Day 5: When fun doesn’t mean learning

Two of my College Prep (CP) Physics classes are really struggling with graphing fundamentals. I gave them some additional practice after their Ball Bounce Lab, and while I knew it was time to give them another application, I didn’t feel they were ready to start building their Constant Velocity Model, so we did the Modeling Instruction Spaghetti Bridge Lab.

The lab itself went well. They did a great job of identifying variables. I purposely made no mention of how far apart the desks should be in hopes that someone would identify it as a variable, and sure enough, after about ten minutes, someone said, “Sir, I think the distance between the desks is affecting the strength of the spaghetti.”

“Really? Let’s test that too, then.”

Halfway through the period, I noticed a group that wasn’t really feeling it, so I sat with them and started a conversation. Let me paraphrase:

“What’s the matter?”

“This week has been a drag.”

“Ouch. I’m sorry to hear that. I want to teach you a lot of physics, but I want to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like a drag.”

“So that’s why you like activities so much?”

“Yeah, pretty much. I have a question. What was the last class you guys had where you thought, ‘I really like this class.'”

The four group members unanimously recalled their eighth grade science classes. Two different junior highs with two different teachers, but they all said eighth grade science. I asked them what about the classes they enjoyed so much, and every one of them started remembering various demonstrations and experiments in detail. Elephant toothpaste, burning gummy bears, dry ice demos, and more.

Of course, I thought this was awesome… until I asked them what was the purpose of each of this experiments. No answer.

They remembered the demos but not the lesson. They remembered their sense of wonder and amazement, but that didn’t carry over into the learning. This is a constant barrier we face as teachers, and it demonstrates the importance of continuously reflecting over our teaching methods. I want my class to be fun, but I also have to always be asking myself, “Are they learning?” We all think we know what learning looks like, but it’s possible that what we think is learning isn’t really learning at all.

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