Monday, October 18, 2010

The Learning Pyramid

Inattention, thy name is freshman.

Welcome to my world. A world in which nobody listens and nobody reads. A world in which anarchy reigns supreme. A world in which Mrs. Hillbilly Mom exaggerates a wee bit in order to relieve stress and make a point.

My freshman classes went to the science lab today, to experiment with surface area. We have just spent two weeks studying weathering and erosion, and the role of surface area in the process of physical and chemical breakdown of materials. Note the words, the very title, in large font at the top of their lab report: Surface Area. And we proposed a hypothesis, based on the concept of Surface Area. In every class. Just before going to the lab.

Printed on the lab report, under procedure, in numbered order, were the steps of the experiment. Steps which Mrs. Hillbilly Mom read out loud each class period, asking students to follow along. Did they understand? Yes. Any questions? No.

The instructions were simple. Something like this:
#Fill two cups with the same amount of room temperature water.
#Record the amount of water. (A beaker marked for 300 milliliters was provided.)
#Set aside one sugar cube.
#Break a second sugar cube into smaller pieces, using a mortar and pestle.
#Put both sugar cubes into separate cups of water at the same time.
#Stir gently with a straw.
#Record the time when sugar particles can no longer be seen in each cup.

The questions were simple:
*Which sugar cube dissolved in the least amount of time? Why?
*How might you make the original sugar cube dissolve faster?

I explicitly directed students not to crush the sugar cube to smithereens, as we could have used granulated sugar if that was my intent.

I informed students that there was no need to stir the cup of water like a witch at a cauldron, that a gently swirling motion was all that we needed.

Here are some of the NOT-LISTENING behaviors that were observed throughout the day:

--used hot water, because "that water felt too cold to me, so I ran hot water instead so it would be room temperature" (which made both sugar cubes dissolve in about 10 seconds)

--filled each cup with faucet water, performed experiment, then asked what the beaker was for

--let sugar cubes sit in water cups, while playing with straws and asking what was taking so long

--stopped timing after the first sugar cube dissolved, then asked how you know how long it takes the second sugar cube to dissolve

--left crumbled sugar from broken sugar cube in bottom of mortar instead of dumping the whole kit-n-caboodle into the water

--asked how you can tell when the sugar is dissolved

--recorded measurements of 500, 28, :04, etc. (What are we talking about here? Gallons? Light-years? Kittens?)

--answered that the first sugar cube dissolved faster because...
+it was crushed
+it had more space in it
+it wasn't stuck together as tight
+it had more molecules in it
+it was already partly dissolved
+it dissolved faster

OK. It's not rocket science. The whole lesson was about SURFACE AREA. It was written on the board. It was discussed. It was in big dark font on top of the lab report. Is it too much to ask that somebody make the connection that the crushed sugar cube had more surface area than the original sugar cube? Apparently, it IS too much to ask. Only about 10 percent of the students came up with this answer.

They might as well have said that a fairy flew down from Rainbowland and waved her wand and made that broken sugar cube dissolve faster.

I understand why Basementia Buddy bangs her head against the whiteboard day after day during the teaching of algebra to middle school students.

It's like a model of the energy pyramid. Only 10 percent of knowledge is transferred from Mrs. Hillbilly Mom's mouth to the brains of the freshman class.

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