How I stopped lecturing

How I stopped lecturing

When I finished graduate school I made an usual choice.  Instead of pursuing a post-doc I moved back to my home town, Oklahoma City, and became a founding teacher at a charter high school. And there I taught science the way I had been taught science, from high school through grad school. I lectured nearly every day. I also conducted labs that were similar to labs I had encounter in my own education, mostly labs that practiced skills and calculations we had already learned in lecture.

After two years of teaching this way I came across two problems. The first was my students weren’t learning anything from my lectures. Obviously this was my students’ fault (or perhaps their middle school teachers’ fault), since my lectures were nothing short of brilliant. The second and more bothersome problem was that the way I was teaching science had very little to do with how I had practiced science as a graduate student. In grad school I took on a project that had only vague rules to it. There was a chemical system (iron oxide nanocrystals) and a technique (I won’t bore you with the details), but that was it. The project was guided by speculation about previous data, then planning experiments, then collecting data, then speculating about the data, then planning more experiments, then more data. This problem bothered me more because there was no way to blame my students for this.

Somewhere in my brain, an idea was half forming, that maybe we could teach science starting with data. About the same time I had a disconcerting interaction with a student which convinced me that my students were learning very little and harboring significant scientific misconceptions (such as that carrots are not plants). Then I attended an American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego and attended a Chemical Education session that seemed to be mostly about AP and General Chemistry. The session was all about a teaching method I had never heard of called POGIL. I didn’t fully understand it, but later at the expo I met Jim Spencer, who helped develop the POGIL method and who pushed a book into my hand (under the unhappy eye of the textbook salesman) and said “Here, take this, you need to do this.”

POGIL would turn out to revolutionize my teaching. In that workbook were activities for students to be used in small groups in which the students were provided data and had to draw conclusions from it. In other words, they had to learn from the data rather than from me. The students finally had to do what I did in graduate school – construct their own understanding, starting from data. I immediately tried it with my students, and remember very clearly one of my most difficult, disengaged students telling me, “Dr. P, this is good.”

I had some fits and starts implementing POGIL the next year, but eventually I had a system down. I found that I was more successful writing my own activities for my students because at the time there were only college-level texts and I was working with sophomores and juniors at an urban high school. By my fourth year of teaching high school I was using POGIL nearly every day, either in lecture or lab. I now teach at the college level and I almost never lecture except on days when I have to convey algorithmic problem solving techniques like unit conversion. Otherwise my students work in small groups on the POGIL activities I have written and, without giving a lecture, my students learn the material and more. They also learn how to work in a group, to pace themselves, to take ownership of their learning and assess whether or not they understand. They learn not only the chemistry, but also a set of skills for being independent scholars.

While I was teaching with POGIL at the high school the POGIL Project, a group that teaches about and promotes the use of POGIL, began fostering projects for high school teachers that eventually produced workbooks for high school chemistry, high school biology, AP Biology and most recently a lab manual for AP Chemistry. Hundreds of teachers around the country are now using POGIL every day to enhance the education of their students. I was lucky to be a part of the early work on this, and I owe it to Jim Spencer for giving me a book and the POGIL Project helping me see a way to teach in some way other than through lecture.

If you want more information on POGIL, you can watch this video and visit the POGIL project’s website.

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