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23 August 2017

What does good learning look like?

Our faculty has been discussing the excellent book What the Best College Professors Do.  Until today, we've been focused on what good teaching looks like.

The focus shifted today.  We were asked to write, "what does good learning at our school look like?"  Here's my response, written for an audience of teachers, but not science teachers.  

I speak to science in particular.  Yet, my hope, and the hope of the science department, is that an evidence-based model of learning becomes an innate part of a student’s personality, something that goes on without conscious thought.

In pursuit of the goal, one activity that I’ve done with all ages of student aims to get students to evaluate pseudoscientific claims that they have likely heard repeated as gospel.  Everyone is given a “quiz” on which they mark a number of statements true or false.  Next, they are asked to research in depth a statement they marked as true, treating the claim as scientific.  A scientific claim is false by default – it only acquires the status of “true” once diverse and compelling evidence supporting the claim can be produced.  So, students are charged to lay out for me, as a representative of the scientific community, evidence supporting the claim; or, conversely, to acknowledge that he claim is false and to give me background explaining why some folks might think it true.

For the purpose of describing great learning at our particular boys' boarding school, I’ll use one of the claims from this activity:

Human women have one more rib than do human men.

(1) Great learning begins with an interesting, yet answerable and in-scope, question.  

It’s the teacher’s job to help present and refine relevant questions, especially for younger students – “how can I build a working nuclear missile” is interesting and perhaps relevant, but out-of-scope for most of our classes.

How do I know this particular question about ribs is interesting?  I observe students marking it both true and false; I observe spontaneous initial discussions among classmates explaining their thoughts.  They seem to care about the answer.

(2) Great learning means searching not for the direct answer to the question, but rather for evidence with which to answer the question.  

Note that the research portion of this project doesn’t say just “find an expert who tells us the answer.”  No, students are to look for evidence.  It’s important that I don’t shame the students who marked this true by telling them, as the authority figure, that they’re wrong.  It’s also important that they don’t just quote their 1st grade Sunday School teacher as the authority.  They must find their own evidence.  
In researching the rib question, students have found online pictures of x-rays.  They’ve discussed with the school trainer.  One student asked a young lady if he might please feel her ribs.  All’s fair in the pursuit of science, I say.

(3) Great learning continues by evaluating the quality of evidence.  

For many questions, students find that the top google hit is Big Bob’s Website of Dubious Rigor.  I usally don’t have to explain much to students, even 9th graders, about what a reliable or unreliable website looks like.  That they have to present quality evidence to me in person keeps most ridiculousness away.  Because they are asked for evidence, not authority, they stay away from slick, shallow, yet plausible-sounding sites.  Because they have to present in person to me, they are careful to be intellectually honest.  It’s one thing to use Sean-Spicer-logic on dorm or on twitter; it’s another thing to state clearly disingenuous baloney to a science teacher in the front of the classroom.

When a student does have a legitimate misunderstanding of a claim, I argue about quality of evidence, not about the conclusion.  Students take it personally if I question, in this case, their adherence to the literal truth of the bible.  Yet, they respect and acknowledge my request for more diverse evidence: “A scientific claim requires an abundance of clear evidence from multiple sources before we say it’s true. What sort of evidence could you find that would convince not Big Bob or you, but that would convince me and other scientists?”

(4) Great learning requires a continual re-evaluation of one’s model of how the world works.

Virtually all of the claims on the quiz are false; but generally students mark about half of them true.  The beauty of this exercise is that the students have confronted their misconceptions for themselves, in front of their peers.  I hear them telling classmates what they’ve discovered: “Yeah, my dad said that women have more ribs, but I saw the x-rays.  It’s not true.”  “Yeah, my cousin used to campaign against vaccines; but they don’t cause autism, that’s been debunked.”

Overhearing those conversations is a piece of evidence I use to see that this exercise has produced great learning.

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