Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Penny Independence

My biology students worked on a dry lab today. Our objective was to compare the predictions made by Punnett squares to actual outcomes. They simulated actual outcomes by flipping two pennies (each penny represented one parent) 100 times.

We hit several roadblocks:

1. Many kids did not know what a Punnett square was. This was initially a bit upsetting, as we have been working exclusively with Punnett squares for the past three classes. It turns out that while most confused students understood the concept, they just didn't recall the term. ...I'm not sure whether to be somewhat happy or somewhat dismayed.

2. Many students also did not remember what genotypes and phenotypes were. Again, a simple case of comprehending the concepts but not remembering the terms/matching the terms with their definitions. I'm starting to understand why test scores are so low!

3. The biggest, most exasperating problem: After six months of teaching (wow!), I know that my kids have severe independence issues. By that, I mean that my kids are less apt to read directions carefully and figure things out on their own than they are to ask me to hold their hands. Knowing this in advance, I wrote the lab with extra-clear, step-by-step instructions and had the students form teams. In advance of doing the lab, I asked them to read the lab carefully. I then told them that, if they had a question, they should reread the directions and ask a teammate. If they were still confused, they should quietly raise their hands.

I was hoping that this setup would leave me free to float around the room and handle major genetics comprehension issues. But NOOOO! Most teams asked me questions (well, shouted questions) about every single step. Despite my extra clear directions (which, admittedly, do need work), my students more or less wanted me to narrate all of the steps for them.

I can see three reasons for this problem:
1. They are lazy. I don't intend to be mean; I too can be quite lazy when it comes to learning new things and asking my brain to stretch itself and think. Why exert effort when someone else can do the work for you?

2. Teachers have been guiding them along for years. I am guilty of this, as well. It is much easier to just explain and answer questions then it is to do the hard work of weaning them off of my guidance and fostering independence. I realize that this is perhaps causing my students to learn superficial concepts but not to learn how to learn. Maybe I am the lazy one here...

3. I think this is the underlying problem: Most of my students lack confidence academically. They know that they have always struggled, and, well, why flirt with failure if you can avoid it? So much of their lack of confidence comes from home and friends and prior academic experiences, such that it is fairly ingrained by high school. It is so tempting for many students to turn off their brains and retreat behind shouts of "MISS!!!!"

So... any ideas?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. It's an important question. I've been thinking about this in the past few days, before I read your post. I haven't tried any of this in class, yet, but I was thinking of a few possibilities.

    One, every so often give them "no help" assignments--not a quiz that would be worth a bunch of points, just a regular homework assignment. But they have to do it completely on their own.

    Two, make certain QUESTIONS "no help" questions. For any given assignment, tell that ahead of time that number 3, number 7, and number 12 are "no help" problems and they need to try them on their own.

    Here are two other thoughts, also without answers. (Sorry!) First, I think many times when we "help" students we aren't really doing that much. They say, "I don't get this one." We say, "Well, read me the question." Then they read it and they say, "Oh. I get it." I wonder if maybe we could make them aware of what we did--or didn't do--to help them that they might gain some confidence that way.

    Second, I believe a large factor in students' difficulty with complicated problems is their inability to break a problem into steps. They want to jump to the answer in one step, immediately after reading the question. I don't know what the solution to that is.

    Thanks for the post and for furthering the discussion on this issue!

    Jeff (5th grade teacher, Indiana)