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Acting Out in Higher Education

Language matters, as it shapes the ways we think. Back when I was a new physics professor, I taught physics to students. Now, I facilitate learning about physics with students. I invite and engage learners to develop and improve models that describe and predict physical phenomena in this amazing universe we share. I am a learner too in this collective journey.

The beauty of education lies in empowering people to think differently, to understand reality better, and to make more aligned decisions.

Too often, we talk about education as a transfer of expertise from the instructor to the students. In addition to a plethora of education research revealing that is not how learning works--students are not “empty vessels” for teachers to fill with wisdom--there are social equity problems in how we implement such hierarchical authority structures. The kings of knowledge share their wealth with the masses, and maybe a chosen few will be granted the chance to solve a maze and jump through some hoops and someday become kings themselves.

I love Cultivating Ensembles because ensembles can be inclusive, dynamic and creative. Together, we co-create a whole that is greater than the sum of individual contributions. We learn from and with each other, recognizing our diverse strengths and gifts. We are all sources and creators of knowledge. We each have something to contribute, and we make space to engage contributions from everyone. I struggle with how to cultivate ensembles in an introductory undergraduate physics course of several hundred students. I am grateful to learn from and apply the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) approach, developed by Professor Eugenia Etkina and collaborators over the past couple of decades, combined with what I have learned with Cultivating Ensembles (CE). In ISLE, students work together in ensembles to do physics: to observe phenomena, find patterns, propose explanations, test possible explanations, identify assumptions, and reject or refine possible explanations. The challenge is how to scale this approach in large classes.

Moving a large class online, I can share a couple of things that I learned through CE that seemed to help. I started the first class with playing dance music over Zoom, inviting students to join me in moving with the music, and my screen quickly filled with smiling faces and a feeling that we were together while apart. (We may wonder, “How do we get students to do something, like turn on their cameras?” The answer I’ve learned with CE: Invite them in.) I also added a question to my anonymous introductory questionnaire asking students what gifts they brought to the class. One student wrote, “sadness”. This provided an opportunity to note how our human emotions like sadness are indeed gifts, ones that too often we tend to hide rather than share.

Recent book recommendation: The Disordered Cosmos by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein,

To watch Carolyn's presentation from Cultivating Ensembles 2019 click here.

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