Another day of agile teaching

The prof I’m working with in our introductory #astro101 class at UBC surprised me today. I thought he was sabotaging a teachable moment when in fact, he pulled one of the most “agile” moves he’s made yet. Here’s the story:

Today is March 21, 2011, the first full day of Spring. The vernal equinox occurred yesterday, March 20 at 4:21 PDT. The instructor, let’s call him H, started today’s class with a clicker question:

The correct answer is A) but I fully expected a bunch of students to vote B), confusing the “going North” and “going South” for the Sun’s motion along the ecliptic.

The students thought, then voted. H looked at the results and said (I’m paraphrasing from memory),

The correct answer is A. 70% of you said that…

Oh, no, I thought to myself. He just gave away the answer and the success rate – only 70%, not terrific – and totally short-circuited the teachable moment that comes via peer instruction.

That thought took about 1 second, of course, so it was all over by the time H continued with

…Very few of you said B, C, or D and 30% said E. Let me show you one slide and then I’ll come back to the super moon.

The "super Moon" as seen from Vancouver. (Credit @gmarkham, used with permission.)

You see, there was another event this past weekend. The full Moon occurred near perigee, the point in the Moon’s orbit around the Earth when it is closest. This means we had a full Moon, closer than usual, so it appeared bigger. Super, even. Oh, and it was.

So, here I was, getting alarmed that H was missing the opportunity for the students who voted A) to convince the students who voted B) to change their answers. But that’s not what happened at all. Hardly anyone voted B. They either knew the right answer A) or were more interested in the astronomy-in-real-life super Moon event. And H agilely, er, with great agility, confirmed the correct answer and followed up with an something 30% of the students cared about. He talked about the full Moon, how it was 14% bigger and 29% brighter. Not twice as big – don’t believe everything you hear on TV. That’s slightly bigger and closer than usual but not much. And no, the super Moon did not cause the earthquake in Japan.

Wow. I was impressed. He had the whole thing planned out but tailored his response based on theirs. Cool.

What about you? What teaching have you done, witnessed or experienced that shows agility?

About Peter Newbury

Find me on Twitter @polarisdotca
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