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17 December 2009

One-off assignments, and avoiding politics

I'm not generally a big fan of Patricia Blanton's "For the New Teacher" column in The Physics Teacher. Ms. Blanton generally includes way too much education-101 fluff about course philosophy, and not nearly enough nitty-gritty helpful hints that would be of immediate use to a new teacher. As is way too often the case, the March 2009 column discussed a fundamentally useful idea, but dressed it up with political and educational baggage.

The underlying point of the article "Read Any Good Science Lately?" is that (a) assigning reading beyond the textbook can be beneficial and inspirational, and (b) such reading assignments must be carefully constructed lest students treat them with a "read because teacher told me to" attitude which serves as an obstacle to comprehension and enjoyment. Ms. Blanton is right-on here. I tend to refer to such assignments outside the traditional realm of physics problem solving as "one-off" tasks, in the spirit of Scott Adams' Dilbert.*

In a general (non-AP) class especially, reading or research assignments can provide a welcome break from the routine of problem solving. From the students' perspective, they might be pleased to earn a grade using skills with which they might be more comfortable -- reading and writing have been part of their lives for years, while physics problem solving is often a new and intimidating skill. From the teacher's perspective, the "one-off" assignment allows us to show our students aspects of physics beyond equations and experiments.

Now, let's be brutally honest about that last sentence. As soon as we get beyond problem solving and laboratory work, most of what we do will be colored politically in some way. Ms. Blanton unveils her pet causes in her article through the assignments she suggests: women in science, environmental effects of nuclear power, and global economic inequity. Your own political issues may be less obvious, but still present: for example, my bugaboos about pseudoscience and belief-without-evidence are apparent to all as soon as I assign reading or writing on these topics. I don't care how purely academic you make such an assignment, your personal opinion is on raw display.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it must be handled carefully.

It doesn't matter how much your students like or respect you, they are still teenagers who question everything, and who have an innate anti-authority streak. And they don't like to be told what to think. If it's obvious from the start where the teacher stands on an issue, the typical teenager has one of two reactions: (1) My writing better support what the teacher thinks so I can get a good grade; or, (2) I'll find a way to show that teacher how wrong he is. Either way, you don't get the effect you want out of the assignment.

What's the solution? I don’t know that there is one. I’d say, keep your cards close to your chest at first, and you’re likely to avoid the two major obnoxious teenager reactions.

If you come out, guns a’blazin’ about how nuclear waste will lead to the death of all mankind, or about how nuclear power is the only possible savior of industrial society, your class is done listening. Their research is virtually guaranteed to be inauthentic.

But if, instead, you make a conscious effort to conceal your own position… well, then you might provoke some serious thought. Provide a counterargument to anyone in the class who makes a statement of opinion – and do so WITHOUT SMIRKING, even if you have to say something you consider personally outrageous or offensive. You are making it clear to your students that the only route to success on this assignment is reasoned logic.

Then, if your own position is truly supported by sound evidence, students will find and quote that evidence. You can subsequently argue with your students about the quality of evidence rather than about your (or their) pet opinions.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I DON’T think that physics class is an appropriate place to be doing social studies research, or addressing highly charged political issues. I do think you can do successful reading and writing projects that involve physics, as long as you stick to the science and avoid the politics.  If you choose to attempt these one-off tasks for whatever reason, tread carefully on highly charged opinions, or risk sabotaging the entire point to the exercise.

* Scott Adams, author of the "Dilbert" comic strip, theorizes that a successful corporate manager minimizes the "one-off" tasks required of employees in order to keep up production and morale. A "one-off" task is anything not directly related to the enterprise at hand. For example, an engineer sketching a machine component is on-task; the engineer filling out a timesheet allocating his efforts among different departmental accounts is "one-off." For physics teachers, grading papers or setting up demonstrations is on-task; discussing minutia about dress code enforcement is one-off. Adams cautions that "one-off" tasks are often useful, or even important. He does not suggest that such tasks be eliminated altogether; rather, he suggests they be severely limited, so that most of an employee's time is on-task, and so that any one-off task receives the employee's full attention.

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