai, China.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Peggy and Allison so graciously invited me to attend their workshops as an observer.  The opportunity to listen to teachers and hear about their courses and their students was certainly high on my list of reasons to attend.  I also hoped that I would gain some insights into the new curriculum myself.  Though I have spent time examining the document and learning the terminology (Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings, Essential Knowledge, Learning Objectives, and Science Practices), I still didn’t feel I’d yet wrapped my mind around it.

We started out the first (of five!) day with a trip around the lab room, as each teacher shared where they were from, how long they’ve been teaching AP Bio, and what they hoped to get out of the week ahead.  Their comments were revealing…

“I’m worried about the audit. How can I make sure my course is approved?”

“I’m concerned about the math that now seems to be required, whether or not my students can handle it.”

“Between my district being furloughed and the required exam prep, I just don’t think I will have enough to time to fit it all in.”

“I’m nervous about the new labs.”

“I don’t have time to completely re-make my course.”

“I’ve spent time gathering resources from other people, but now I feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to look at and evaluate.  Plus I want to make sure that the course I teach is my course.”

“ I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, if someone else has this figured out, I’m happy to use their materials.”

“I have IB and AP students in the same class, how can I make that work?”

“I’m worried about the exam.  The sample questions we’ve seen are very difficult and I’m not sure my students will be able to do well.”

“Where are the resources to help us with these data analysis questions?

“The textbooks I have are 8 years old and there is no money for new ones.”

“Where will I get the materials for the new labs – my school has no money to buy lab kits.”

“How can I convert my existing exam questions to reflect the sort of thing that my students will encounter on the exam?”

I found it particularly interesting that most of the participants were experienced AP teachers – many of whom were veteran APSI attendees.  The concerns about the new course were palpable, even among those veterans.

Allison and Peggy did an amazing job explaining, reassuring, and grappling with questions.  They patiently explained the philosophical underpinnings of the new course direction as they infused the week with a level of excitement over the possibilities.  As Peggy Skinner put it, “This is an exciting time to be teaching AP Bio, this new curriculum is all about how to do science.”

And “doing science” is precisely what they did.  Over the course of the week these hearty teachers got their fingers blue (FastBlast stain in the Gel Electrophoresis lab) and their minds on fire while they worked through the recommended labs for the course.  With each lab, the emphasis was to first get the techniques and methods down and then open the lab up for inquiry possibilities… What questions could students ask?  How might it go wrong and how to figure out why?  How could the lab be extended?  As each new wrinkle or question came up, Peggy and Allison kept everyone in the right mindset by asking the participants, “How would this inform your teaching?”.  Here are a few photos of the teacher participants, working hard to examine the labs and incorporate them into their own design:

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Over the course of the five days we did many labs, tried out sample exam questions,  reviewed all the College Board online resources, talked about the audit, and mapped out the connections between Big Ideas, Learning Objectives, and Science Practices. Here is an example of a Big Idea map:

Teacher-created map for Big Idea #3

Katie shares an idea for helping students understand cladograms.

One of the many wonderful elements of a week like this comes from shared ideas and activities between teachers. There were hundreds of years of teaching experience among these teachers and they were all eager to share what works for them.  You could feel the energy in the room spike as each good strategy was shared.  Like this video of Chris, explaining an activity he came up with using wine corks to help students understand natural selection.

Take home lessons stacked up over the course of the week, with the sure-footed sensibility that experienced and resilient teachers always seem to manage.  These were the important meta messages that stood out to me:

  • To be curious and ask good questions, you need to be an expert….kids need to be an expert on some aspect of each lab in order to make them work.  So try starting with a skill that they master, to the unknown, to the formulation of a question.
  • Talk with your pre-AP teachers (9th grade biology) about how to prepare students for the AP Biology course ahead.
  • We are facing a 3-5 year transition here – it won’t happen all at once.
  • There are eight labs, each one requires 2-3 days,  and at least 25% of your course time should be spent doing labs.  There are fewer labs in the revised course, but each one requires more time and each one provides opportunity for inquiry.  Spread them out throughout the year.
  • It’s very important to have your own identify when you teach this course. How will you excite the students?  What interests and drives you?
  • There are College Board recommendations, but there are also school preferences and cultures – each teacher has to balance these.
  • The exam will definitely be more data-driven.  AP Biology students will, for the first time, bring calculators to the exam.  There will a master sheet of formulas given.  Practice with interpreting data and calculations is a good plan.
  • “E2/I2” is a good handle to keep in mind. Evolution.  Energy. Information.  Interactions.
  • Examine where most of the LO’s fall and think about that in light of your curriculum plan.  For example, Big Idea 3 has 50 LO’s – twice as many as Big Idea 4.
  • The exam will text essential knowledge with specific science practices.  Students will have to show what they know through what they do.
  • Look for places in the year, specific activities, that will help students make a connection between Big Ideas – this will help students build a network.

It was an exciting and fascinating week — and I was so grateful to be there, learning along with everyone else.

*AP is a trademark of the College Board

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Beginner’s Mind and Watercolors

Watercolor Tubes. All lined up and ready to go.

Yesterday I took an all-day watercolor workshop.  With just three of us learners and a very intense, French instructor, there wasn’t a lot of room to hide in that art studio – it was all learning, all the time.  Since I hadn’t held a paintbrush for many years, it was a humbling beginner’s experience for me.  A good reminder of what it feels like to be on the learner-end of the equation.

Tints from a mass stone.

We started with an introduction to color (hue, chroma and value), followed by some painting exercises to render mass tones (the pure color, right out of the tube) and tints (dilutions of that original color).  Fascinating. I couldn’t help but make note of the expert language our instructor used – how exclusionary it felt, how unwilling any of us were to ask for clarification or to possibly derail her by admitting that we didn’t understand a term she’d used a few minutes earlier. But my anxiety eased when I finally had the brush in my own hand and tried it myself.  Ah, yes…now I see what she meant (even if I didn’t remember all the terminology).

Following that, our instructor gave a few more painting demonstrations of various brush techniques. In addition to the expert terminology, there were many vague references to an understanding that would “come with time”, intuition that we’d develop with patient practice, and a “feeling” that we would eventually acquire if we worked hard. I was guessing that my peers, like me, were not planning a watercolor painting career and were most likely feeling a bit at sea.

“Your painting should float on the page!”  “Let the paint do its work, don’t control it!”  Her advice sounded interesting, but I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant or how to translate her admonishments into my actions.

Following the demos, the instructor put out some pots, shells, and a bunch of grapes on a purple cloth – a still life tableau – for us to paint.  Not really knowing where to start (were we expected to draw the whole assembly? do you draw the items first with a pencil?), we all floundered around for awhile. So many decisions to make!  Wet on wet?  Wet on dry? Brush size? Perspective? Which objects?  Realizing that I was wasting valuable workshop time, I decided to narrow my focus.  Just one brush.  Wet paint on dry paper. This color palette. And hone in on the grapes. It was just a few hours, afterall.

Once I made those decisions, I fell into a rhythm with my painting.  Just me, the palette, the brush, the paper, and the grapes.

Nothing but potential.

I love the process of mixing the colors. At the start of the workshop we were each given an enormous white enameled pan.  She showed us a method where you apply a bit of paint from the tube to the pan’s side, and then bring it down to the bottom, with water, push that over to another color with your brush, and blend.  As I worked to render my grapes, I mixed at least twelve  different combinations of red and blue….blue and yellow…that green with the ruddy violet.  A gorgeous alchemy of color splayed across the clean white of my pan.

Before I knew it, two hours had swept by, and the workshop was done.  I was happy with my painting –  one grape in particular, was my favorite.  It had just the right shades, a bit of transparency, a suggestion of roundness, and the hint of green where the ruby plum grape joined the stem. All the terminology, expert nuance, and trepidation was swept aside as I took pleasure in the satisfaction of one grape well rendered.

The finished grapes.

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Experimenting with Participatory Media: Mike Gaines at University of Miami

Mike Gaines teaches general biology to undergraduates at University of Miami. He’s one of those incredible educators who is always trying something new – regularly reinventing his course and his approach in order to keep it fresh, alive, and interesting (for his students and for him!).

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Recently he decided to introduce participatory media to his course (BIL 150).  For some time he’d been looking for a good way to turn a critical analysis of science in the movies into a workable course assignment and a wiki site seemed like a good way to organize it. He built a course wiki site, using Wikispaces, and gave his freshmen biology students the assignment to watch two movies, Contagion and 50/50, and then post their analysis of the biology in those movies (misconceptions?  inaccuracies?  controversies?)  as wiki entries. The student posts are very revealing. You can almost hear their wheels turning as they apply the course concepts (cell division, genetic mutations, viruses) to the science plot twists of the movie (cancer treatment, infection, and disease management).

Following success with that, he started a new page on the wiki site where students would record their observations and reactions to the Richard Dawkins lecture, The Magic of Reality.

Now he was up and running, he decided to experiment further.  Twitter, Wordle and Pixton quickly came next.  He used Twitter to keep in touch with his students, conducting virtual office hours to answer questions and take the “pulse” of the course. After each exam, he asked students to create Wordles (word maps) of their reactions to the exam so that the students could easily (at a glance) check in with each other on their sense of it (really hard?  how’d you do? what concepts were confusing?  how much and how did you study?) and how their own reactions compared to those of their peers. I thought this was a particularly ingenious use of a simple media tool. It was so interesting to read their potent relief as their calibrated themselves to their peers on terms other than test scores.

What I think Mike has done particularly well here is to design his teaching approach so that he’s engaged his students in an authentic experience, where the representation of his students’ knowledge is absolutely essential to the ongoing flow of the course.  There is no busy work here, no tack-ons – everything the students are doing feels important and part of the fabric of the course.

Cleverly, Mikes also used that course wiki site to get final feedback on the course from his students. He set up a new wiki page for student feedback and asked them all to post their comments, suggestions, gripes, and concerns on that page.  From the looks of it, almost all of his students posted something and many of them wrote a quite detailed and useful analysis of their experience.  There are some excellent insights there, but if you don’t have time to read them all, here are a few of my favorite student remarks:

“Because our audience was middle schoolers, critical thinking was required to help express technological and biological in an understandable manner to a general audience.”

“I enjoyed having the opportunity to provide my own input (through Twitter especially) because it gave me a chance to actually think about things more thoroughly. For example, by simply asking us to tweet you about what we found most hard about the test, you are asking us to rethink the test and try to figure out what went wrong. Tweeting is such an easy way to provide input but it really helps spark thinking.”

“Throughout this course twitter has been used as a useful tool to communicate with the professor. Although it may seem informal, it is an effective means of communication because a student can ask the professor a question as soon as they think of it. The comments from twitter were then converted to Wordles, this was exciting because as a student I got to see that other students had the similar concerns and comments on the course.”

“In particular, I thought the use of twitter was a fantastic way to connect with Dr. Gaines and make you stand out in a large class. The same goes for the Wordles, which allowed you to have some valuable input on the tests. It really showed that Dr. Gaines cared about us as students, and didn’t view us all as just one gigantic class that blended together.”

Pretty darned impressive.

And here’s what Mike, himself, had to say about the experience,

“My advice to teachers who want to try this is that once you become familiar with different aspects of Web 2.0 technology, it will be a useful addition to your pedagogical tool kit. It’s how todays students communicate. I had some fears at first because I felt my students were “digital natives” while I was a “digital immigrant” and I would know less than they do.  But this did not turn out to be the case. This teacher and his students became partners sharing their different expertise in the digital world to make my large lecture class more interactive and exciting.  So go for it!”


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Painting by Robin Remick

This week I came across a terrific piece in the Huffington Post by Brian Cohen (who is the President of Idyllwild Arts Academy) about teaching creativity.  In it, Cohen talks about the importance of giving students room to figure things out for themselves – allowing them to struggle a bit and discover on their own. He quotes the artist Paul Klee in the opener to his essay, “Genius is the error in the system.”

Which made me think of my good friend, Robin Remick, who is an abstract painter. I recently went to an Open Studio of hers and, much to my delight, she walked me through the work she had on display. There, in the studio where she created her stunning paintings, she talked to me about each piece.  Where she was when she painted in, what she was trying to accomplish, how the colors and materials she used worked together.  While listening to her, I was particularly struck by the role of error in her work. More than once she talked about “not knowing what would happen” and just rolling with it.  For instance, on one recent painting she had experimented with applying a coat of resin to the finished painting.  The resin bubbled up in an unexpected way which she, at first, saw as a problem. To correct it, she poured lavish amounts of resin on the bubbled up places and, in the process, created these thick dollops of resin that gave the painting an interesting textured look with unexpected visual dimension – which she ended up liking very much (me too).  She explained that it’s often that way with her work. That the so-called “mistakes” lead to unexpected discoveries, that working with new materials that she doesn’t yet fully understand leads to intriguing results. This, she told me, has become a familiar theme to her.

Of course, you must have confidence to let that happen. For Robin, who is a thoroughly trained painter, with an MFA and years of experience to guide her journeys and experiments, she has the confidence to roll with her “mistakes” and venture into new territory. But surely there is something to be captured from what she’s discovered – and what Brian Cohen recommends –  that could and should be applied to education? That we need to find room in our fervent curriculum planning to allow learners of all stripes to make mistakes, to take risks, to wander a bit and see where those foibles and flounderings lead? To spend time in that unsafe place of not-knowingness and get comfortable there?

As Cohen explains to the faculty in his academy, your first answer might not be your best and your last answer may well help you to get to the next, but it won’t be the next answer. Modeling that sort of not-knowingness and comfort with errors and unpredictable results feels incredibly right-headed to my ear.

“Creativity involves understanding and, paradoxically and simultaneously, not knowing; entering a process where ready answers are inadequate to the task, and where the resolution at first uncertain. You can know a lot about something and be thought to be good at it, yet not know for sure where things are going to come out.”

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