Sunday, February 21, 2010

Labor Or Oratory

It's Wednesday morning and Delilah enters the classroom and asks "Are we doing a lab today, Mr. H?" I answer in the affirmative and she responds with an enthusiastic "Yes." Her question and response elicit a wealth of emotion inside of me as I continue preparations for the lab. Most of these emotions are negative. I am upset, disappointed, and feeling a sense of defeat.

You might be asking "How could a physics teacher be upset about a student's expression of enthusiasm for a lab?" The answer is easy. We are four months into the school year and by now I know that Delilah isn't excited about doing a lab. Rather, she is excited about being in the lab. She is excited about being in the lab where she can talk and not being in her seat where she must be still, attentive and quiet. She is not excited about pondering a question, devising a procedure, collecting data, analyzing data and completing a report. When it comes to doing those tasks, Delilah will definitely disappear into the background. And unfortunately, her presence in the lab group will likely draw one or two more members of the group into the background for off-task conversation and socialization. Delilah talks with a friend, allowing her partners to do most the work;  she joins them near the end of the lab to get their data and endures their efforts to analyze it.

Delilah's attitude towards lab is like a contagious infection that spreads to those with whom she has social contact with. This is the infection which can destroy a laboratory environment, transforming it from an environment of scientific inquiry into one of social inquiry. It is not the labor of the Laboratory that has Delilah excited on this Wednesday morning. It is the oratory of the Laboratory which has Delilah excited. And that explains in part why the negative emotions flush through my body on this Wednesday morning.

During the first days of the course, I make an effort to create the proper mindset towards the laboratory.   With as much drama as I can muster, I explain to students that ...

The laboratory is sacred. It is the place in the room in the room where you become engaged in the doing of science. The answers to scientific questions are found in the back of the room - in the laboratory. It is in the laboratory that you will be engaged in the most important activities in science - asking and answering a question through observation, measurement and data analysis.
Physics is not a spectator sport. You must be mentally active. Those who approach physics in passive mode will be less thrilled and most disappointed by the course. Physics involves involvement! It demands a proactive approach to learning. It demands pondering, thinking, problem-solving, inquiring. To be successful, you will have to both sort it all out ;and put it together. And the location in the room where you will be most on your own and most active will be in the laboratory. You won't be alone in the lab, but you will be on your own - on your own to ponder a question, to adopt an approach to answer it, to collect some data and to sort out the meaning of what the data says about the answer to the question. In this course, you will be quite active in the lab, involved in a question, pondering and thinking through the results, and determining the answer to the question. This is science and science happens in the lab.

I repeat the message throughout the first weeks of the course with the fervor of an evangelist. I tell stories, design experiences and emphasize the central role of lab in the course. And now four months into the course, it is evident that my view of the laboratory and Delilah's view of the laboratory clash. I view it as the Laboratory and she views it as the labOratory. It is the same place in the room, but the emphasis, the motives, the reason for going there and the type of pleasure which is derived from there are polar opposites. My laboratory is sacred sermon has not been received. In fact, it has been sacrilegiously trampled upon. The place in the room which I spent several weeks consecrating to the service of science has been profaned.  For Delilah, lab time has in effect become recess time. It is not a time in which she becomes engaged in the most important aspect of the course - doing science; rather it is a time in which she assumes she can exercise her right to avoid science.

The truth is that my message regarding the nature of the laboratory has not yet been received by all. There are more Delilahs out there - in my class room and probably in yours. Should we be surprised that a large percentage of our students do not share our passion towards the laboratory? It is the proverbial dilemma: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

But is this the end of the story?  Should we just throw in the towel, give up and let the Delilahs be Delilah? No!  Come back in a couple of weeks for ... the rest of the story.

This week's article is contributed by Tom Henderson. Tom is the author of The Physics Classroom website.  He is a graduate of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. He has been a high school physics teacher since 1989. Tom currently teaches Honors ChemPhys (Physics portion) and Honors Chemistry at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, IL, where he has taught since 1989. 

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