Sunday, March 14, 2010

Confessions of a Coattail Curber

I can't believe I said it.  They can't believe I said it.  Once more, I let careless words slip out of my mouth.  Like a dagger in the heart, they hit two of my favorite students with such force that their mouths dropped at a rate of 9-10 g's. How could I have been so insensitive? It took only five seconds; but in those five seconds I dashed Riley's and Ellen's hopes and dreams of another good lab. Seeing a group of six students crowded around a single table with only one set of equipment, I placed a molecular model kit on a separate table and said, "Riley and Ellen, let's have you come over here and work together."

Riley and Ellen's mouths opened wide.  It was as though I had broken the news that their best friend had died. Their faces immediately saddened, their postures changed and they even but-Mr-H-ed me. I've been teaching long enough to know that one! "But Mr. H, ..."  This but-Mr-H was noticeably different. There was a distinct trace of lowering intensity from the m-sound to the ch-sound accompanied by a little quivering along the way. This was a clear sign that I had crossed the line and they were VERY upset. Time seemed to stand still as they looked at me, looked at each other, looked at Lonnie, picked up their lab notebooks and slowly walk to the other lab table to work alone on their lab. It was at that point that I realized the dark truth about myself.  I am a coattail curber. 

There is six month's worth of evidence that shows that Riley and Ellen invariably gravitate to Lonnie's lab table.  All overt efforts on my part to vary the groups and to provide different partners and different experiences for students in labs are ultimately foiled by this sort of gravitation between Lonnie and Riley and Ellen.  The nature of this attraction seems to be related to Lonnie's tendency to understand the lab environment. Riley and Ellen's need to be partnered with a student who understands the purpose and is able to plot out a procedure, manipulate the equipment, collect the data, perform the calculations and reason towards a conclusion. As far as Riley and Ellen are concerned, their association with Lonnie is a match made in heaven. As for Lonnie, Riley and Ellen are among the nicest two students you could ever meet. A little bit of nice will go a long way towards providing a lot of helpin'.

It could be said that Riley and Ellen ride the coattails of Lonnie.  Their success in lab is largely due to the coattail effect. Coattail effect. A phrase borrowed from politics which Wikipedia describes as "a generic phrase for anyone that hangs onto another person as they forge ahead, without effort from the hanger-on." For certain, Riley and Ellen are hanging onto Lonnie as he forges ahead. The Free Dictionary describes the coattail effect this way: "to use your connection with someone successful to achieve success yourself." For certain, Riley and Ellen are successful in lab insofar as Lonnie is successful in lab.  But the most vivid description of a coattailer comes from The Urban Dictionary: "To sponge, mooch, free load, skate by, or do absolutely nothing but watch while somebody else does all the work and still somehow try to take at least partial credit for something you had no hand in."  When six students crowd around a single set of material at a lab table, there are going to be several students who do nothing but watch while somebody else does all the work.  And you can bet these students are going to take at least partial credit for something they had no hand in.  In suggesting that Riley and Ellen separate from Lonnie and the other three members at the lab table, I was preventing the coattail effect.  I was being a coattail curber.

Now I assure you that I meant no harm on that fateful Wednesday morning. My intentions were entirely innocent.  In fact, I actually intended to do good towards Riley and Ellen and the other members at the table.  It was not my intent to curb anything.  I simply wanted to promote increased engagement in the lab activity. My logic was simple: as the ratio of the quantity of hands to the quantity of lab sets is decreased, the level of engagement increases and the amount of learning increases. My formula for success was that the smaller the group size, the greater the engagement and the more profitable the lab experience.  So I was simply migrating from table to table in an effort to reduce the group sizes to two students.  But in doing so, I was curbing the ability of many students to achieve success on this lab by means of the coattail effect.  I was a coattail curber.

When I was in high school, I played basketball on the school team.  During nearly every practice there was a moment when the coach blew the whistle and shouted "Free Throws."  We all knew what to do.  The coach did not need to say anything else.  We all got a ball, paired up and went to one of the eight baskets around the gym to practice our free throws.  The formula for optimizing this experience was simple: two players, one set of equipment. The smaller the group size at every basket, the more beneficial the activity. If your free throw partner was ill or injured, you didn't triple up with two other teammates; rather you considered yourself fortunate to have a basket to yourself at which you would get more free throw practice. In my four years of playing high school basketball, I never witnessed six players congregating at a single basket, each waiting their turn to shoot free throws while there were empty baskets around the gym. This was just not a sensible way to occupy the time. And never once did the entire team crowd around the best free throw shooters basket and watch him shoot free throws for 10 minutes, considering each success of his as being their own. That would be ludicrous.

 In making an effort on that Wednesday morning to reduce the size of lab groups, I was exercising free throw practice logic.  Two students, one set of equipment, an optimized experience. Just two weeks earlier, I had done a Young's Experiment Lab in one of my physics classes.  I had one laser, one slide with a double slit, one screen and 25 students. That's 25 students using a single set of equipment.  I enjoyed watching 8-10 students cooperate (and at times, argue) as they attempted to collect data to determine the wavelength of light. But what I didn't enjoy is watching the inactivity of a dozen or more students as they sat unengaged on the side of the room as a spectator. At first, they were humored by the feud over which of the little red dots on the screen to use for measuring y. And many of them were quite entertained as several students argued about how much sag to allow in the measuring tape s they measured the distance from the screen to the double slit.  But soon they zoned out and turned into Delilahs.  Engagement turned into spectatorship and the coattailers quickly lined the sidelines. So when I made the effort to break up the groups of four and six into smaller groups of two students, I was simply attempting to optimize the experience for my students.  It was using free throw practice logic.

After some further resistance, Riley and Ellen crowded around their own set of molecular models and worked on the lab together as a twosome.  I periodically circulated through the lab over the course of the next 30 minutes.  Each time I passed by Riley and Ellen's station, I observed 100% engagement.  I also observed science talk, lots of thinking, growing confidence and great progress.  As the period ended, Riley and Ellen returned to the front of the room with a smile on their face and a sense of pride in their hearts.  Riley commented, "Mr. H, aren't you proud of us?  Ellen and I finished the lab on our own. Aren't you proud of us?"  I winked, smiled and affirmed,  "I knew you could do it. I AM proud of you."

As Riley and Ellen left the room that day, I thought to myself:  I'm proud to be a coattail curber. If I want my students engaged in doing science, I will have to provide environments which are conducive to engagement. And one aspect of such an engaging environment is group size.  While there may be occasions for which larger groups offer more benefit than smaller groups, I've observed that engagement generally increases when free throw practice logic is applied to group size. Especially for those very passive students who generally "sponge, mooch, free load, skate by, or do absolutely nothing but watch while somebody else does all the work", minimizing group size goes a long way towards increasing their engagement.

So the first very practical means of salting the oats involves curbing the coattail effect by limiting the group size.  Next week we explore one teacher's strategy for encouraging engagement and investment in lab activities which has shown positive gains even in situations in which the group size is more than desired.

This week's article is written by Tom Henderson.

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