“Ms. Ruggerio, is this correct?”
I get asked this question so many times in a day. Early in my career I felt like lots of student questions were a sign of my relationship with students and their willingness to have a conversation to get to an answer. I quickly discovered, however, that preconceived notion was about how I asked questions of my teachers. My students, on the other hand, are usually looking to be told how to do something explicitly so they can then mimic it, rather than wrestle with the ideas on their own. This became particularly apparent with a student my second year who was clearly brilliant but would literally check in with me every step of the way. Eventually, my intervention at the time was that he could ask me two questions per class period, so he needed to choose wisely about which questions would best help him.
In hindsight, this was too harsh of a response. As the adult in in the room it is my responsibility to create an environment where students can learn and must think. Singling this student out in this way likely shamed the student and without any other kind of support there was no way for him to know what a good question necessarily was, only that his teacher was refusing to answer them.
As my classroom has moved towards more student-driven discourse and less teacher-driven lecture, so too does the responsibility for learning and thinking shift from the teacher to the student. My students just found out this week that the time has come for their big energy retake. It’s a special retake I run once a year for this assessment in particular for a number of reasons, but none more important than to teach the valuable lesson: The 100% is in the room.
It is a phrase that has become synonymous with my name amongst my students, they know it’s my thing. Whether they are in lab, or whiteboarding problems or working on a retake, I will often announce at some point in the midst of the productive struggle “the 100% is in the room!” it’s met with some eye rolls, but it’s true. And something that’s really important for me to remind them is that the 100% is not in the room because Will got 100%, the 100% is in the room because each student has some piece of knowledge that is valuable to the whole, and if they can come together as a class they can get to the 100%. Regardless of the task, individual students aren’t done until everyone is done. They need to come to consensus on an answer.
There’s a deeper lesson here about science too: the real world doesn’t provide correct answers. In science, we can declare something is true to the best of our knowledge because enough scientists have come to consensus about an idea and have the evidence to support it. There’s no science god to tell them “yes, that’s correct”. You must hold a firm belief that you have the best possible understanding with the evidence you currently have access.
I have no problem accepting the reality that the vast majority of my students will leave my classroom with little lasting knowledge of physics, and that’s ok. What I hope my students can walk away with for life is the ability to communicate, collaborate, persist, and mentally wrestle with problems, knowing that the best solutions come when we work as a team. The “smartest” people are rarely the best because they are geniuses, they are the best because they know how to pull the genius of everyone together to reach for more.