We had a great time on our visit to Japan last summer, but we had one incredibly frustrating experience, on our first day in Yokohama. We couldn’t bring three full weeks’ worth of clothing with us, so we brought a bit more than one week’s worth, and planned to get things cleaned there. The hotel laundry rates were outlandish, so we loaded up a suitcase with dirty laundry, and when we got to Yokohama, we asked directions to a local laundromat (Japanese word: “ko-in ran-da-ri,” or “coin laundry”). The nice lady at the hotel desk gave us a tourist map, with a route indicated on it.

This created a problem, because when given a map and directions, I treated them as I would in a Western country– saying “OK, we go to this major street, go up three cross streets, and turn right, and it should be there.” That failed to turn up anything resembling a coin laundry, and led to a great deal of stomping around in the heat.

In retrospect, I needed to interpret the map in the Japanese manner in which it was intended, namely “Here is a map that will get you into the general vicinity of the thing you’re looking for. Then ask somebody how to get the rest of the way there.” Which is eventually what we did– we asked a security guard, who directed us to a traffic cop, who said “I’m not from here, but the guy on the next block is,” and the guy on the next block knew where the coin laundry was, in a tiny little shop on a narrow street in a residential neighborhood next to a great big temple. The street in question wasn’t even shown on the map.

It occurred to me this morning, that in some senses, what I’m trying to do with lab pedagogy is rather like giving directions in Japan. Or, rather, from a student perspective, it feels like getting directions in Japan.

For the lab this morning, I deliberately did not give the class detailed directions, but just outlined the basic idea, and asked them to invent their own procedure. The lab I’m doing this afternoon is even more extreme– it’s a junior/ senior level lab class, so I give them some general information about how to make the measurement, and ask them to read some papers about related but not identical experiments.

What I’m doing is giving them enough information to get into the general vicinity of what I want them to measure, and asking them to find the rest of the route from other sources– either working it out themselves, or looking things up on the Internet or in the textbook.

I think this is ultimately more valuable for the students, in that it’s a closer match for what they will end up doing in real life– scientific research is not a three-hour lab, with an experimental outcome known in advance. In science, or in engineering (where some of these students are headed), you’re givena problem to solve, and possibly a general outline of how to start on it, but after that, you’re on your own. The information you need to complete the solution may be out there on the Internet, or in a journal, or in somebody else’s brain, but you ened to figure out how to find it.

I think it’s more realistic and useful, but I suspect that many of my students find it frustrating, in much the same way that I found that afternoon in Yokohama frustrating. When you expect to be told exactly where to go and what to do, getting directions that amount to “Go here, and then ask around” is an intensely frustrating experience.

Of course, it is more educational, even if you’re just trying to find a coin laundry– after all, in the course of that afternoon, we also located a cash machine and a cheap convenience store, which came in handy later.

The problem is really one of expectations– when I got handed a map, I expected something very different than what the person giving me the map intended. On the educational side of the analogy, we have students who have learned to expect a particular thing from lab classes and lab handouts, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. I need to do a better job of explaining my intent, in the same way that the nice people at the Royal Park Hotel needed to make it clear to the ignorant Westerners that the map was not meant to be taken as giving extremely precise directions all the way there.

Comments

  1. #1 Josh
    April 24, 2008

    I think your students will get frustrated if they don’t know how you are approaching the lab. If they understand in the beginning that you are only providing a rough guide and that they are on their own after a point then that will be OK. I would be pissed if I had the impression that one simply follows the instructions to the end of the lab, but instead it turns out that the info isn’t all there.

  2. #2 Justin
    April 24, 2008

    I did this lab with Chad when I was a senior, and his “Japanese” directions made his lab very different, and I think more valuable an experience than the 3 or so others that term. Rather than just following directions, we had to actually, believe it or not, THINK about what we were doing. It would have been an even better experience if you could get students to read the papers earlier than an hour or two before the lab. Good luck with that.

  3. #3 Bob Hawkins
    April 24, 2008

    In my experience, the mismatch between what students expect and any physics course is a problem. They’re so used to courses where memorization and telling the teacher what he expects to hear are enough. When they give what they know is the correct answer and get zero credit, well, “You didn’t show your work” sometimes doesn’t satisfy them.

  4. #4 Kirk
    April 24, 2008

    I think as long as you are available to your students just as the police officers and security guard were to you, then your method is sound.

  5. #5 CCPhysicist
    April 24, 2008

    I’ll second what Josh said. You really do need to tell them what critical thinking skill you are trying to teach them, and make it clear that your first lab was easing them into a more open-ended approach rather than typical of what the next one would be like. You might also print out what Justin wrote and share that “more valuable than the others” bit (and the “read the papers more than an hour before class” part) with the class. Students listen to other students. I’ve put that to really good use in my class.

    My way of dealing with the problem in #3 is to explain exactly why I require work. It turns out that my former students help with that, because engineering profs can be even more picky than we are.

  6. #6 Bob
    April 25, 2008

    Set clear expectations and make sure the students understand they can and should ask questions if they don’t understand expectations or anything else for that matter.

    The latter may not be easy, especially in physics where students may not be as outgoing or confident as in other fields. Breaking the tension, lowering the perceived social consequences of showing ignorance, etc., is vital. With a small enough class you could try some improv warmups to break the ice, associate names and faces, and sharpen students’ attention and awareness. Try Pass the Clap or have each person give their first name, have everyone repeat it, and when everyone’s been introduced, call someone’s name, they have to call someone else’s name, etc., until everyone’s been called and the energy starts dying down.

    These sound weird in the context of a physics lab, but they serve the purpose of making everyone do something vocal, physical, and (importantly) harmlessly embarrassing. It sets everyone in the class at the same status and proves everyone there can hear, speak, and pay attention. Asking a question should be no more embarrassing or difficult than either of these exercises.

    FWIW, introductory improv classes use these and similar exercises in order to put students at ease and help them overcome fear – fear of looking foolish in public, fear of participating, fear of making mistakes. The goal is to train people to take risks on stage and to be keenly aware of what’s going on around them – being active and engaged. Similarly for a physics lab, students need to participate and ask questions, and actively search for answers rather than expecting them to drop like candy bars out of a vending machine.

    You don’t have to turn the classroom into Who’s Line Is It Anyway? but if you can get students to ask questions, students that for whatever reason are normally passive, half the battle is won. In my case I know I would’ve done better had I been less nervous and asked more questions, but it wasn’t until a decade out of college that I actually could.

  7. #7 milkshake
    April 25, 2008

    I have seen this approach fail miserably in introductory orgo chemistry lab in Prague. The problem there was that we had too many students for one lab supervisor who anyway did not give a damn. He would say “read the instructions in the book” and left it at that.

    Combine that with lack of good glassware (it is expensive, and many pieces were allways broken or missing, as students from research groups were fond of pilfering the teaching lab). So left to their devices, the freshmen students there could learn the most pig-headed way of doing stuff, which they either invented by themself or copied from their neighbour. The worst bad habit imaginable, it made me cringe to see people trying to use the same techniques later when doing an actual research.

    I am all for trial-and-error iteration method in self-learning practical chemistry but you should not presume that every person in the lab is realy intelligent or interested enough (we had pre-meds and highchool teachers taking these labs and portugese-speaking students from Africa strugling with Czech language) and with nasty chemicals and lots of flammables stuff around, this could lead to very dangerous mishaps.