# Polar Bears around an Ice Hole

I started some of my classes today with the “Polar Bears around an Ice Hole” riddle:

The game is in the name of the game â€“ polar bears around an ice hole â€“ invented in the days of Ghengis Khan.

A clue for you to keep you true â€“ like petals around a rose, you can count each bear’s nose.

How many polar bears do you see?

You then roll a bunch of dice. (I created six 5″ dice from styrofoam and black pom poms.) A physics teacher from another school uses this as his introduction activity on the first day of school and shared the activity a couple of years ago. I had planned on using this activity as an extended analogy to introduce specific aspects of the class culture:

• You may feel frustrated as you try to figure physics out. That’s okay.
• Physics is hard to understand until you know the “rules of the game.”
• But, once you discover the rules, physics often seems easy and you may be surprised that others don’t understand.
• However, remember that you didn’t always understand.
• When you discover the rules and understand without someone just telling you the “answer”, you are excited.
• The journey to understanding is very important. So, no one is going to tell you the answer, but we’re all here to support each other on our journeys.
• Being told the “answer” at most gives you one answer that you didn’t know. Learning to think critically and arrive at the answer with support develops a skill that you will use to find many answers.

As the activity progressed, I realized that this activity also served as an excellent example of scientific inquiry. As we continued to try and solve the riddle, I introduced several important ideas:

• make careful observations
• gather lots of data (many roles of the dice)
• look for patterns, compare and contrast, look for extremes
• simply the problem being investigated (roll fewer dice)
• constrain the variables (set dice to specific values)
• propose a hypothesis, test it, modify it based on results, repeat

After discussing the activity, I grabbed my notebook and nonchalantly asked who solved the riddle within the first five minutes. I then announced that they would receive As for today. I then asked who solved the riddle in ten minutes and announced that they would receive Bs. Next, who solved the riddle in fifteen minutes and announced that they would receive Cs. Everyone else would receive Fs. This provided a great hook to transition to our discussion about standards-based grading.

# I Grade Homework

Last year, myself and a colleague jumped into the standards-based grading pool with both feet with our honors-level physics class. We appreciated that homework was for practice and should not be graded. I was very excited about this departure from the traditional model of checking homework every day and keeping track of completed homework and absences which wasted valuable class time.

At first, students attempted their homework as assigned. However, before too long, it was apparent that a vast majority of students were not attempting the homework problems before we were to whiteboard them in class. After one particularly ineffective whiteboard session, due to a vast majority of students being unprepared, I attempted to use that experience to illustrate the importance of using the homework problems as practice.

Why did this happen? Did we fail to explain our standards-based grading philosophy? No, I think students appreciated the importance of the learning activities. Students were engaged in learning activities such as labs even though they were not graded. Were the homework problems unnecessary busywork? No, this class moves at a fast pace and, for a vast majority of students, practice outside of class is essential. Students weren’t attempting just the problems they felt they needed to practice; they weren’t attempting any problems.

After this ineffective whiteboard session, a few students with whom I had stronger relationships made a point to talk to me about why they hadn’t attempted their homework. All of them said that they appreciated that they needed to practice these problems. All of them said that they knew that they wouldn’t be able to effectively whiteboard the problems without having at least attempted the homework. All of them knew that eventually they would need to practice in order to do well on the summative assessments. However, all of them also explained that not doing their homework was a conscious decision. They explained that they get home late due to soccer/marching band/play practice. They explained that they have more homework assigned then they can possibly complete in a night (another issue to address). If they don’t complete their math/social studies/other science homework, they lose points, their grade is impacted, their GPA is affected. They believe the only logical choice is not to do their physics homework.

When other classes assign points to homework, overloaded students that are grade-centric won’t do homework that isn’t assigned points.

What did we do? We started grading the homework the next semester. We reconciled this change by framing homework as both a learning activity and summative assessment. We continued to whiteboard homework problems (learning activity), but, by the end of the unit, students were required to submit their homework solutions via WebAssign (summative assessment). We used WebAssign since we were able to randomize the numerical values in otherwise identical problems. This allowed students to collaborate but not copy final values.

We haven’t satisfactorily solved the problem of homework. Our current approach is simply the best idea we have at the moment. Over time, this issue may be mitigated as more and more classes in our high school adopt standards-based grading and fewer and fewer teachers grade homework.

If you’ve encountered this problem and are taking another approach, please share! We can always make a change next semester!

# I Like Reading Lab Reports

When I first started teaching, I loathed grading lab reports. I had a seemingly never-ending pile of papers almost a foot tall sitting on the front, right-hand corner of my desk glaring at me with that look of “we’re not going anywhere, you know.”

This sucked. Grading labs was my least favorite part of teaching. There had to be a better way.

Last year, myself and a colleague integrated our fledgling standards-based grading philosophy into our honors physics classes. We categorized most of labs that were previously graded as learning activities which we defined as “activities that donâ€™t directly affect your grade, they are essential in that they are your opportunity to explore, discover, take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, help each other, practice, and get feedback before having to demonstrate mastery.” We explained this to our students and started our first lab activity. The next day, everyone turned in their labs.

I went home that night and I didn’t grade their labs. I read them. As I read them, I wrote comments, asked questions, made minor corrections. I never thought about points. I didn’t calculate a score. It was wonderful.

The next day in class, I handed back the labs. This new standards-based grading methodology was unfamiliar to the students and many hadn’t internalized the role of these learning activities. I observed some students scanning their labs for a grade. “Mr. Schmit, what is my grade on this?” “It is a learning activity, no grade; just feedback.” As they began to understand that no matter how hard they looked, they wouldn’t find a 18/20 anywhere in their lab, I saw students actually reading my feedback. Some students even asked questions about what I had written.

Lab reports got better. As students embraced the standards-based grading philosophy, they started taking risks because they weren’t worried about losing points. The vagueness of statements was diminished. Students began to write what they actually thought instead of what they thought was sufficiently generic to result in credit. Some students even started writing questions in their lab reports to ask for clarification. Many times, after a productive class discussion or whiteboarding session, I wouldn’t feel that I needed to collect the lab reports and provide additional feedback. The students had already provided all of it to each other.

I had a number of goals, hopes, and dreams when I started standards-based grading last year. Liberating students from grading such that they could focus on their learning was one. Liberating myself from grading such that I actually enjoyed reading lab reports wasn’t one of them, but it was a very pleasant surprise.

# Feynman the Teacher

I started reading Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman today. I absolutely loved his autobiographical collection of stories: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. However, I wanted to read something that would give me more insight into Feynman the Teacher. So, I started reading Six Easy Pieces since I don’t have time to read the entire Lectures on Physics this summer. I’m just getting started, but I found a couple of great quotes in the introductions. Here’s a note he wrote in 1952:

First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense.

Of course what is common sense for Feynman probably isn’t for the rest of us. Given his reputation as a showman and brilliant lecturer, I find his “solution to the problem of education” particularly insightful:

I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher — a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned.

My summer inspiration.