Wednesday, September 28, 2011

... But Student Research is HARD

Yesterday I posted some of my thinking as to why I believe student research is the best way to teach science. But not everyone does it. Why not? Because the students, especially at first, don't like it.

I understand why that may be. Yesterday's lab I tried to implement some of the structure of research in the teaching lab. I proposed a problem, gave some tools, allowed time and space in the experiment for mistakes, and then set the students free on some relatively simple tasks in the lab. But the whole point was they didn't know what would happen, and they had to manage their time and adjust on the fly to make it happen.

Part of the problem was I didn't know how the lab was going to go myself. Of course, it went slightly wrong. I called the class and modified the lab on the fly. The thing is, the students were flustered after that, and even after modifying the lab the students carried over a bit of their flusteredness, which made them much more tentative in their experiments. They pulled back in the face of the unknown even though the lab was designed to allow mistakes. It's possible that lectures in science courses reinforce this idea of perfectionism in "getting the right answer" that just isn't always there in lab. Things go wrong and you have to modify, and keep one eye on the clock.

So I think I learned something myself and the students (hopefully) learned something too. I will try again today with a few modifications. And we'll see if we can teach flexibility in thinking and the ability to make the right kind of mistakes in lab today. Considering that such teaching is my goal, I think we at least approached that goal yesterday, and maybe we can approach it today with less flusteredness.

The bottom line is it is definitely not easy, and I can understand why everything can't be done this way, but I think it's worth it. Ironically, it takes more planning to figure out how to set the students free than it does to teach a cookbook-style lab recipe to them.

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