Paul Andersen’s NABT talk, Lessons of a Half Life

This is my second post in a series about my favorite sessions at the 2013 NABT conference in Atlanta, GA. You can read the first, about Dr. Rita Colwell’s keynote, here.

Paul Andersen, best known for his extensive series of Bozeman Biology youtube videos, spoke on the lessons he’s learned during his teaching career. Before his talk began, a long line of biology teacher fangirls lined up to get his picture, and people  excitedly tweeted their images. It was hilarious.

Mr. Andersen compared our classrooms to the Red Queen hypothesis: we are constantly learning new things to try in our classrooms, and we have to keep running just to stay in the same place. He started teaching high school at a tiny college in Montana where he taught a wide variety of science classes, plus coach track and direct the band. As a coach, Mr. Andersen collected data from the newspapers on runners in Montana and published their races and times on a website, which got very popular with track runners in Montana. This taught him that people are always waiting for you to share. He gets many questions about how he makes his videos, and he has a standard response he sends out with detailed instructions. In his response, he always asks people to share their videos with him after they try it. Very few share their videos back with him. He compares the red record button to taking the red pill in The Matrix. It’s scary. The first time he ever made a video, his students told him it was really boring. He added techno music in the background in an attempt to appeal to younger generations, which only made it worse. However, he kept making videos and soliciting student feedback and soon learned what makes for a good video.

Mr. Andersen tried to get involved in helping teachers to add technology into their classrooms. Many teachers said they were interested, but they didn’t ever do anything about it. He got so frustrated that he decided to do the opposite of what he normally did. He quit asking teachers to change, and held secret meetings about technology and education in the library. Gradually, the group of participants grew and became great friends. He learned that professional development doesn’t work top down, it has to be bottom up.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Andersen changed his classroom into a video game and gave a TED talk about it. He was concerned that one of the major points of failure in classrooms is that everyone has to work at the same rate. He put everyone at different levels, gave them iPads, and they had to progress through the levels. He said that if you want to make huge, transformative changes in your classroom, you have to go all in – kind of like jumping into a freezing lake when you’re camping. If you try to get in a little at a time, you’ll chicken out. The video game change was very rewarding, but took a lot of work. He commented that the people who are famous for talking about flipped classrooms are all consultants who don’t teach anymore. It’s really hard to manage a classroom that is so decentralized, especially when not all of the students are internally motivated.

His class is now what he calls a blended learning cycle. During the video game experiment, his students had lots of resources, but didn’t know where to go or what to do. You have to make the path for them and tell them where to go. He starts each small unit with a question and a short investigation activity. Then students watch a video, do some reading, and have a review session. During review sessions, students have notecards with foundational terms and processes on the front. Once a small group gets the basics down, they come to the front and Mr. Andersen quizzes them on those concepts. Then he reviews the more complicated parts with them. The back of each notecard has reminders of his basic teaching progression for that particular topic to help him in reviewing with the students. At the end of the review session he gives the students a secret word they can enter into the computer to get points for their participation. He avoids grading except for exams and a few lab reports (something I’d love to be able to implement!).

I enjoyed this talk because I’ve encountered many of the same problems in my teaching. How do I help students when they are all learning at different paces? How can I reduce lecture time while still giving students the content they need to learn? How do I motivate students to practice all the concepts they need without getting bogged down in grading? I enjoyed hearing Mr. Andersen’s perspective on some of these problems.

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