Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Science of Teaching Science

Asking questions is the foundation of knowledge. The difference between relevant knowledge and knowledge that is not transcendental is the deepness of the questions that generated those ideas. Of course now I have to define what do I mean by relevant knowledge and transcendental so I can then say how one is supposed to learn how to develop skills to ask the proper questions. Implicit in the idea of relevant knowledge is the fact that ideas that might be considered knowledge are not based on an objective reality, they are based on what can be labeled as "an ideology" created for the benefit of a particular group in our society.

As a teacher then I have to ask how can we teach others how to ask questions that lead us in the direction of finding relevant knowledge. Historically ideas have develop basically in relationship to our information of the world that surround us, understanding how nature works has driven humanity in the quest to know the laws that govern all phenomena, including human behavior.

So going back to the question: How do we ask questions? We'll have to acknowledge that the question is not simple at all. The complexity comprises relationships, contexts, circumstances, and time. The same issue can be analyzed in different ways according to these aforementioned characteristics.

Then at last one has to be able to evaluate and assess how teaching had and impact on the student's learning.  Using the "Scientific Method" it is possible to predict based on the formulation of hypothesis and the concordance of prediction with the observed effects what we call objective data will define the success of the theory in which these hypothesis are formulated. When there is observable contradiction or lack of connection between the predicted (theoretical) results and the observed one has an non-objectable reason to say that the premises are false and that the theory in question is defective. But how do we do that with teaching? How can we apply the scientific method to teaching?

To answer this question one must have clear objectives that have to be measured. What in pedagogy is called a "learning objective" with specific definitions within the context of the subject matter. Traditionally these objectives have been measured by testing students. Testing students has been a way to evaluate teaching performance. The issue with this approach is that it is not clear what is the question. The simple question: Is the teacher good? Is parallel to: Are the students learning? But is not helping in the discovery of what is objectively effective teaching. There have been many studies and publications about effective teaching and they, for sure, provide insight about points of reference and techniques, philosophies and strategies but do not provide a sense of scientific methodology that one would expect in a scientific publication. As far as I can see they provide valuable information about what has been observed and characterized as teaching excellence but more research is due.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Western Culture and the Scientific Method


    For the first paper I ask my students in Environmental Studies to write about the connection between the Scientific Method (SM) and Western Culture (WC). The main idea that I am seeking in this paper is the understanding that we know the world we live in through a logical process based on experiential information, what one can label as "experimental observation."
    Leading my students to first recognize the historical importance of the Greek philosophers as the founding minds behind reason and logic I set a context based on values center on the idea of truth. Then in class we have a conversation about objectivity and subjectivity and why technology emerges from the need to parametrize information. Thus units of measurement come to exist and methodologies are developed not only to measure but to produce goods.
     Later we see how after the middle ages with the renaissance Descartes and Galileo among others established a system that we now call SM in order to contextualize and create a frame of reference for the ability to predict phenomena based on observation more than on the calendar. Just to clarify, many predictions before the scientific method were based on calendars created on past experiences. Such a predictability was based on the assumption that natural phenomena was unchangeable but at the same time there were some natural phenomena like the weather that seemed unpredictable.
    In this day and age being able to predict has become even more important, though much of the research done today is still on the phase of understanding how things work. What I want to teach my students is the intrinsic value of knowing the truth about something, and to understand that there are levels of knowledge about everything we see around in the world.
    What would be of the world if we were not interested on the truth?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Science You Need to Flourish

     The first paper I ask my students in Environmental Studies PHS 100 is to write about the relationship between Western Culture (WC) and the Scientific Method (SM). In this paper I expect students to define WC and to explain what the SM is. Then I expect them to see why they are intrinsically interconnected and why we couldn't have the modern society that we have today without having means to find what is the truth about the reality in which we all live.

     The first thing we find when looking for definitions of WC is about its origin in Greece where Greek philosophers used reasoning to find the truth about reality. We could argue that this was not the base for eastern philosophies were insight about physical reality came through meditation. A later development of the "logical" reasoning was the development of the SM where experimental or experiential knowledge was used to understand nature and thus be able to control it. The best and simple example of this is the knowledge developed around gas behavior (in particular steam) that was the base for the industrial revolution.

     Knowing how things work, how nature works has been, is, and will be of such an importance that one can't disregard the impact in our society's wellbeing. Of course these ideas, the use of the scientific method is not by any means exclusive of the physical sciences one can find examples in other areas of human endeavor such as business or social work; but the physical sciences represent the best examples of how our society has moved and progressed to have better technologies and improving the standards of living in our society.

     Looking at those who have flourished and created empires in the business world we find that most of them were producing a new product, a new way of doing based on a more profound knowledge of our society. Perhaps in some cases this knowledge was not apparent or exterior but was intuitive. I am thinking now of Mark Zuckerberg creator of Facebook or Jim Wales co-creator of Wikipedia.

     Now at Warner Pacific College we are focusing on helping our students to "flourish." We are doing everything possible to enable them to lean in a way that they can become the leaders that our society needs. We need to help them understand the world and help them to use the knowledge acquired about the world so they can innovate and create, in a word: Flourish.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Revolutionize Education or Replace it?

Our education system was started many years ago with a particular purpose and need. Our society has changed from the industrial type of production to a service type of production. So our educational system has to change or be replaced in order to accommodate the needs of our society today and in the future. 
This video showing an interview with Seth Godin clarifies what is going on and opens the discussion to find what a new system should look like. As Seth said here in this interview -it is not about a conspiracy theory- but we have to understand why those in industry and commerce are not longer supporting the education of the general public as they do not need anymore the kind of trained workers they used to require for factory schedules and for providing the income for a consumer society.
I can think of one personal example. As soon as my daughter finished her BS in Physics about two years ago, she started working at Boeing. Her schedule is not based on the production line but on the needs for her team's research. Today for example she had to leave for work at 5:30 AM because the testing required her to do such. Some times she works from home as today we are connected from almost anywhere in the world. In fact I am writing this post more that 100 miles away from my home or my office. Scientists in particular as they are in the very creative endeavor of discovery and analysis must have the freedom to organize their schedule accordingly.

Science students today are feeling the disconnection and becoming very uncomfortable with the traditional classroom setting. They want to have an active participation that in a way the traditional lecture is blocking so we the teaching professors have to change the way we teach. That is why I'm trying to implement Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) and Flipping my classroom.

So can we teach science adding to content-education the flexibility of schedule?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Coaching VS Teaching

Recently I have been exposed to a series of articles, papers, and ideas about coaching. What makes a good coach? and how the attitudes of persistence, resistance, and acceptance are significantly important in the coach's career.

It looks like the idea of coaching started in Oxford in 1830 where tutors "carried" their students through tests. To read more about the origins click here. So the idea of coach as carrier began at that time, now of course is used in several ways from instruction to management. In sports of course is also related to organizing a team to compete and win.

To compete and win in sports is a metaphor for learning today in a competitive environment where testing is used to advance education and to obtain the certificated that allows the student to professionalize his/her life. So here is where I want to compare and evaluate the values of coaching in the teaching-learning environment happening within the traditional classroom setting and its implication in the online environment. How can we be efficient teacher/coaches through online relationships. What kind of substitutes can we find for "body language" and other personal interactions and how can we use these personal interaction in an effective coaching/teaching in the classroom.

When ever I start a new class I go around shaking hands and greeting my students one by one to have a personal touch as I give each one a welcoming letter where I explain the mechanics of the class as well as the context in which the class will develop, including of course expectations. I articulate what I expect from them and what can they expect from me. After this introduction I always mention that the reason I shake hands is because I believe that if you can't touch them you can't teach them. We will have a high-tech high-touch class.
Unfortunately for many students the teacher's role puts the teacher in an adversarial position. Many see the teacher as the enemy and think that the teacher is there to block and stop them by examinations. Testing is seen as a barrier, as an obstacle created and managed by the teacher. Students do not see the teacher as a supportive instrument in their education. They don't see the teacher as a coach that will carry them through the process of learning.

So the question is how can a teacher become a coach? What kind of didactic instruments are there to change the adversarial relationship into a constructive collaborative relationship. How can we create a "trusting" environment where the student feels confident about relying on the teacher that is now seen as a coach?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Keeping current and valuable to your clients or employer

For any professional his/her knowledge, skills, aptitudes, and attitudes are his/her assets. It is important therefore to be current adapting to newer information, knowledge, technologies, and methodologies. As the value of our services depend on how well adapted to the present moment. As with any asset knowledge is time related, and as many things knowledge can get old as groceries in the supermarket or outdated as a ball game ticket of the previous season.
Currently I am reading a book published in 2000 by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas titled "Pragmatic Programmer" (ISBN 0-201-61622-X) and even though it has been several years since the book first appear some of the basic ideas as all good basic ideas have not been outdated. I have to admit that some of the websites, programs, and social media have indeed advanced and other not mentioned in the book have been created. but overall is a great book that I highly recommend even to those not interested in computer programming.
The main argument of Hunt and Thomas is based on the market for stock, where diversification, managing actualization, balancing high-risk-high-gain stock with low-risk-low-gain, and building your portfolio are used to help the reader find how to grow and manage risk at the same time that s/he builds a "personal" portfolio. The book is full of good advise like read a good book every month, a non technical, not related to his/her field so s/he can understand human nature better in order to better satisfy the needs of his/her clients or employer. As one thing is for sure, once one is outdated one will not longer serve the needs of clients or employers.
One aspect of building yourself as a portfolio is the need to network, getting wired the authors say! By this one can understand that belonging to professional networks, one will be able to see what are the current trends, one will be able to explore new and exciting ideas that might be the foundation of new skills. Think of those who learned "Java" when it was in its infancy and was easy to learn and to get onboard. Even though learning it was a high-risk endeavor some did get onboard and now they are at the top of this widely use technology.
So two question I ask now: one, how am I keeping current and valuable to my clients and employer?
two, How can I teach my science students skills that help them to keep current?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Crisis in Science Education?

This month's issue of Scientific American has the front-page: A Crisis In Physics? with a featured article by Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu titled Supersymmetry and the Crisis in Physics. Reading the article reminds us that science is continuously advancing and new ideas are always replacing old ones, even in the case that the old ones are not that old at all! This situation is one to take into account when teaching science. One has to be able to transmit to the learner that ideas, methods, and processes in general can be improved and that even basic knowledge (things thought to be true in the absolute) are in fact ideas that can be improved and in some cases replaced by better models of reality.
The fact that we have now so many of these hypothesis that have been proven to exhaustion and that are the subject of most content in science education makes it difficult to instigate in the student a sense of healthy skepticism. It is almost impossible to provoke the need for inquiry of things that the teacher is showing as tried and true and based on solid evidence without falling off the cliff of complete ignorance and denial. One doesn't want to teach that the theories of gravitation, evolution, electromagnetism, plate tectonics, etc. are false, but that they have many details unanswered and more research has to be done. Some of these "details" can be huge concepts of deep intrinsic interpretation that could at a point change the way we understand the reality of our world. No better example than "String Theory" that is trying to explain what is that we are made of.
My question now is how can I teach basic "principles" that have been proven to work so far and at the same time create a safe environment for my students to ask anything?