When Good Ideas Go Horribly Wrong

I had this great idea.

The “Better Biology” program was progressing quite well with the grade 11 SL class. There were challenges of course, but I was impressed with the level of independence of the students. And so, because I’m insane, I thought to myself why not try something similar with my grade 12 SLs?

In December.

After a year and a half of being taught the same way.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

To be honest, it sounded swell at the time.

The problem was, neither I nor the students handled the change very well. In this blog I tend to focus on things that are successful in my practice for several reasons: it’s easier to write about, I want to remember my good ideas, and I want to provide resources for other teachers. However, this is an opportunity to reflect on what NOT to do, to evaluate the plan and improve it for next year and to ask others for guidance and advice. Therefore, the following is an account of my well-intended plan and its terrible execution. Comments are welcome.

We were studying nutrition – one of my favorite units in the course. It’s a topic I am passionate about and happen to have a broad scope of knowledge beyond the curriculum. There are lots of fun activities and lab experiments to do. Yet as engaging as I have tried to make it over the past three years, it was still too teacher centered. Not every student would share my excitement over anti-oxidants and want to listen to me ramble on about them for an hour (I know, hard to believe right?). And really, what was the point about a lecture on vitamins? I might as well be reading the text book out loud. This unit is very content oriented and most of it is not difficult to grasp. There’s really no need for direct instruction other than for the purposes of clarification and reinforcement. Therefore, I tried to change it in a way that would make it somewhat more student centered.

I decided to create six case studies with the following goals in mind based on some of the essentials of Project Based Learning:

  • Base the unit around a “real-world” problem. The goal here was to provide students with a more authentic learning opportunity i.e. an experience that would simulate what a real dietician/nutritionist would do. I wanted them to feel like their work was useful beyond just providing answers to test questions.
  • Develop and assess 21st century skills. I was trying to encourage collaboration, communication (written, oral and visual) and critical thinking. I am tired of tests and quizzes that mainly assess the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. I was attempting to have students analyze and apply their knowledge in a different context. I wanted them to have class time to create a product that would demonstrate what they had learned.
  • Allow for frequent formative assessment. I wanted to provide feedback to the students throughout the project rather than just at the end of the unit with a test. I also intended for them to engage with an “expert” in the field. I hoped that having a professional critique their work would give the students a more in-depth evaluation of how well they had applied their knowledge. With regular communication, they would have opportunities to reflect and revise. It was also meant to encourage them to do work of a higher standard. Finally, I hoped that the expert might learn a few things from the students and benefit from working with them.

Each case study revolved around one patient with a nutritional disorder. I prepared a patient profile with background information, family history, symptoms etc…The students had the following tasks: (note – this is a simplified version of their actual instructions)

Part 1: Knowledge and Comprehension

1. Working with a partner use the website http://www.healthline.com/symptomsearch to determine the nutritional disorder that your patient has.

2. Once you have correctly identified the disorder, you will need to do some background research. You will be provided with a series of questions to answer. Using a Google doc, work with your partner to answer the questions. You need to consult at least two sources.

3. On day ___ we will have a Skype session with a Canadian dietician who can answer any questions you have and give you feedback on your Google docs.

Part 2: Analysis and Application

4. When you have enough background information, you can now use your knowledge to create a one-day meal plan for the patient that will meet his/her nutritional needs based on his/her disorder.

5. Post your meal plan in the class Google spreadsheet. This way we will have enough meal plans to last the patient 1 week.

Part 3: Evaluation and Creation

6. Evaluate two of your sources using the CARS method.

7. Choose one patient for whom you will create a Voicethread presentation. In this presentation you must include the following

  • The name of the disorder and how you were able to diagnose it
  • Answers to the background research questions
  • Analysis of your meal plan and justification of your decisions based on your background knowledge
  • Discussion of treatment options you would recommend for your patient given their profile/family history etc…

8. Record the narrative of your presentation using video comments on Voicethread. Your presentation will be viewed by a Canadian dietician who will provide you feedback and ask you questions to engage you in discussion.

9. Come back to your Voicethread and respond to the dietitians comments and questions. Address any changes you will need to make to your meal plan or your understanding of the disorder/nutritional concepts.

What went wrong:

a) This project dragged on FOREVER. I underestimated the amount of time it would take to do the case studies and meal plans.

b) The timing was not good. As it turned out, my dietician friend in Canada could never Skype when I needed her to. She was never able to connect with the students and never became a part of the project. I am still waiting to see if she will be able to even comment on their Voicethreads. The point of using this tool was to allow communication and interaction between the students and the expert beyond the walls of the classroom. It didn’t quite go that way. And now it seems pointless as the unit is over and the students have moved on from this project.

c) The students decided to “divide and conquer.” Rather than actually working together on the Google doc, they just split up all the questions. The questions were created in a purposeful manner to scaffold the content. Each question built on the last and in order to have a better understanding of the content, they needed to be done by each student in order. This made me realize that they were not really that interested in what the questions were asking, but more focused on quickly finding the answers and moving on to the next case study. They were not getting a complete picture of each case study.

d) Voicethread was being a pain in the butt. I have had problems with Voicethread in the past, but for some reason I thought it would work this time! Students got frustrated trying to record their video comments with no sound on their MacBooks. I adjusted all their settings and I still don’t know what went wrong. Students decided to use Jing instead and then just imported it into Voicethread. Extra work for them. Defeats the purpose.

e) Students barely put any effort into their presentations. Some of them don’t even have a single picture! They were clearly not all that committed to the case study they had been given.

f) Students did not trust themselves. Despite the fact that I had been constantly commenting on their Google docs and they had been revising them, when it came time for test prep, nobody used their own research to study. Out came the textbooks and study guides, notes from tutors and former students, internet IB sites etc…I couldn’t believe that they didn’t want to study from the notes they had worked on for weeks. It was as if the whole thing was pointless. How disappointing.

I still think this could work, but needs better implementation. I have a few ideas of how to improve the unit – mostly I need to be more organized and actually involve the expert. I am also thinking of reducing each pair to one case study and having them do it properly without rushing. Then sharing among pairs could occur at some sort of “Nutrition Disorders Symposium.” Application of learning could be that each pair creates a meal plan for the patients they did not study based on what they learned from other students at the symposium. Finally, to instill confidence in the students and make them realize that their work was worthwhile, I would give them a written assessment for which they can use ONLY the Google docs.

Image URL: http://funny-pictures-blog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Bad-idea.jpg

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