3000 solved problems in physics

I think it was during the first year of my university course that I was asked to buy ‘3000 solved problems in physics’ by Alvin Halpern.

At that time, we attended lectures where we took notes, before having ‘supervisions’ in pairs with an academic or doctoral student. We were given a series of problems in the first lecture and our supervisors set us these problems to complete. They would become the subject of our supervisions.

I distinctly remember feeling that the onus was on me to figure out how to solve these problems. I found them extremely hard and frustrating. Sometimes, I would spend an hour on a problem without success and this made learning pretty inefficient. Eventually, I began to do what other students in my college did and go and see ‘Dave’, one of our peers who seemed to work about three weeks ahead of everyone else. I counted such visits as a failure. ‘Oh yes!’ I would think when I understood what Dave had done, ‘Why couldn’t I figure that out? I must be dumb. I don’t belong here.’

I still don’t know exactly what Dave did. We assumed he was a genius because we were under the spell of a talent theory of achievement. However, the truth is that Dave didn’t go out much and began work on the the problems as soon as they were given out. He may also have sought early help from his supervisors.

I referred to Halpern’s book occasionally, when desperate enough. It rarely threw up a problem similar enough to the one I was grappling with and so I came to think of it as something of a white elephant. However, picking it up today, I notice the following guidance ‘to the student’:

“As a rule, a problem can be solved once you have learned the ideas behind it; sometimes these very ideas are brought into sharper focus by looking at sample problems and their solutions. If you have difficulty with a topic, you can select a few problems in that area, examine the solutions carefully, and then try to solve related problems before looking at the printed solutions.”

This is sound advice, consistent with what we know of the worked example effect.

Maybe if I had used Halpern’s book as intended, I would have learnt more. Then again, maybe it didn’t align well enough with my course. I don’t know.

My attitude to learning has changed since university and I am no longer burdened by a talent theory. Figuring out problems for yourself is not noble and virtuous. You don’t get a medal and you don’t gain better understanding. Which is why I tell my own students to spend a maximum of five minutes stuck. After that, they should move on to a different problem and then come and see me about the problem they couldn’t do. After all, it’s my job to explain it, probably with the aid of a worked example.


Virtual reality headsets are rubbish

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Before someone in your organisation goes blowing the budget on a set of virtual reality headsets, it might be worth having a look at the findings of a new study by Makransky, Terkildsen and Mayer. The research enthusiasts among you may recognise Mayer for his Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML) and this theory does play a part in the study.

The paper is a fascinating read and I can’t capture all of it but I will attempt to explain some of the main findings.

The test subjects were 52 university students who were learning about protein expression through a computer simulation of a laboratory task. In the low-immersion condition, the students viewed the simulation on a regular computer and manipulated the apparatus with a mouse. In the high-immersion condition, the students donned Virtual Reality (VR) headsets that made use of a mobile phone. These headsets provided a 3D version of the lab that the students could explore. They could select objects by clicking a button on the side of the headset.

In addition, the researchers manipulated the ‘redundancy effect’ by providing text in some simulations and text with narration in other simulations. This is an effect that is well known in Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and CTML and it arises when subjects are asked to read information while listening to verbal narration at the same time. This causes interference because, as Mayer would argue, both sets of words need to be processed in the auditory channel of working memory. It is therefore better to have either the written words or the narration rather than both. This is the reason why you should never read-out or talk over text that you present on a PowerPoint slide.

The authors point out that there are two competing hypotheses about the effect of low immersion versus high immersion (actually, they comprehensively cover a range of ideas but I will stick to the two main ones). Firstly, arguments based on those of John Dewey would predict the high-immersion environment is more authentic, giving more of a practical experience and that this should therefore lead to more learning than low-immersion. Conversely, arguments based upon CTML or CLT would suggest that high-immersion VR would introduce more extraneous details to process, increasing overall cognitive load and degrading learning.

Students were randomly assigned to conditions, with every student attempting one low-immersion and one high-immersion activity. Interestingly, the simulations were in English but the surveys and post-tests were in Danish – I’m not sure how that would effect things although it may increase the cognitive load of the simulation, depending on how fluent the students were in English.

The researchers measured cognitive load directly using an Electroencephalograph (an EEG), a device that records electrical activity in the brain via electrodes attached to the head. The EEG was initially trained by making measures of people performing typical working memory tasks such as accurately reciting lists of digits (digit span tasks) or performing mental arithmetic, as well as looking for correlates with subjects’ own reports of cognitive load. A company has developed proprietary software to process all of this, as well as subtract effects due to people blinking or other muscle movements. I find this quite impressive.

After the simulation, students answered questions directly assessing their knowledge, as well as transfer questions that required them to apply their new knowledge in novel situations. The low-immersion condition led to higher scores on both tests but this was only statistically significant for the knowledge tests. The transfer test items had quite a low reliability and so, with a sample this size, it would have been hard to see an effect.

The main finding was that the low-immersion, computer version of the simulation was more effective than the high-immersion, VR headset version. However, the subjects did report a significantly greater ‘sense of presence’ when using the headsets, which is hardly surprising.

The EEG allowed the experimenters to calculate the proportion of time that students were cognitively overloaded. For the first simulation task, there was no significant difference but in the second task, the VR headset students spent a significantly greater amount of time overloaded. This is consistent with the predictions of CLT and CTML.

Interestingly, the redundancy effect was entirely absent. This is odd but it may be due to a combination of how it was tested and how subjects responded. Most evidence for the redundancy principle comes from comparisons of narration versus text and narration rather than text versus text and narration as used here. In addition, some subjects appeared to ignore the text and just listen to the narration. According to CLT and CTML, this should be effective because it makes use of the modality principle of mixing narration with visual images. I think this area is worth exploring further because it might hint at something we haven’t fully worked out.

So should your school go out and buy those VR headsets? The best we can say from this research is that they may be motivational. For instance, they could be used as a whole class or individual reward for effort or they might help generate excitement about a topic (although this will not necessarily persist once the headsets are taken off). However, if you are buying them because you think your students will learn more then this study suggests you are wrong.

Middle class media

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In 1997, my schoolfriend and I went to London. I gained a full grant to study a one year teaching qualification and then started teaching. I earned just under £15,000 in my first year and made a loss which I covered with a graduate loan from my bank.

My friend started work in television. He came from a better off area than me and that was important because he only earned £9000. His parents had to subsidise him for a number of years. I don’t know for sure, but I expect that he now earns far more than I ever will.

Yesterday I listened to an important episode of Thinking Allowed; more important than we might at first realise. Laurie Taylor, the mellifluous host, introduced us to a working class actor and a researcher. Actors in England, it seems, are predominantly from the upper middle classes. This wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, aspiring working class actors could live in London, claim unemployment and housing benefits and slowly make their way. These days, you need some serious funds behind you.

I have been concerned about this phenomenon throughout my teaching career. It doesn’t just apply to acting but to a host of professions. And it’s not something that can be addressed by the education system because it’s not about the quality of education. I am acutely aware that many opportunities in the media, arts, politics and a range of other prestigious professions involve starting with low paid work or unpaid internships. This is fine if Mum and Dad are behind you or you have a trust fund but it shuts doors to working class kids who need to earn in order to live.

I had always thought this unfair but I am now starting to wonder if there are wider implications.

For instance, if the media is dominated by the middle classes then is that likely to cause a disconnect between the media and ordinary people? Does this system reproduce metropolitan elites complete with an empathy gap and a bafflement at the preoccupations of working class voters? If so, does this system bear some responsibility for Brexit and the unexpected rise of Corbyn? Does a similar system in the U.S. partly explain Trump? Is increased inequality of access to desirable professions an inevitable consequence of rising economic inequality?

In a time of populism, I think we need to start finding some answers.

Four tips for department meetings

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I’ve been teaching for 20 years and I’ve been a head of department for roughly half of that time. I don’t claim to be a management expert but I have developed a few views about what makes a successful department meeting. You may find some of these useful.

1. Does it need a meeting?

Teachers are busy and so if you are going to call them together then it must be in order to do something that cannot be done another way. General admin, rotas and reminders have no place in meetings. Send an email instead.

What if you want people’s opinions on something? It is important to realise that there are two kinds of people in the world, and therefore in your meetings: those who think before they talk and those who talk before they think. If you spring a contentious topic on the latter group, your decision making is likely to be derailed by them expressing opinions that they’re not even particularly committed to. So signal the discussion in advance by email. Sometimes you will get all the feedback you need and you won’t even need to address it in a meeting.

2. Be transparent

Picture a teacher who we will call Amanda. Amanda is enthusiastic and has lots of ideas to contribute. However, she therefore tends to dominate meetings. Some teachers appear a little frustrated by not having the chance to speak and others use Amanda as cover so they don’t have contribute. You don’t want to keep intervening because you don’t want to demotivate Amanda. What do you do?

You need to tell Amanda all of this. You should explain that it is your perception and not a fact. You should give her time to think about it and then you should come back to her to work out a solution.

I understand that there may be some political subtext that makes it difficult to do this but do it anyway because it is right and because nobody can knock you over if you are honest and transparent.

3. Avoid waffling around in the abstract

Imagine you are head of maths and you’ve analysed some standardised test results that show that scores in data and probability are not as strong as in other areas. This is a good issue to bring teachers together to discuss but there is a danger that you will waste people’s time.

Most of us are comfortable in the abstract, talking about teaching at a meta level. Without effort, this is where your discussion will stay. Teachers with different agendas will use the opportunity to push for more hands-on activities or more explicit teaching. But there will be as many different interpretations of what these mean as there are people in the room.

Imagine someone says, ‘We need to be clearer about how we teach scatter plots’. Firstly, that someone is probably right – the answer is usually greater clarity. I would then give them a board marker and say, ‘Show us.’ If the teacher then stayed at the meta level, I would insist, ‘No, teach it to us as if we were the students.’

I am no fan of role play in teacher professional development because it is mostly used in inane ways. However, this is an occasion where it really is useful. I have learnt so much from colleagues by simply asking them to show me how they teach something. If you’ve never done this before then you will be amazed at how diverse the approaches are towards something that you think is pretty tightly defined.

4. Give reading time

Imagine you are in a meeting, you are given a paper you have never seen before and the person who has given it to you immediately starts talking about its contents and their implications. You are now in a dilemma. Should you listen to the commentary which you can’t fully understand because you haven’t read the paper or should you try to tune out and read the paper?

Ideally, the paper would be circulated in advance. However, this is no guarantee that it will be read, particularly if it’s lengthy and given at relatively short notice.

If you want to talk about a paper or a scheme of work or a policy or any other lengthy text, you should take steps to ensure everyone has had a chance to read it before you talk about it, even if that means setting aside some of the meeting time for this.

Youth for Human Rights is linked to Scientology #aussieED

I am not claiming this as a scoop because it has been widely reported across the world (e.g. here and here), but I just thought it was worth alerting teachers that Youth for Human Rights (@YFHumanRights) is linked to the Church of Scientology. The group offers free teaching resources about human rights to teachers.

I point this out because I noticed the promoted tweet pictured above on my twitter timeline. It may be that Youth for Human Rights is making a social media push in Australia.

The Pendulum

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Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume, as people often claim, that education is a pendulum that swings from one extreme to another.

This is certainly one way of viewing what has happened in England – but definitely not Australia – over the last ten years. Back in 2007, England had a new national curriculum that was light on content and heavy on generic skills, a little like the Australian Curriculum today. Around this time, Ofsted was beginning to enforce a particular teaching style by criticising teacher-talk and promoting the idea of students working in groups, solving problems and making decisions.

Today, the climate in England is very different. The academic establishment still appears to lean towards progressive ideology under the guise of constructivism, student-centred learning or inquiry learning and by promoting generic skills. However, they no longer hold sway in the same way. Ofsted no longer attacks teacher-led approaches and the free-school and academy movement seems to have enabled schools to experiment and pursue traditional curricula and explicit teaching.

But here’s the fear: Perhaps we risk replacing a mediocre progressivism with a mediocre traditionalism. All sides of the education debate are sometimes guilty of dismissing negative evidence with the suggestion that, ‘the teachers weren’t doing it properly’. No doubt, die hard progressive educators are just as convinced as they ever were, attributing any failures to implementation issues. Will traditionalists soon find themselves in the same position? Perhaps mediocre knowledge organisers and one-way, non-interactive lectures will proliferate as people latch on to the fashion for the explicit teaching of knowledge without quite understanding it. Will traditionalism fail and will traditionalists start making excuses about implementation?

I don’t think so, for two reasons.

1. Default teacher-led instruction is better than default student-centred instruction

It seems that everyday, bog-standard explicit teaching approaches simply work better than the alternative. If all we manage to do is is shift the mass of teachers to a more explicit approach, even one that is not the optimal form, we will probably make gains.

The evidence for this sits in some of the international data collected by the PISA and TIMSS programmes. For instance, one analysis of TIMSS science and maths teaching showed that teacher who used a ‘lecture style’ were more effective than those who utilised lots of group work. This is echoed in PISA 2010 and 2015 where better maths and science scores were generally associated with greater amounts of teacher-led instruction – except for the very highest amounts of teacher direction – and the use of student-centred and inquiry methods were generally associated with worse scores.

2. Teachers have changed

The pendulum theory assumes that the power and communication structures of teaching stay stable. I sense that, in England at least, there has been a significant shift that will be hard to row back from. The researchED movement, as well as other teacher-led groups, have started to take control of the profession for themselves. Teachers no longer face being told what to do by managers and consultants without the means to question or challenge. They now have resources to draw upon. Ironically, teachers have started to educate themselves, making up for the lost opportunity of so much training and professional development.

This is speculative, but I hope and perhaps believe that this will lead to a form of self-correction. Before dodgy implementations of fashionable ideas spread like grass-fires, there will hopefully be informed teachers – people like you – who will be able to ask the right questions in order to nudge things back on track.

And this is what I hope for Australia. We may be starting a little further back but we might not need to travel the same long journey as England. Social media means that we can swap ideas across the sea. There may not be many of us, yet. But we are starting to ask questions.

BOXING DAY SALE! Ouroboros just $5 AUD

Have you read my ebook, Ouroboros yet? If not, then you should take advantage of the fact that, for a limited time, it will be available at half-price – Just $5 Australian. At the time of writing, that is equivalent to roughly £2.90 U.K. and $3.90 U.S. Buy it here:

Add to Cart

If you want to read a sample first then read the chapter in the following link:

Sample chapter

Here is what people have said about Ouroboros:

“In short, despite being determined to find something in this book to disagree with, I found myself nodding along with tedious frequency. Although I consider myself more than a little familiar with Greg’s thinking, I still found plenty of fresh thought and experienced a couple of ‘A-ha!’ moments as concepts I’ve been mulling over for some time settled neatly into place. The point being, however much you think you know, you’ll probably learn something from this book.” David Didau

“It’s a very elegantly and sparely written account of Greg’s experiences of teaching in England and Australia, and of the education research which is relevant to his experiences… Highly recommended.” Daisy Christodoulou

“If you are a fan of his blogs and articles, Ouroboros is a must for your collection… On that same hand, however: if you are a fan of Ashman’s blogs and articles, Ouroboros may be an even bigger must for your as-yet-unfamiliar colleagues and friends.” Eric Kalenze

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!