Sunday, August 24, 2008

UbD Chapter 13: Yes, but...

In this final chapter of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN, the authors explicitly address the three biggest objections they have faced with the UbD approach: namely, the need to "teach to the test", the excess of content that must be taught, and the lack of teacher time to implement these plans.

They answer all of these objections ably. While they are realistic about the pressures that teachers are under to perform, they are also brutally honest about the present state of affairs: they point out, for instance, that the schools that perform the best on standardized tests aren't the ones that spend endless hours training students to take tests. They also address one of the concerns that I had about the UbD approach: namely, schools that implement it do see a rise in test scores among their students. It is possible to teach for understanding and still reap a "fringe benefit" of improved performance in standardized assessments.

One part of this chapter that I found interesting was the reference to a collaborative curriculum-planning community called UbD Exchange. Apparently there are teachers all over the country who are using UbD and making their lesson and unit plans available over a shared website. I'll need to find out how we can access this service, because it would be a huge help to me in my ongoing lesson planning -- especially when I get ready to teach physics in the spring semester.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

UbD Chapter 12: UbD as Curriculum Framework

In this chapter the authors attempt to expand the concept of UbD planning to the broader sphere of entire curricula and programs. This is something that ARISE is already doing, attempting to unite all of the classes faced by each grade level under a common set of essential questions. In the case of my 9th graders, as mentioned before, these questions are: Who am I? Where are we going? What are the tools that will help us get there?

I like the idea of organizing the curriculum this way, and it has certainly helped me to better arrange my content in a way that will be engaging (I hope) for my students. As the authors point out, the logical order in which one might lay out a summary of the knowledge in a given field is not usually the best order in which to present that material to a novice. This is something I already knew on some level -- witness my rejection of the cell-first approach to teaching biology that has been used in so many courses and textbooks. However, the order that I had first planned on presenting the material -- focusing on ecology, then physiology, then evolution -- may have been appropriate for a storytelling-based approach to biology, but it wasn't the best approach for a bunch of 9th graders who are primarily interested in what's happening to their own bodies.

I found this chapter to be a lot harder to get through than most of the previous chapters. The authors, having made their central points in the earlier portions of the book, seem to be flailing around at this point, presenting their ideas in a haphazard way and delving too far into extraneous details. The three-page recapitulation of a rubric for scientific inquiry was almost ridiculously excessive, and probably should have been relegated to an appendix; they talk at great length about "scope and sequence" curriculum planning without ever defining it; and most of the ideas presented in the chapter have been adequately addressed earlier in the book.

That said, there are some good points in here. One that jumped out at me was the example of software manuals: Most complex software programs come with "Getting Started" guides to get people working on the basics quickly and tutorials to walk them through more complex features; the reference manual, if it exists at all, is a separate document designed to be called upon only when needed. (Most programs nowadays, in fact, eschew reference manuals entirely in favor of complex Help menus.) As the authors point out, many elementary students are able to master quite complex software using this approach, while high school students are baffled by the linear, fact-driven presentation of science and history.

It's an important lesson, and one that already has me thinking about the 10th-grade physics class that I'll be teaching next semester. The focus of that class is on Newtonian mechanics, simple machines, and thermodynamics, and I'm beginning to think it might be wise to have the students discover Newton's laws by observation and measurement before having them described. The tricky part will be figuring out how to allow them to explore those laws, given the messy and complicated systems that are available to us in the real world. Hmm ... I wonder how much an air track costs...

Friday, August 22, 2008

UbD Chapter 11: The Design Process

This chapter reviews a number of ways to practically apply the concepts presented earlier in the book, taking into account that many teachers will be approaching the UbD process with lessons and units already planned out. I count myself fortunate that I was exposed to UbD at the beginning of my teaching career, but I can still draw a number of helpful tips from this chapter, particularly since certain elements of our course design are mandatory and I need to figure out how to incorporate them most effectively within an understanding-based framework.

One point that the authors give extensive time to is the idea of compromises and dilemmas in teaching. They warn against relying too much on process and losing touch with what's going on with your students:

"Too much reliance on a recipe leads to other problems. It can close off thoughtful responsiveness of the teacher-designer -- empathy! -- in the false belief that any well-thought-out plan must, of necessity, work, and if it doesn't, it must be the students' fault." (p. 267)

I probably narrowly missed falling into this trap myself, to be honest: my "xenobiology expedition" idea would have been great for students of a certain stripe, but it just isn't likely to work with students who are as grounded in the brutal realities of inner-city life as mine are going to be. I'll have to meet them where they're at and do my best to make the content as relevant as possible -- and, even then, keep in mind the need to keep getting feedback and making adjustments on the fly. As the authors make clear throughout the chapter, good design is an ongoing, iterative process -- one that's never really finished, because each crop of students is different.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stage 3 Summary

My completion of Stage 3 of the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN course takes place after our professional development retreat, a week of meeting with my fellow teachers at ARISE, and a complete overhaul of the order of presentation. All the same, I'm feeling good about where things are.

ARISE is big on using Essential Questions that run across multiple subjects in a grade level, giving the students' entire learning experience a feeling of cohesion and unity. The questions for the 9th Graders this year are:

  • Who Am I? (Anyone who fails to recognize the applicability of this has forgotten what it means to be fourteen.)
  • Where Are We Going? (My perhaps-too-close-to-the-mark addition, "...and why are we in this handbasket?", is left unstated.)
  • What Are The Tools That Will Get Us There?

In the case of biology these questions tie in nicely to the themes of physiology (looking at the student's own body), ecology (looking at how all of our lives, animal and plant alike, are tied together), and scientific skills and social outreach (which address the technical and personal aspects of how we're going to deal with the problems that face us as a species).

Given this progression, it was necessary to push ecology to the back burner and focus on physiology for the first unit of the course , with skills and social perspective spread throughout both units. This will engage the natural self-centeredness of 9th-graders, then (I hope) expand their thinking to the people and world around them. It might not be the most elegant presentation of biology, but it's the approach that will be the most immediately relevant to the students, and that's the important thing.

As far as lesson plans are concerned, I've worked out a syllabus for what to teach and when, which covers the entire semester. Victoria, my coach, agreed that it was a challenging curriculum but worth a try, provided that I keep giving the students opportunities to revisit what they've learned and integrate it with new concepts. I'll be using a lot of formative assessments this year, and the list provided in Chapter 10 will be a big help.

The key thing, from an instructional standpoint, will be to keep tying back everything that the students are learning to the big unifying concepts. Fortunately, I don't think it's that hard to do that in biology, because everything really is connected. My first unit -- "Your Body: A User's Manual" -- will use the analogy of the human body as a machine, which needs fuel (provided through the digestive system) and oxygen (the cardiovascular and respiratory systems) in order to run and a control system (the nerves, sense organs and brain) in order to steer it. I'll round out the unit with explorations of the three biology topics that can most easily capture students' attention: germs, drugs, and sex. (I'm particularly looking forward to my demonstration of germ transmission, which will use ... no, I'm saving that for a surprise.) Not coincidentally, these are three issues where our students are most in need of good instruction.

Yesterday I worked out what I'll need in order to do each of the lab experiments over the course of the year. Now I have to push to actually get those supplies, and as soon as possible. Good thing I don't actually have my first biology lesson until a week from tomorrow!

UbD Chapter 10: Teaching for Understanding

This chapter was chock-full of good advice, even if it was necessarily general. I was somewhat relieved to find that the authors came out in defense of direct instruction, reaffirming its necessary place alongside exploratory and constructivist approaches to education. Certainly I couldn't imagine teaching science without a combination of these methods; after all, if men as brilliant as Aristotle or Hippocrates had so many mistaken ideas about biology even after a lifetime of study, we can hardly expect students to "construct" correct understandings without some essential underpinnings.

Still, this chapter had a whimsical but sobering reminder in it: To whatever extent you're inclined to do something, you're probably going to overdo it to that extent.

Teachers who love to lecture do too much of it; teachers who resist it do too little. Teachers who love ambiguity make discussions needlessly confusing. Teachers who are linear and task-oriented often intervene too much in a seminar and can cut off fruitful inquiry. Teachers who love to coach sometimes do too many drills and overlook transfer. Teachers who love the big picture often do a poor job of developing core skills and competence. The upshot? Beware of self-deception! (p. 242)

For myself, I know that I'm both a big-picture thinker and a lecturer: I like imaginative tangible projects, and I also like to hear myself talk. I have to be careful throughout the coming year to save the talking for where it will do the most good, and to teach the skills necessary for the students to do the tasks I want them to do -- something that Victoria already warned me about. Happily, our 45-minute lessons on Wednesdays give me a nice time block when I can focus on skill-oriented instruction; it's too short a period for any but the simplest experiments and demonstrations, but it's a good length for introducing concepts like, say, the scientific method, or how to conduct an interview for the students' ecological awareness project.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

UbD Chapter 9: Planning for Learning

The first chapter of Stage 3 -- developing a learning plan -- was a massive barrage of new content spread over 35 pages (which is a lot when you're talking about information-dense textbook reading). I'm still assimilating it all, and I think it may be a while before I feel like I'm actually "getting" everything in here. As I've noted before, straight reading is not my most efficient means of taking in new information, and there was enough here to make my eyes cross.

The basic concept is that a lesson plan should be designed with seven criteria or stages in mind, represented by the acronym WHERETO:

W = Where is the content headed? Where are the students coming from?
H = Hooking the students: how do we get them engaged with the material? How do we hold onto them once we've got them?
E = Explore and Experience, Enable and Equip: Students need to have experiences that will help them explore the Big Ideas of the unit. We also need to Equip them with the tools they'll need to perform well in the assessments and demonstrate understanding of the material.
R = Revise and Reflect: Return to the same questions and problems again and again. Challenge initial assumptions. Make the students think again about their first instincts, and see how their inferences change in the light of new knowledge. This mirrors what Howard Gardner said about "going deep": you have to stay with a topic long enough to get down to the student's essential misconceptions and dispel them before new understanding can take root.
E = Evaluate work and progress: This refers to letting the students evaluate their progress, not just the teacher. These is where strategies like the "1-minute essay" become invaluable. Give the students opportunities for constant reflection.
T = Tailor and personalize the work: I really, really appreciate what the authors say about this one -- namely, that a "diverse" student body is not merely one that is composed of minority groups. Every student body is diverse because all students come to the class with different strengths, weaknesses, prior knowledge, learning styles, interests, and preferences. (The use of "diverse" as a euphemism to describe members of racial minorities has always struck me as deeply offensive for this very reason.) It's important to keep pursuing the same Goals and Desired Results while making room for students to explore the content in different ways, as befits their strengths.
O = Organize for optimal effectiveness: It's important to present the material in a way that will generate the most interest and maintain that interest throughout the unit. Marching in a straight line through the content is bad for understanding on several levels -- it lowers interest in the material, which causes students to disengage, and also prevents students from going back to Reflect and Evaluate on previous content. I particularly liked the analogy here to soccer training: teach discrete skills, then build up to more sophisticated drills, then "play the game" (which would probably equate to the Performance Task Assessment we constructed in the last chapter).

In between pulling my focus back to the material of the chapter -- did I mention this was a LOT of reading? -- I've been brainstorming about "hooks" to get the students engaged early. That, in turn, has led me back to the xenobiology theme that I came up with earlier in the design process. What if, instead of just making the xenobiology presentation the big end-of-the-year class project, I build that concept of exploring an alien world into many of the projects throughout the year? I could present the students with "messages" and "log entries" from the captain of a new colony mission that has landed on an alien world; the colonists are running into various problems with the local flora and fauna, and the captain has turned to his team of xenobiologists (the students) to figure out what's going wrong and how to fix it. Our class can then turn to considering different real-world situations and extracting the necessary Understandings to make sense of the problems being faced by the space colonists.

This suggests a structure for the overall unit: Begin by explaining the role that the students are playing and presenting a message from the captain, describing a mysterious problem with the local ecology and asking for their help. I can start out with a pre-assessment where the students guess at possible causes of the problem, which should reveal which ones have some prior understanding of ecology. We can then return to the colonists' dilemma throughout the unit as we uncover new understandings and new knowledge; through written responses and class discussions, the students can refine their previous thinking about the situation, until they finally arrive at the actual cause and a recommended solution at the unit's end. The two subsequent units can feature similar biological "mysteries" for the students to solve in the areas of homeostasis and evolution.

I think this will be a fun hook for the students; the idea of learning from Earth's biology to answer questions about an alien world inherently embodies the idea of "transfer", which is one of the true marks of understanding. It also creates a theme that I can draw on in activities and assessments throughout the rest of the unit.

Stage 2 Summary

After reading through the additional examples in the workbook, I believe I have come up with an effective rubric for my Amazon Basin Brochure. The students will be graded on two separate scales:

Understanding (65%):

4 - The brochure clearly and accurately identifies all of the major reasons why slash-and-burn agriculture is destructive and ultimately counterproductive. The brochure shows sensitivity to the Amazonian farmers' difficult situation and clearly presents the benefits of shade-grown crops as an alternative. There are no misunderstandings of key concepts.

3 - The brochure correctly identifies at least two of the major reasons why slash-and-burn agriculture is destructive and counterproductive. The benefits of shade-grown crops may be presented somewhat glibly, without full acknowledgment of the farmers' concerns. Any misunderstandings are minor and do not affect the central argument.

2 - The brochure only correctly identifies one of the major reasons why slash-and-burn agriculture is destructive or counterproductive. The concerns of the Amazonian farmers are not explicitly addressed and/or the reasons for switching to shade-grown crops are not properly explained. There may be evidence of misunderstandings that affect the central argument.

1 - The brochure shows little apparent understanding of the relevant ideas and issues. Phrases may be repeated verbatim from reference materials without proper understanding of their meaning or their relationship to each other. The arguments used against slash-and-burn agriculture and in favor of shade-grown crops are inadequate and do not address either the lasting effects of deforestation and/or the benefits of shade-grown alternatives. The document reveals major misunderstandings of key ideas.

0 - Assignment was not completed; no assessment can be made.

Performance (35%):

4 - The brochure is presented eloquently and powerfully. It is well-organized and lays out its argument in a logical, engaging and persuasive way, mindful of the audience, context, and purpose. There is unusual craftsmanship in the final product.

3 - The brochure is presented effectively. The argument is presented in a clear and thorough manner, showing awareness of the audience, context and purpose.

2 - The brochure is presented in a somewhat effective manner. There are problems with organization, clarity, thoroughness, and polish. It is unclear whether the audience, context and purpose of the project have been considered.

1 - The brochure is presented ineffectively. It is unpolished, with little evidence of prior planning or consideration of its purpose and audience, OR it is so unclear and confusing that it is difficult to determine whether the key points have been covered.

0 - Assignment was not completed; no assessment can be made.
On the whole, I think this stage has been very helpful in sharpening my ideas about how to assess understanding of the ideas and concepts established in Stage 1. My conversation with Page yesterday was particularly helpful; it got me thinking about all of the tangential skills and abilities that are necessary for students to successfully complete the tasks we give them, and the importance of making sure that the students are prepared to use those skills as well as the explicit content that we want them to learn. Even when we're not "teaching the test," we never quite escape the challenge of teaching students how to perform the assessments we intend to use.

In any event, all of this work on assessments has made me eager to get into the question of how to present the material we're going to be assessing. It's time for Stage 3: planning the lessons and activities that I'll be using to help the students learn about ecology.

Self-Test Assessment

In considering my idea for the Unit 1 summative assessment -- the brochure written to farmers in the Amazon Basin -- it's important to stop and do a reality check to see if it will be a useful and valid assessment. The following questions come from p. 180 of the UbD workbook.

How likely is it that a student could do well on the assessment by...

1.) Making clever guesses based on limited understanding?

Not very. The students are going to have to translate some complicated ecological concepts into language that the farmers could understand. It's not enough for them to say that slash-and-burn agriculture is bad or that shade-grown crops are good; they have to be able to provide a well-reasoned argument from the ecological principles we discussed in class.

2.) Parroting back or plugging in what was learned, with accurate recall but limited or no understanding?

I don't think so. Accurate recall may help them remember some basic facts about the Amazon, but explaining the connection between the farmers' activities and the resulting changes in the ecology will require a deeper understanding.

3.) Making a good-faith effort, with lots of hard work and enthusiasm, but with limited understanding?

Anyone who puts in a lot of legitimate hard work on the project will have formed a deeper understanding by the time they finish. This isn't something they can just push through with brute force.

4.) Producing lovely products and performances, but with limited understanding?

No matter how pretty the brochure, the student isn't going to score well unless they make a solid, persuasive argument.

5.) Applying natural ability to be articulate and intelligent, with limited understanding of the content in question?

While being articulate and intelligent will certainly help, I think it will be easy to tell from the student's arguments whether they have a true understanding of the content or not. It is possible for a person to articulate a superficial argument in an attractive way, but I don't plan on being taken in by such pretty facades.

How likely is it that a student could do poorly on the assessment by...

6.) Failing to meet the performance goals despite having a deep understanding of the big ideas? (i.e., the task is not relevant to the goals)

I don't think that's very likely. I plan to make clear to the students what I'm looking for, in terms of the structure and format of the brochure, so as long as the student is reasonably articulate they should be able to convey their understanding in the content of the brochure. My one concern here is for the English Language Learners, but the language gap is something that they're going to face with any substantive assessment. If a known ELL is having trouble expressing him- or herself in text, I should have plenty of advance warning and be able to make accommodations. Perhaps I can work with the student's English teacher to help them sharpen the technical aspects of their writing. In any event, I plan to ask the students to turn in a draft of their brochure before the project is due, which should give us advance warning to clear up any difficulties of this sort.

7.) Failing to meet the scoring and grading criteria used, despite having a deep understanding of the Big Ideas? (i.e., some of the criteria are arbitrary, placing undue or inappropriate emphasis on things that have little to do with the desired results or true excellence at such a task)

This seems very unlikely to me. I'll be grading the students' work on two rubrics, one for Understanding and the other for Performance, as recommended by the UbD textbook. If the student has good understanding of the material, that should come out during the draft stage, and I can give them tips at that time to help sharpen up their execution.

On the whole, I think that this project meets the desired objectives for a summative assessment. The key, as Page told me yesterday, will be to make sure that the students are clear on what is required of them, and to check their progress at the draft stage to make sure that they're on the right track.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

UbD Chapter 8: Criteria and Validity

In this second half of their discussion of Stage 2 (Assessments), the authors turn their attention to vetting the assessments we brainstormed about in Chapter 7. An assessment activity may be interesting and creative, but that's not enough; it also has to measure whether the key understandings, knowledge and skills have been attained, and it must do so in a manner that will reliably gauge the student's capabilities.

Here the authors delve into the topic of rubrics -- which, in educator-speak, specifically refers to scoring guides that list the criteria that a student's assignment must aim to reach. These are new territory for me, though I understand the logic behind them; happily, coach Page Tompkins has directed me to RubiStar, a free online service to help teachers develop quality rubrics. I'm sure I'll be making use of it as my design work progresses.

Page and I had a great conversation this afternoon, and together we separated out my various formative assessment projects from the summative assessment at the end of the unit. I hadn't distinguished between them when I was brainstorming, but as we talked it over I realized that two of my ideas were best suited to use as a summative assessment to round out the unit. One of these was the "invasive species report" that I mentioned in my previous blog post -- a truly complex task that would require a lot of prep work to make sure that the students understood what was needed. The other idea was to have the students design a brochure aimed at Amazon Basin farmers, explaining to them why trading slash-and-burn agriculture for shade-grown crops is in their own best interest.

While I like the idea of the invasive species report, it's probably better-suited to an entire class on ecology. It would require teaching the students how to perform research, weigh the validity of sources, and write a detailed paper with references. All of those are valuable scientific skills, but the project would assess those skills at least as much as the actual content of the unit. I'm more concerned at this point with establishing that the students have grasped the basics of how ecological communities work; a Scientific Skills course is better aimed at students who actually want to go into the sciences, not a survey course like freshman biology.

(Come to think of it, Scientific Skills might be a great summer elective course. I'll have to talk to Romeo and Laura about that...)

In contrast, the Amazon brochure requires fewer technical skills but more understanding of the Big Ideas of ecology: the interconnectedness of species (removing the trees destroys the "keystone" that hold the local community together), the cycling and flow of resources (the poor soils of the Amazon can't hold nutrients on their own, so without the trees the land soon becomes unproductive), and the effects of disturbance on ecological balance (the species removal and habitat destruction cause permanent shifts in the local ecology from high to low biodiversity). Presenting the argument to the farmers will also require the students to engage multiple Facets of Understanding, including Explanation, Application, Perspective, and Empathy (since they need to see the problem from the farmers' point of view -- they're just trying to feed their families, and many of the products they produce are driven to artificially-low prices by market forces that favor short-term exploitation over long-term resource management).

The brochure project can be combined with other, more traditional forms of assessment to test the students' knowledge and understanding of other aspects of the material. A test with a mixture of multiple-choice, short-answer and short-essay questions should help to cover the gaps, along with the formative assessment projects that I'll be using throughout the unit.

Now that I've chosen my end-of-unit assessment project, I'll need to come up with a rubric that is suitable for it. The two metrics suggested by the UbD authors -- Understanding and Performance -- seem like a good place to start. Proficient "Understanding", in this case, would mean that the students demonstrate a grasp of the ecological issues at play in the Amazon Basin and the negative effects of slash-and-burn agriculture; proficient "Performance" means presenting a clear and persuasive argument that acknowledges the farmers' situation while offering a better alternative. This project will also give the students a chance to engage their creative sides, if they so choose, which will probably help keep the artsy types engaged.

Time to start digging into this and get a good rubric in place.

UbD Chapter 7: Thinking Like An Assessor

In this first chapter of Stage 2 of the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN process, the authors focus in on the idea of designing assessments before getting into the details of content. Before you can figure out what to teach, you have to figure out how you're going to measure attainment of the goals laid out in Stage 1. The analogy used is one of the justice system: we have to gather sufficient evidence to “convict” the students of having learned the material -- a humorous but perhaps somewhat insulting analogy. :)

This chapter was full of great ideas. I love the concept behind the GRASPS model of assessment (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Product/Performance/Purpose, Standards/Criteria for Success): posing a problem for the students to solve that mirrors a real-world situation. The big end-of-semester project that I envisioned earlier, in which the students play the role of xenobiologists reporting on an alien world, closely mirrors the GRASPS ideal, even if the sci-fi spin gives it a more whimsical feel than a “real” real-world scenario. This reassures me that my thinking has been on the right track.

I've also come up with an idea for a GRASPS project to close out the ecology unit: Have the students research an exotic species that has been introduced to California, determine whether it has become invasive, and then play the role of researchers recommending to the appropriate government agency what steps (if any) should be taken to control the species – and what will probably happen if the agency doesn't act. I'm hoping to bring in one of my former colleagues from UCSC to talk to the students about her research on invasive species, so the students can get a feel for how this sort of research is done.

I was also heartened to find that this chapter reaffirms the need for a wide variety of assessment methods, including old-fashioned tests and quizzes. I know that there is a lot of resistance to these methods in the progressive education community, but they remain an effective way of testing for knowledge of basic facts and skills.

Another trick that this chapter mentioned that seems very valuable is the “one-minute essay”: at the end of class, have the students write down (1) the big point that they learned in class today, and (2) the main unanswered question that they're leaving class with. This is such a simple, elegant way of checking the students' learning that I couldn't keep from grinning when I read it. I'm going to be sure to implement this system from the very beginning; the ritual of filling out these essay cards at the end of class, then discussing them at the beginning of the next class, should help to introduce some valuable structure and rhythm into the class.

One question that lingers in the back of my mind is whether I should implement these GRASPS projects as solo efforts or group assignments. On the one hand, having each student complete the project for themselves allows me to check each student's understanding individually; on the other hand, students who have difficulty writing in English may not be able to present everything that they understand. Perhaps I could have each student turn in their own project, but allow them to compare notes and collaborate with each other during class to check their comprehension and reasoning? Any advice or suggestions that others might have on how to deal with this problem would be appreciated.

Stage 1 Summary

Stage 1 Summary:

After completing the Stage 1 section of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN, I feel much more confident that I'll be able to present the material to my students in a way that is both engaging and relevant. The trickiest part, I think, was distilling out the “Big Ideas” of the material and devising the essential questions that would tie in to those ideas. The process is very logical, on the whole; it just takes some practice to get used to designing a curriculum this way.

The biggest concerns I have now are practical ones: how to introduce this material to my particular crop of students. As Page noted in response to my last blog post, these students are likely to speak a language other than English at home and may be behind grade level in their English reading skills. I'm not sure yet how I'm going to present this complex and challenging material in a way that will ensure these students are able to keep up. I'll have to review the articles on dealing with English Language Learners and ask some of my fellow science teachers for ideas. Right now I'm reminding myself of what George Leonard said in MASTERY – to embrace the process of gradual improvement. I know I'm not going to do this perfectly right out of the gate, and trying to go from Zero to Master instantaneously would kill me. I'm going to do the best I can, leaning on the wisdom and experience of those around me, and revise and refine my methods as I go on. I have no doubt that my second semester of teaching this class will go more smoothly than the first, and next year I'll do better yet – assuming I haven't hit one of Leonard's plateaus by then. :)

Very well, then. Onward to Stage 2.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Unpacking Goals

After working through Chapter 6 and looking at the content standards again, I've taken another look at my big ideas, the stated or implied real-world performances that go with the standards, and the essential questions that fit best with the standards.

  1. Interconnections between species
  2. The flow and cycling of resources (energy and nutrients) in ecosystems
  3. Ecosystem responses to disturbance

Students should be able to...
  • ANALYZE changes in an ecosystem.
  • REPRESENT energy flow through an ecosystem, as in an energy pyramid.
  • DISTINGUISH accommodation within individuals from genetic adaptation in a population. (I'm saving this for Unit 3 when we get into evolution.)
  • DETERMINE the fluctuations in population size caused by birth, immigration, emigration, and death.


Students should understand that...
  • Ecosystems include a variety of different roles that can interact in complex ways. (Big Idea #1)
  • Both negative interactions (competition, predation) and positive interactions (cooperation, mutualism) are important in shaping the structure of ecological communities. (#1)
  • Different species use different survival strategies, which can be successful in very different ways (e.g., r-selection vs. K-selection; Type I, II and III survival curves).
  • Species' populations can be regulated from the "bottom up" (by resource limitation) or from the "top down" (by predation and disease). (#1, #2)
  • Nutrients cycle within the biosphere: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and water are reused again and again, with little "new" input or loss (though human CO2 production is a major exception!). (#2)
  • Ecosystems are open-ended with respect to energy: producers obtain it from one source (almost always the sun) and pass it up the food chain, losing some energy to heat at every step. (#2)
  • Some ecosystems depend on "keystone species", and that threatening these species threatens the entire structure of the community. (#3)
  • Outside disturbance can upset the balance of an ecosystem, and that the degree of upset depends on both the magnitude of the disturbance and the robustness of the ecosystem. (#3)
  • How are different species dependent on each other?
  • Why is preserving biodiversity important?
  • What makes an ecosystem stable or vulnerable?
  • How do resource needs constrain the structure of ecological communities?
  • How can we protect ecosystems from damage, and when should we do so?
  • Have students plot the flow of resources and/or interaction webs in sample ecosystems.
  • Write the "biography of a nitrogen atom" (or a carbon atom, etc.) as it journeys through its nutrient cycle.
  • Examine population data to determine if a species is at its carrying capacity in a particular ecosystem.
  • Identify populations that are under "bottom-up" or "top-down" regulation.
  • Study real-world systems where dramatic shifts have occurred in community structure, and identify likely causes for the change.
  • Research an exotic species that has been introduced to California (chosen from a list) and present a report explaining whether it has become invasive, how they can tell, and what is being done to combat it (if anything).
At this point I think my Stage 1 picture looks pretty clear. Assuming that my coaches agree, I'll be ready to jump into Stage 2: designing the assessments that will allow my students to demonstrate their understanding of the material.

UbD Chapter 6: Crafting Understandings

In this chapter of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN we delved into what we specifically mean by "understandings" and how to craft useful ones for our classes. I feel pretty comfortable with this concept now; the idea that "knowledge" refers to discrete facts that can be taken as givens, while "understanding" refers to the theory or inference that we make from those facts, is one that meshes well with my experience in scientific research. Looking at the list of sample understandings that are commonly mistaken for bare facts (pp. 136 & 138), I was somewhat surprised that any educated person would be willing to accept these deep concepts on mere authoritative fiat.

Then again, that got me thinking about my own response to concepts in geometry like the Pythagorean Theorem. I was never all that interested in mathematical proofs when I was in school, and I remember being annoyed that my textbook spent so much time proving ideas that were so easy to remember. As long as I could remember the formula and knew when and how to use it, I didn't care to know the gory details for how mathematicians proved such things. In retrospect, it's obvious to me that I didn't understand (heh) the distinction between knowledge and understanding, nor the need to "construct" understanding of deductive theorems.

Constructing inductive understanding was always pretty easy for me to wrap my brain around, perhaps because that's the way science works. It's easy to understand why you have to use speculation, testing and reasoning to come up with a theory for how something generally works when all you have to work with are a few specific data points. Deduction, to me, always felt like working backwards: if you've set your axioms right, there's only one possible conclusion you can reach -- but who's to say whether your axioms are right? Even something as seemingly solid as geometry is ultimately rooted in a fairly arbitrary set of rules; once you change those rules, your whole system of deductive consequences is changed as well. Even more disturbing, there is no one "true" set of geometric rules that applies in all situations; Euclid's system works well for most common circumstances, but when you start getting into the far-flung corners of physics, they're no longer applicable.

I suspect that this lack of congruence between math and reality is part of why I've always found math irritating, even when I was good at it. It always seemed to me that math ought to be "true": that it should remain consistent with reality in all circumstances, without resorting to apparent "cheats" like imaginary numbers and non-Euclidean geometries. (The existence of pi still creeps me out when I think about it too much. I'm surrounded by circles, spheres and cylinders of quite obvious solidity, and yet their areas and volumes can never be precisely known because they are dependent on a number with an infinite number of digits!) The notion that new maths had to be invented in order to describe quantum mechanics is deeply distasteful to me, on a level that I'm not sure I can really explain even today. I suppose I have to look at "ordinary" math the way that I look at Newtonian mechanics: a useful approximation of reality that works for most practical purposes.

My own struggle with truly understanding math is a useful reminder of the struggles faced by my students:

"...experts frequently find it difficult to have empathy for the novice, even when they try. That's why teaching is hard, especially for the expert in the field who is a novice teacher. Expressed positively, we must strive unendingly as educators to be empathetic with the learner's conceptual struggles if we are to succeed." (p. 139)

I'll have to stay aware of the fact that many of the biological principles that I'm teaching these young people will be just as baffling to them as the paradoxes of mathematics are to me.

Hmm ... maybe I should put a giant pi symbol over my desk as a reminder.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

UbD Chapter 5: Essential Questions

In this chapter of UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN, the authors delved into the topic of Essential Questions -- questions that encourage a deeper exploration of the material rather than mere pat answers that can easily be memorized. These questions can be specific to the topic at hand or more overarching, and they can also be open-ended (questions that have no generally agreed-upon "right" answer) or guided (questions that do have have agreed-upon answers, but not ones that would be readily available to the students, and which point to key understandings that the teacher is attempting to convey).

While I was reading about the different kinds of Essential Questions, I started scribbling notes in the margins of the book about possible Essential Questions for my Ecology unit:


  • What is "life"?
  • Why should we care about biodiversity?
  • What makes an ecosystem desirable? Why should we care about protecting it?


  • Are ecosystems driven more by negative interactions between organisms -- "nature red in tooth and claw", competition and predation -- or by positive interactions, such as cooperation and mutualism?
  • What makes an ecosystem stable or vulnerable?
  • Why is the world green? (I.e., why is so much biomass tied up in producers rather than consumers?)
  • Are species' populations limited more by "bottom up" effects (food supply, available habitat) or by "top down" effects (predation)?

  • Where does the rain go after it falls?
  • Where does the oxygen we breathe come from?
  • In what ways do humans alter the environment around them?
  • What happens to a body after it rots? Where do its components go?
  • Why are decomposers important?
  • Why are primary consumers (herbivores) important?
  • Why are predators important?
  • What traits might indicate that a species is more likely to survive disruptions in its habitat?

This may be too many essential questions for one unit, so I'll have to figure out which ones are most important to focus on. I'm very fond of the "Why is the world green" question -- both because of its deceptively simple phrasing and because it opens up the opportunity to explore a number of interconnected ideas about the roles of species in a community and the differences between top-down and bottom-up regulation. (The current working theory is that the world is green because predators keep herbivore populations below their carrying capacity, which prevents the herbivores from stripping the ecosystem of every available scrap of foliage. This is in marked contrast to the situation in most oceanic ecosystems, where primary producers -- algae -- are quickly eaten by primary consumers, which are in turn quickly eaten by the secondary and tertiary consumers who make up most of the system's standing biomass.)

This may be one of the most useful chapters to date, because it provides a methodology for getting at one of my chief objectives: getting students to think.

"Our students need a curriculum that treats them more like potential performers than sideline observers. They need to experience how their own inquiries and discussions are 'essentially' parallel to those of experts, and how even key agreed-upon understandings can change over time as a result of ongoing inquiry. In this way, they come to more deeply understand knowledge as the result of inquiries as opposed to disembodied 'truths' that are just 'out there' to be learned from teachers and texts." (p. 122)
Not coincidentally, I was also inspired today to put out feelers to several of my former associates among the graduate students and faculty of UC-Santa Cruz. Hopefully some of them will be able to come out and talk to my students about their research, so as to help them get a better feel for what it's like to be on the cutting edge of scientific inquiry.

UbD Chapter 4: The Six Facets of Understanding

The concept that we call "understanding" is actually many different concepts, all interrelated but distinct from one another. Chapter 4 explores these different kinds of understanding and how they relate to teaching.

1.) Explanation: Can the student construct a meaningful theory for why the facts are what they are? Understanding the situation means grasping the mechanism behind the observed events.

2.) Interpretation: What is the meaning of the observed events or narrative? An abstract theory (Explanation) can describe the general reasons for how things happen the way that they do, but interpretation means looking beyond mechanism to the deeper implications, be they philosophical, moral, sociological, etc. Interpretations are provisional by their nature; different people may look at the same situation, or the same theoretical construct, and have very different ideas about its meaning. The vehement disagreement among physicists about the interpretation of quantum mechanics is a good example of this.

3.) Application: If you really understand something, you can take the knowledge you've acquired on the subject and apply it in new situations. You should be able to perform novel, creative work that demonstrates what you've learned.

4.) Perspective: Understanding a situation means being aware of the importance of a person's point of view and how that affects their interpretation of the data. To go back to the quantum mechanics issue, it's helpful to know what metaphysical and philosophical baggage are being carried around by the proponents of the different interpretations, and how that influences their thought. A person who advocates the Copenhagen interpretation (that there is only one universe, and that the wave functions of quantum mechanics represent probabilities that "collapse" when we finally make a measurement) is necessarily coming at the problem from a different viewpoint from someone who advocates the many-worlds interpretation (that the probabilities of the wave functions actually describe the frequency with which different results occur across an infinite number of universes).

5.) Empathy: While perspective is the ability to judge alternate viewpoints from outside, with a detached, critical eye, empathy is the ability to get inside another person's POV and see why they hold that viewpoint. Since many "Big Ideas" are confusing, counterintuitive or crazy-sounding when you first encounter them, you often have to suspend your own judgments and put yourself in the thinker's perspective before you can really "get" those ideas. Otherwise you risk discarding important concepts because they don't fit in with your preconceived notions of the world.

6.) Self-Knowledge: In addition to understanding others' viewpoints, you have to understand your own viewpoint. Everybody looks at the world through a filter, unconsciously omitting or discounting data that do not coincide with their worldview. Self-knowledge means that you're aware of your filter and making a conscious effort to consider perspectives that lie outside it, or even conflict with it completely.

"Our intellectual blind spots predispose us toward intellectual rationalization: the ability to unendingly assimilate experience to beliefs and to categories that seem not merely plausible ideas but objective truths. Too easily, we keep verifying our favored and unexamined models, theories, analogies, and viewpoints." (p.101)

This sort of self-blindness is the bane of good science -- or, for that matter, good scholarship in any subject. The first and greatest mistake many researchers make is to assume that they are impartial observers, that they are completely fair and even-handed. It's not just scientists who have this problem, either; we've all seen examples of how biased reporters can be, even when they repeatedly proclaim that they are "objective" or "fair and balanced."

The first three facets are what I would call "external" aspects of understanding; these are the facets that my students can directly apply to the material of the course itself. I can help my students learn how to grasp the theory behind biological processes, to interpret the deeper implications of those theories, and to apply them to new problems. The other three facets are "internal" aspects of understanding: they concern the students' understanding of how they understand the material. The "Big Idea" of Resource Cycling & Flow in Ecosystems is an objective process that can be Explained, Interpreted and Applied, but it doesn't have an inherent perspective attached to it that must be perceived or empathized with; rather, students will need to apply these three latter facets of knowledge to the interpretations of this process, both the ones that are presented by experts and the ones that they come to for themselves. For example, the objective existence of the Nitrogen Cycle leads to a possible interpretation that humans need to stop dumping nitrogenous agricultural runoff into our lakes and rivers, because this excess nitrogen is throwing natural systems out of balance. Students will need to have the Perspective to analyze the arguments of environmentalists and the agricultural industry about this question, the Empathy to appreciate why each side views this situation the way that they do, and the Self-Knowledge to see how their own biases affect their opinions on the situation.

All of these facets of understanding work together to lead to what I have previously described as "critical thinking." I'm glad to see them described explicitly in such detail; it will be a big help to me as I figure out what sorts of assessments and lesson plans will engage these different styles of thinking.

Understanding By Design-Templates

The first 57 pages of the UbD Professional Development Workbook introduce three different templates for "backward design" of an instructional unit: a brief 1-page template, a somewhat more detailed 2-page version, and a very detailed 6-page breakdown that gets into the details of day-by-day lesson planning. The remaining pages are mostly taken up by examples of unit plans in everything from science to history to English.

After looking through the different designs, I've decided to go with the 2-page version for planning my ecology unit. It gives a bit more space to describe different portions of the unit than the 1-page version, especially for the Stage 3 tasks and lessons. The 6-page version looks too detailed and complex for my first attempt at unit design; I don't want to fall into "paralysis by analysis." I'll stick with the 2-pager for now and expand my ideas as necessary once I have a basic framework in place.

Friday, August 1, 2008

UbD Chapter 3: Gaining Clarity on our Goals

"...a big idea is not 'big' merely by virtue of its intellectual scope. It has to have pedagogical power: It must enable the learner to make sense of what has come before; and, most notably, be helpful in making new, unfamiliar ideas seem more familiar." (Understanding by Design, 2nd Ed., p.70)

This chapter took a closer look at the so-called "Stage 1" concepts for unit planning: key questions, key understandings, big ideas, and core tasks. All of these are related, though not synonymous, and they're all different ways of getting at the heart of the question: what do I want my students to understand, know, and be able to do when they complete this unit?

The chapter is full of a lot of good advice on how to screen through lists of material -- whether a textbook or a set of state-imposed content standards -- and filter out the big ideas and core tasks from among the less-crucial concepts. The models presented here help to distinguish the crucial from the important, and the important from the incidental, and the incidental from the trivial. It's something I'm going to have to put into use for myself as I screen through the California science standards to figure out which points are most important for my students to understand.

Reading through chapter 3 inspired a number of thoughts about the "big ideas" of ecology, the first unit for my upcoming biology course. The book points out that big ideas are usually counter-intuitive and susceptible to misunderstanding. This got me thinking about food webs, nutrient cycles and energy flow in ecosystems, all of which involve the central "big idea" that thermodynamics limit the possibilities in biological systems. But the first law of thermodynamics -- the law of conservation of energy -- can easily be misunderstood by students in this context, because energy is constantly being lost from the ecosystem in the form of heat. Energy isn't being destroyed, but it's no longer in a useful form. Likewise, the second law -- the law of increasing universal entropy -- often seems like it's being violated by living systems, in which organisms that are higher on the food chain often appear more "advanced" or complex than the creatures they feed on. Yet the constraints placed on ecosystems by thermodynamics -- a fixed amount of energy entering the system (1st law), and every energy transfer leading to a loss of energy to heat (2nd law) -- are essential to grasping why ecological communities are structured the way that they are. The key misconception is that students might be fooled into thinking that the biosphere is a closed system, energetically speaking. It isn't; it's a closed system for nutrients, which is why we speak of nutrient cycling, but it's an open system for energy, which is why we speak of energy flow.

I think I have a good way of modeling energy flow for the students: an analogy to money. Suppose American shoppers buy products from Company A, leading to a gross income for the company. The money flowing into Company A from the shoppers represents the maximum amount of money available in the "system;" the Company has no other way of acquiring more money. The Company then pays its employees, but it can't pay them everything that it got from the shoppers; it has to pay for the electricity, the water, maintenance of the equipment, the raw materials to make its products, and various regulatory costs in the form of taxes. Only a small portion of its gross income gets passed on to the employees. Employee B thus gets a small fraction of the money Company A had; that's his gross income. But that isn't pure profit, either; he has to pay for upkeep on his house, gas for his car, food for himself and his family, and his own income taxes. Only a little bit of money is left over for the next step in the monetary "food chain": his kids. Child C gets an allowance that is only a tiny fraction of what Employee B got; it's such a small amount, in fact, that the child doesn't have enough money to support anyone "higher" on the chain.

By the same token, the "gross income" of an ecosystem from the sun leads to a lot of energy going through the producers (A), with less being passed on to the primary consumers (B) and still less going to the secondary consumers (C). My students will probably find the analogy of themselves as "apex predators" to be an amusing one -- though perhaps "parasite" would be a more accurate analogy. ;-)

I think this will be a good way to explain energy flow, but I'm having more trouble finding a way to explain nutrient cycling. I need something to represent a commodity that can be passed around from one group to another, modified repeatedly into different forms but ultimately recycled back to the beginning again, unchanged in what it essentially is. The carbon, nitrogen and water cycles are key examples, all important for illustrating how ecosystems function -- but I'm having a hard time finding something similar to compare to that these students would be familiar with. I thought about the example of a commodity (such as a bicycle or a CD) being passed around from one person to another, but that analogy misses one of the key elements (no pun intended) of nutrient cycling: that these basic nutrients are often repackaged in radically different forms and used for very different purposes as they make their way around the ecosystem. The sugar made by the plant, the fat stored in the human, the carbon dioxide breathed out when the human exercises -- all of these contain the same carbon atoms, passed on from one place to the next but showing up in very different chemical forms.

I'd love to hear if anyone has any suggestions on a better analogy for this difficult concept. I recognize that this is only one example among several "big ideas" that I'll have to tackle in this unit, but it's one that I'm going to have to wrestle with soon enough, and I think it's a useful "field test" of the UbD process to start thinking about this now.

UbD Chapter 2: Understanding Understanding

"Zathras understand. ... No. Zathras not understand, but Zathras do. Zathras good at doings, not understandings." --Zathras, Babylon 5

This chapter brought to light a depressing fact about modern education: most students who are "good at doings", as Zathras would say, are not "good at understandings." They have collected facts in their heads, but they don't know what they mean, and questions that present them with the opportunity to use their facts and skills in novel ways often leave them staring blankly at the page. The emphasis on loading students' brains with as many facts as possible only makes the situation worse. "Teaching to the test" can help students to regurgitate the right answers on command, but only if the questions that they face on the test are exactly like the questions they've seen before. This is why so many students hate story problems: they point out the fact that the student never understood what he thought he knew.

The listing of common misunderstandings in this chapter was somewhat unsettling for me, because it revealed some of my own misconceptions. I'd had no idea that Impressionism was an attempt to be more realistic, to convey the raw sensory impact of a thing rather than the emotional or mental response that the thing engendered in the artist. I've often thought that history classes were almost useless because they consisted of bombarding students with an endless procession of facts, which could easily be looked up in an encyclopedia if they were actually needed. The idea of historian as "storyteller," putting events into any of several possible narratives that might "explain" these events, is one that runs rather contrary to my instinct that there should be one "true" reason or explanation for why things happened. I can only imagine how many similar misconceptions people in other fields must have about my area of study.

The one part of the chapter that jumped out at me the most, though, was the section about understanding the phenomenon of misunderstanding:

"Misunderstanding is not ignorance, therefore. It is the mapping of a working idea in a plausible but incorrect way in a new situation. ... Paradoxically, you have to have knowledge and the ability to transfer [i.e., to apply it in new situations] in order to misunderstand things. Thus evidence of misunderstanding is incredibly valuable to teachers, not a mere mistake to be corrected. It signifies an attempted and plausible but unsuccessful transfer. The challenge is to reward the try without reinforcing the mistake or dampening future transfer attempts." (p. 51)

This section was a wake-up call for me, because I used to get very frustrated at my college students who would return garbled and nonsensical answers to my quiz questions. "They soak up all of this information and then spit it back out like a random comment generator," I would sometimes complain to my fellow TAs. "They just aren't thinking about what they're saying!" The irony, of course, is that they were thinking, but they hadn't arranged the facts into the correct framework. Like a Rube Goldberg machine with the parts in the wrong order, they were failing to get the desired output, but it wasn't for lack of trying. It's a distinction that I'm going to have to be more aware of when I teach my 9th graders -- and I'll have to be patient with them, to acknowledge and refine what George Leonard calls "the approximations of the correct technique", while helping them to make the necessary adjustments to their thinking.