Creating Doubt

May 18, 2014

One of my preservice teachers asked me what I would do when students are working in groups and one group seems to be “right on”. I told her, “I do everything I can to get them to doubt their thinking”.

She was understandably surprised by my response and I admit I was using a bit of hyperbole for effect. I wouldn’t do “everything” I could, but I would attempt to get them to doubt their thinking, even though they are “right”.

I don’t want my students to rely on my approval of everything they do. I want independent thinkers. I don’t want my students to limit their thinking to achieving “right” answers. I want creative and critical thinkers.

So, when I get a “right” answer, I ask students to continue to think, just like I do when I get a “wrong” answer. That must be why a former student made the following:


Science, creativity, & literature

October 20, 2012

The nature of science is often misrepresented as dull, straightforward, & overly empirical. Such a view misses important aspects of creativity & intuition in science. Below is an abstract to a recent paper where the author uses insights from Edgar Allen Poe to illuminate the creative side of science. Now the question is, “how do we illuminate these aspects of science for our students?”

Edgar Allan Poe’s standing as a literary figure, who drew on (and sometimes dabbled in) the scientific debates of his time, makes him an intriguing character for any exploration of the historical interrelationship between science, literature and philosophy. His sprawling ‘prose-poem’ Eureka (1848), in particular, has sometimes been scrutinized for anticipations of later scientific developments. By contrast, the present paper argues that it should be understood as a contribution to the raging debates about scientific methodology at the time. This methodological interest, which is echoed in Poe’s ‘tales of ratiocination’, gives rise to a proposed new mode of—broadly abductive—inference, which Poe attributes to the hybrid figure of the ‘poet-mathematician’. Without creative imagination and intuition, Science would necessarily remain incomplete, even by its own standards. This concern with imaginative (abductive) inference ties in nicely with his coherentism, which grants pride of place to the twin virtues of Simplicity and Consistency, which must constrain imagination lest it degenerate into mere fancy.

Flipped: it’s Newton, but its’ not Einstein

June 15, 2011

I just got done with a webinar on the flipped classroom.  I appreciated the dialogue.  I am confident that the people in the webinar are each tremendous educators.  While I don’t see the flipped classroom as where instruction ought to be heading, I can appreciate the goal of the flippers to create time in their classes to do more exploration and inquiry.  Yet, my notion of the very best of teaching is that the inquiry and exploration generates content delivery rather than keeping content delivery prepackaged.  I even believe that deep down the founders of the “flipped model” believe this too.  Consider this quote from their website:

We have found that subjects where students have to follow a set of specific instructions is the best use of podcasts. balancing chemical equations, doing stoichiometric calculations. What we have also noted is that really tough conceptual topics like quantum mechanics and atomic theory have not worked as well. Next year we may just do these live in the class…

Stoichiometry doesn’t have to be understood as specific instructions.  It is likely better understood conceptually.  If we believe authentic learning is conceptual (as opposed to algorithmic), even the biggest flip promoters recognize that they “may just do these live in class…”.  Nothing can replace the idiosyncratic, dynamic and contextual exchange between teacher and student.  Nothing.  Moving the unidirectional dissemination of information (aka: lecture) to a different time slot doesn’t make it interactive.

Did you go to high school? Join the education department!

May 17, 2011

A few days ago, I was sent this link to an article where a physics professor “discovers” that lecture isn’t working.


What I find hilarious (in an infuriating way) is that this physics professor could have found this out very easily had he walked only a few blocks to his university’s education department and asked a few questions. If I had a question about chemistry, I would not hesitate to ask the chemists. Yet, when talking teaching, we are all somehow on the same plane despite my expertise in education.

Perhaps I should just change my perspective: “Since everyone else is an expert in education because they have been “educated”, I should rightfully claim my own expertise in biology – I have, after all, been a living organism for over 31 years!

**Edit/addendum: as a friend helped me understand, the physics prof likely does not believe this study to be groundbreaking & has done work in science education before. So, rather than criticizing the physics prof, my frustration is more accurately placed in the author of the media piece who is lauding these findings as novel rather than soon some more research with the university education Dept.

Pseudoteaching with Demos

February 21, 2011

Pseudoteaching was a concept I have understood and been wary of for a long time.  However, only recently was I able to put a name to the phenomena thanks to a conversation I had with Frank Noschese.  This post is one of several being written about the notion of pseudoteaching today.  Please check out the other posts by visiting the pseudoteaching link page.

Before getting started, I should probably explain what I mean by a demo.  Obviously, “demo” is short for demonstration.  In science (and other content areas), there are a lot of phenomena we want students to witness.  Sometimes having students conduct the procedure to generate the observations is too dangerous, or maybe the procedure must be carried out “just so” or perhaps materials are too expensive to have groups of students carry out the procedures.  In any of these cases, having the teacher demonstrate the procedures to generate the observations is a nice way to still provide students with a concrete experiences.  For a bunch of example science demos, check out

So, how is teaching with demos pseudoteaching?  Well, let’s be clear.  There are effective uses of demos in teaching – especially science teaching, but oftentimes demos are not used to promote student thinking.  This post tries to both highlight how the use of demos often leads to pseudoteaching as well as how demos might be more effectively used in instruction.

Demos as Pseudoteaching

Demos are highly entertaining to witness.  I have been to many science education conferences and the “101 demos for your chemistry class” sessions are always packed.  The key attraction of demos is also perhaps their greatest weakness – they’re entertaining.  Students are captivated by demos, but they are captivated by the “whiz-bang” factor, not by a deep understanding of nature that might be used to explain the captivating event.  Too often the point of a demo is to entertain, not to teach.  Sometimes demos are clearly used for instruction, but the demo is simply explained – reflecting lecture-based instruction.

Go back and watch a few of the demos from  Notice how the phenomenon is explained to the viewer.  There is no attempt to actively engage the audience in attempting to formulate their own explanations.  There are no questions being asked.  While some might say, “this is a video, not a classroom”, I know that many demos are carried out in much the same way in science classrooms.  While the demonstration might pique students’ interest, too often this interest is used to simply explain to students what happened and why rather than having students attempt to create explanations.

Perhaps more problematic than the “simply explain” approach to demos is the previously mentioned use of demos for entertainment.  While we want kids to be interested in science, crossing education with simple entertainment is problematic.  By trying to make things entertaining (not the same as engaging), we risk sending kids the message that only things that are fun are worth doing.  Instead of using demos as a “whiz-bang” entertainment device, they should be used to engage students’ in deep thought about what they are observing.  The engagement factor of demos IS powerful, but too often, the “hey this is neat” is where the demo ends.  Some teachers even put on demo shows for the school.  This is great, but leaves me asking, why are you not bringing these things into the classroom, and why are you not leveraging student interest to generate deep levels of thinking and having students generate explanation and new questions?

Effective use of demos

Importantly, I am not advocating that teachers not use demos in their classroom.  Like with all things, there are appropriate uses.  As previously mentioned, sometimes pragmatic concerns such as safety or material availability prohibit letting students manipulate the demo directly.  Yet, the demo must be carefully used to generate student thinking and guide student thinking rather than simply explain or entertain students.

Start by asking questions to get students to make observation and make predictions.  When I taught chemistry, I spent a significant amount of time on polar and non-polar interactions.  During this unit I used a demo of mixing oil and water.  I held up two test tubes full of liquid (one is oil, the other is water).  I asked students, “What can you tell me about these liquids?”  The students gave me lots of ideas.  Then, I asked, “What do you think will happen when I add a drop of blue food coloring to the yellow liquid (oil)?” Students eagerly answered this question and were on the edge of their seats with anticipation as I added the drop and it sank to the bottom of the oil.

Once students observe this,  I asked them to talk with their partners to explain why the drop did not mix with the yellow substance.  After a few minutes I had them share some ideas.  Then, based on their ideas I asked them what will happen when I pour the other liquid into the test tube containing the yellow liquid and the blue food coloring.  Again, I asked the students to make predictions and attempt to support their predictions with logic, observations, or past experiences.   The students expectantly watched as I poured the water in to the oil and the water mixed with the food coloring to make a blue layer underneath the yellow layer.  I then had students talk with partners to explain the observation.

Of course, this is not the end of the teaching episode as I also brought out toothpicks and magnets and encouraged students to make connections between the two systems, but what I have described above is to illustrate how teachers might use the engagement of a demo to help students think deeply about how they might explain the phenomena.


Just because students are interested, or entertained by demos does not make them worthwhile activities.  Furthermore, simply explaining the demo to students does little to help them become critical/creative thinkers.  To avoid these kinds of pseudoteaching, try using questions to get kids generating and defending predictions and explanations.

Scientists’ fowl mouths

January 26, 2011

I’m always intrigued at how scientists view the nature of science.  Most of their words are accurate, but misleading to the general public.  They speak as though answers are inevitable.  Yet, a scientist knows that while answers in general may be inevitable, what those answers are cannot be predicted and is oftentimes only the result of years of investigation, wrong turns, and leaps of logic.  Unfortunately, this language of inevitability is misinterpreted by the public (likely because of their k-12 science experiences) to mean the answers are “out there” we just have to “discover” them.  This more simplistic view removes the role of uncertainty and creativity in science.

Unfortunately, getting scientists to “watch their language” is difficult :)

What is the purpose of educational technology?

November 3, 2010

I am reading Larry Cuban’s book, Teachers and Machines from 1986.  In the book he calls instructional technology “any device available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and stimulating manner than the sole use of the teacher’s voice.” (p. 4).  Now, having read other works by Cuban, I believe he may be setting up a straw man argument – time will tell.  Yet, the definition got me thinking.

I like the definition because it expands our view of educational/instructional technology far beyond digital tools.  Knowing that technology expands beyond electronics is an important aspect of technological literacy.  However, I find the goal of efficiency problematic.  I am hard-pressed to think of a context in which I believe student learning should be efficient.  Let me rephrase: If students are actually learning, the process is not likely very efficient.  Learning is difficult, contextualized, and unpredictable.  These characteristics do not often come to mind when I think about efficiency.

Cuban also notes that the technology can aid in “stimulating” students.  I prefer the word “engaging”. We must ask ourselves “with what are students engaged?”

This morning, my science methods students were highly engaged in an activity in which they had to make a clay boat to float marbles.  They were using higher-orders of thinking, they were working collaboratively and being creative – all worthwhile goals.  However, when I asked them what they had learned about sinking and floating, they clearly saw they had learned nothing.  We referred to this as “activity-mania”.  While hands-on science activities are great, the teacher must take great steps to encourage students to mentally engage with the science principles.  Otherwise the kids have a lot of fun, but don’t actually learn anything about the science content.

In the above paragraph, my methods students were not engaged with science content, but they were engaged.  To identify this subtlety takes a very critical eye.  We must turn this eye on the engaging effects of technology.  We have to admit that students might be engaged with the technology without being engaged with the content we are attempting to teach.  If student engagement is with technology rather than content, we have likely undermined student learning rather than enhanced it.

If efficiency and engagement are both problematic uses of technology, what might the purpose be? Ira Socol has taught me about how technology can provide access where access was once limited or non-existant.  For example, a student who cannot read did not have access to certain kinds of information – but audiobooks and digital audio readers have opened many closed doors. Yet, what purpose might instructional technology carry for teachers?

I have found my favorite use of technology is to make students’ thinking more transparent.  That is, I can use technology to gain greater access to students’ ideas and interpretations.  When my students have a discussion on twitter, I can revisit the discussion later – giving myself time to reflect on what students might be missing or how I might help them make a missing connection. When my students blog, I can pour over their writing and examine the comments they leave for each other.  When they create concept maps using, I can see how they connect disparate ideas.  Yet, I could do each of these things without the use of computer technology.  So what is the purpose?

I am left with making each of those things easier to document, access, and share.  The technology makes something easier, but it does not make them better.  None of the things mentioned above will help my students learn content better than a 20th century version of the same task (ex: making a concept map on paper is not less beneficial than making one on mindmiester).

So as far as student learning and thinking are concerned, it really isn’t about the technology. What an interesting conclusion.


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