Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Problem Solving at UNSL

This afternoon I was invited to visit a physics class in mechanics here at the Universidad Nacional de San Luis. The class was working on solving problems using a technique called IDEA, which was adapted from the original methodology which was referred to as GOAL in English.

No matter what you call it, the technique is the same: provide a framework that students can use to solve problems. The relevant steps are:

 I   Información                     G    Gather Information about the problem
D  Desarrollar un plan         O    Organize an approach to solve the problem
E   Ejecutar el plan              A    Analyze the problem
A  Aprender del esfuerzo     L    Learn from your efforts

[pulled from manuscript in development (Benegas & Alarcón) and GOAL]

This was actually the second time that I have seen this methodology in action- I also observed its use as part of the SCALE-UP program when I was in Chile last month. The structure of this class varied a little bit from what I saw in Chile, but the general theme is the same.
 The students all work together in small groups. They use whiteboards or paper to show their work, which they share with their classmates at the end of the period. In SCALE-UP, the group members have rotating responsibilities, which were not present in today's class. Rather, the instructor told me that what usually happens is that each group member has a different colored marker so the contribution of each is readily visible. We didn't have enough markers today for that to happen, but I think it's a great idea.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is the layout of the boards. When I observed Dr. Alcarón in Chile he had taught his students to divide their workspace into 4 equal parts, one for each step of the problem-solving process. I have never gone to this extent with my students before- they just need to separate the sections. The board below from today's session is more what I am used to- the work is shown in an orderly fashion, but without being formally divided into sections. The color-coding helps the different parts stand out. I really liked the boxing of the answers, but then again that's my M.O.
Now, while this ad hoc approach allows for more space to be used to actually solve the problem, there is one serious drawback... it gives short shrift to the final step because students almost always run out of space and don't have enough room left to write down their reflections about the process. I would also like to see a more formal description of where a diagram or sketch goes, but maybe I just feel like this is lacking because I wasn't present for the original discussion that introduced the problem solving process. As my students can attest, I love my diagrams, no matter how poorly drawn they may be!

I also took some videos of the students as they presented. Don't expect any sort of high quality- I have the hands of a sturgeon when it comes to this type of thing! Nonetheless, it should give you an idea of how the discussion process runs in the classroom.

A few caveats: this class wasn't at full strength, apparently there was a concert going on that took its toll on attendance! So the participants may have been the more motivated end of the spectrum. This also isn't what happens in class every day, there seems to be a rotating cycle of class types for each unit. Also, it is college level physics with college students, so it looks a little bit different than a typical high school classroom. That being said, today's material wasn't that much harder than Regents physics, and it was easier than the course I've previously taught in advanced physics. Basically, the conclusions that can be drawn from this class can be applied to high school classes.

I had a god time this afternoon. I learned some new slang and got to interact with students, which has been frustratingly absent from my life here for the past week because of exams and some poor communication. I was also psyched to visit a class that was embracing reformed teaching methods wholeheartedly. I would love to go back and see what their other sessions and labs are like.

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