Darlington School: Private Boarding School in Georgia The Modeling Method
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The Modeling Method

Barbara Kuckhoff | July 15, 2020 | 551 views

Imagine it is the first week of school. Classes are meeting in person. Walking into the classroom you see small groups, each with three students, engaged in an activity. There are battery powered toy cars rolling along the floor, and students are counting off seconds as another student is placing blue painter’s tape on the floor. Another team has placed tape on the floor, evenly spaced. There doesn’t appear to be any particular direction for the moving cars and none of the cars seem to have the same speed. The teacher is casually moving from group to group, observing and asking a few questions. When the students ask a question, the teacher replies with a different question. Notebooks show columns of numbers, units of measure, arrows and graphs. You don’t see a preprinted worksheet or lab form with blank spaces for answers. One simple set of instructions is written on the board, “With the given starting position, graph the position and time of your Buggy.”

This is exactly what you may observe when students are being taught by the Modeling Method. 

Thanks to the Wood Grant last year I attended a two week workshop to learn to teach mechanics by the Modeling Method. The approach was first developed in the 1980’s by physicist and cognitive scientist David Hestenes. His goal was to find the most effective teaching style to address shortcomings in physics education at the college level. The results of his findings ushered in changes to science instruction that continue to gain popularity. 

There are still students entering college having mastered the memorization and manipulation of formulas, not really understanding basic concepts in science, very much like it was in 1980. Only about 10% of high schools in the United States use modeling instruction even though research has proven that modeling instruction generates deep, long-lasting understanding. Through greater participation and robust interactions with peers, students activate multiple neural pathways building skills to observe and question and make the necessary connections to learn.

To apply the modeling methodology, teachers introduce a question and structure the resources and framework that channels the student to discover the answer. The student becomes the scientist. They identify the information needed. Students design the experiment and then analyze and interpret their data. Good modeling teachers guide the students to apply reasoning. Instead of telling, teachers help students identify errors on their own through properly timed questions. At first students may resist, but once they start to make sense of it, they are excited to discover that they have agency over their learning. Over time they come to trust that figuring it out with their peers is what moves the class forward. 

One of the most powerful tools in a modeling classroom are simple dry erase white boards. These boards are large enough for three students to write on simultaneously and are the teacher’s window into their minds. Collaboratively each small team makes drawings, graphs, and mathematical expressions as they struggle to  make sense of the findings. At the end of each activity  all of the teams present their white boards at the same time and they compare their understanding one more time. The teacher is supportive and prompts them to debate conclusions that might be contradictory or incorrect. Helping students identify plausible errors is key to scientific discovery. The discourse  continues until all of the curriculum objectives are covered.

Colleen Megowan, a leader in physics education research and the founding President of the American Modeling Teachers Association, describes it this way. “Modeling instruction is an extremely effective method of helping students learn science, or any other subject, by building, testing, refining and applying the fundamental conceptual models of that discipline. There is no lecture. It’s all activity, lab, task driven. It’s all collaborative sensemaking. It’s teacher as guide on the side, not sage on the stage.”

Last year was my first-year practicing modeling instruction. It was hard for me to trust a methodology that I personally never experienced as a student. It was even harder to motivate students who didn’t want to discover but wanted to be told the answers that needed to be spilled back on test day. Fortunately, from prior years of teaching AP Physics 1 I knew there was a percentage of my class who never got it. No quantity of worksheets, powerpoint slides, videos and office hours mattered. They needed conceptual understanding first, through their own discovery. So we pushed bowling balls with straw brooms in the Johnson Field House to experience force and inertia. We videoed flying basketballs in the Van Es Arena to measure two directional motion. Weights pulled carts down a track so we could measure acceleration. We observed bouncy balls and spring-loaded toys to define energy. 

With all these activities I worried that we wouldn’t be able to cover all of the AP exam topics. Even with the interruptions from COVID-19, we covered all topics except electricity and sound. Luckily the College Board dropped those subjects  in the shortened format this year. I have no doubt that the class can cover all the AP exam topics this coming year. 

What I learned is that modeling instruction isn’t supplemental to the class content. It is the class content. It is more efficient than lecturing or reading a textbook. This is referred to as the “doer effect.” Students retain more with interactive exercises than passive tasks. The one doing the thinking is the one doing the learning.

Is modeling instruction possible with distance learning? That is my challenge this summer. Thankfully I know what modeling learning looks like in the classroom. I know it works and that it’s the better way to learn. 

To learn a little more about modeling, watch this 6 minute video and hear what teachers and students say about their experiences: What is Modeling? 

To learn a great deal more, check out the podcast Science Modeling Talks where interviews with professors and teachers inspire others to teach through modeling. 

Other referenced material: 
Jeffrey R. Young, "How ‘Learning Engineering’ Hopes to Speed Up Education", EdSurge.com, June 9, 2020