Learner-Shaped Technology

October 15, 2008

Discussing the reading in class. Students as designers.

Filed under: books,general,mars,science — Mike W @ 2:34 pm

I’m truly impressed by colleagues who can effortlessly lead an engaging class discussion about a particular reading. I’m not that person. It’s a lot of work for me. While I find myself comfortable discussing concepts like conservation of momentum, acceleration, and projectile motion in class, I often feel out of my element when pulling together a strategy for discussing an outside reading for a book like Case for Mars (see earlier review). I really wanted to move beyond my current strategy of “summarize the 3 main ideas that grabbed you most”, which seems to inspire a pretty shallow read and makes me feel like that teacher in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

I thought I’d share something that seemed to work.

Engaging Ideas, by John Bean, has some great ideas for lesson design, including focusing on problems as an entry point. There’s a ton of literature out there on problem-based-learning, but something about Bean’s style (concrete and concise) seems to resonate with me and spur new ideas (almost as much as going on a run). When a friend first recommended this book, I initially thought it wouldn’t be helpful for a science teacher. Man, was I wrong.


The Case for Mars chapter we read focuses on strategies for getting to Mars and outlines contingencies provided by different plans. It’s fairly content rich, and I’d decided that I wanted to present the students with a mission mishap and ask them to analyze the options offered by each of the mission plans. After sharing my struggle to come up with a good problem with my teaching partners in crime, Sarah, our creative and talented TA, said, “Let them come up with the problem themselves and exchange it with another group.” Brilliant!

Here’s the scenario we presented to the students (zubrin-contigencies.pdf).

From my perspective a great deal of learning took place during the session, and the seemingly minor change of having the mishap designed by the students made a real difference. I don’t have a control group for comparison, so in the future I’d like to see what happens with the same assignment when I generate the problem. 10 bucks says it doesn’t go as well.

Some highlights:

  • Students were diagramming the different plans, flipping back through and rereading the book, and critically analyzing each of the options. I don’t think this happens as readily if I just say, “Read Chapter 4.”
  • The portable whiteboards seemed to help students organize and efficiently present their ideas. You can make these on-the-cheap from materials at Lowe’s or Home Depot (see below). They’ve been willing to cut these to size in the store.
  • Students were teaching one another. I asked a lot of questions. I know I’m supposed to do that anyway, but the context of the problem made it flow more easily.
  • It set the stage for more accountability and a different (and better) approach to future readings.
  • They did a great job critically analyzing each of the plans and were able to concisely share their thought processes and conclusions at the end of class.
  • Tech required – whiteboards, books, caffeine.
  • Their mishaps were much better than mine would have been.
  • I had fun.


Cut this into pieces and you have pretty cheap, portable whiteboards.

Thanks for the great lesson idea, Sarah!

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