Monday, June 27, 2011


John Burk and Frank Noschese coined the phrase pseudo-teaching to describe teaching methods that look good from the outside (student engagement, hands-on activities, use of technology) but, in the end, result in little or no learning. I think I currently do a lot of this kind of teaching.

In fact, I think the proliferation of teacher blogs sharing quality teaching strategies and resources may actually contribute to the spread of pseudo-teaching. Call it pseudo-borrowing. Let me explain with two examples from my classroom this past year.

1. The Interactive Lecture Demonstration
I attended a professional development workshop on the use of Interactive Lecture Demonstrations as a means to engage physics students in inquiry and modeling. The research clearly shows the effectiveness of this teaching method and the presenter led us through a sample demonstration using the methods he would use in his classroom.

I was inspired!  With my sample demonstration in hand I went back to my classroom and recreated a similar activity for my students. I was so excited about it, I asked my principal and vice-principal to observe the lesson.

It was a huge success! The administrators were suitably impressed and commented repeatedly on how great the activity was. Students were engaged, asking great questions, discussing physics concepts like never before. One student even took a picture of the motion graphs because she couldn't believe the result. It could not have been any better.

Except students did not show any gains in conceptual understanding. And major misconceptions persisted throughout the year.

2.The  #anyqs Video
Dan Meyer started a Twitter feed requesting that teachers post interesting pictures or short videos and asking for the first question that pops to mind. Intrigued, I decided to create my own video. My physics students were studying reflection so I created this.

After watching the video, the class came up with some excellent questions that were worth investigating. I gave them some mirrors, lenses and prisms and asked them to answer their own questions.  I was happy with the video and thrilled with the in-class activity. But once again, disappointed with the lack of actual learning.

So what happened? The activities looked great but students were NOT learning. I mean these ideas are pedagogically sound. People way smarter then me thought them up. Research says they should work. What went wrong?

The answer... pseudo-borrowing. Any activity I find online is rooted in a well-thought out pedagogical framework, created by people who have spent a lot of time thinking about how students learn and how teachers should teach. By pseudo-borrowing, I attempted a plug-and-play implementation. In my rush to find the latest and greatest method, I didn't bother to think about the underlying reasons that make them great in the first place. Effective borrowing requires that I understand the deeper foundation that supports the activity.

I found a silver lining in all this. I tried something new which is better than doing nothing at all. And I am moving in the right direction. Recognizing why these activities did not result in much learning is the first step towards teaching that produces real learning. And understanding the underlying pedagogical framework will help me create my own rich learning activities.


  1. Craig,

    Great post, I know the feeling. This past semester, I tried an optics activity with my students that seemed awesome while they did it. Everyone was engaged, good questions, eventually discovered the answer together, etc. But then, on the test only 1 person could answer questions correctly. (the questions were painfully similar to the activity)

    It's frustrating to think how swimmingly things are going in class only to drown when it comes time to assess learning. I'm curious about your thoughts in the second to last paragraph. Do you think having the background information would have changed anything? Was there some key aspect you missed?

    P.S. I wish I had more time for Wii too.

  2. Great post! I feel your pain. I did this for years, but you have a leg up. You've figured it out already! It took me a long time to realize I was doing it.

    If you get a chance I strongly recommend you find a Modeling Workshop For me this really tied together a lot of the things I'd been trying. I got more out of this three week experience than I did out of the previous 10 years worth of workshops and conferences I've attended.

  3. @David Wiggins

    There is definitely some key aspect I missed. Several in fact.

    The Interactive Lecture Demonstration is a teaching method rooted in physics education research. It was developed over a period of years using pre-tests and post-tests based on the Force Concept Inventory to track students' conceptual understanding. It has been used effectively for years at the University of Oregon and others and has been adapted for high school curriculum.

    So why didn't it work for me? Because there is much more to this teaching method than an interesting demonstration.

    There must be student prediction of the outcome before the demo. There must be a chance for students to attempt to explain what they observe and reconcile their thinking with their original prediction. There must be Socratic questioning to explore their thinking and reasoning and draw out misconceptions. Their must be an opportunity for students to refine their understanding through further experimentation. The demo is a small part of an overall learning/modeling cycle.

    All I did was a demo with a worksheet. It is the underlying framework of the lesson that makes it a successful learning experience.

  4. @Steve Dickie

    My colleague across the hall, Blair Miller, and I would love to take a modeling workshop. Alas, none are offered in Vancouver. There is one this summer in nearby Spokane, Washington but I have a young family and can't take 3 weeks away during the summer. We are hoping to enlist a Seattle-based modeler to come up to do a weekend professional development with our science department and perhaps other district science teachers. I'll let you know if that happens. I know its no substitute for a 3 week immersion but it's a start.

    I am intrigued by your Arduino Education blog. Blair and I are considering creating a "Maker Club" at our school that will make Arduinos and other technology available to students to invent and create their own projects.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  5. @Craig Sutton

    Thank you for your response. Let's say all of those requirements are there: predicting outcome, explanation, questioning, and refining, and they still don't do well. Do you assume there is something wrong with the method or your application of it? Or something else entirely?

    My experience with the optics demo is that all of it was there and I had poor results. I'm trying to understand why that is and how to do better. Should I just assume I botched some aspect of the method? If so, how do I figure out the missing ingredient? Was it the experimental setup? Was it just the students?

  6. @David Wiggins

    There is a learning curve for both teacher and students for this type of activity. One activity may not be enough to fully draw out the concepts you want them to learn. We need to be careful about looking for that one magical lesson that will impart knowledge. They may need several activities all hammering away at the same concept before we shatter misconceptions and rebuild correct understanding. We need to engage our students in a learning cycle that will help them succeed. And we need to remember that we are in a learning cycle ourselves, constantly refining, re-thinking and adapting our approach to best help our students learn.

    I am interested in what specific elements of the optics lesson were effective and what was not. I am going to start a new post asking for teachers to share their stories. Would you be willing to post a comment there for discussion?