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The Importance of the First Unit

Teaching an elective is always a bit of a dance. You want your course to be attractive and full of good content, rigorous and challenging yet not too frightening for the student who is a bit afraid of a risk. The balance is usually found in the first unit. I am struggling with just that right now.

I have a first unit that addresses the nature of science and builds a community of learners. The community part works just fine but the nature of science activity is apparently asking my students to think more deeply than normal. These are bright students who want to do well. They have been lulled to sleep a bit and do not yet trust their instincts. When confronted with a question that is not pretty clear cut they become nervous and some will ask for assistance. Other students may bail out of the class. I hate that.
So, I am faced with a dilemma. Do I water down the first unit, ditch it altogether or do I prepare an on ramp to get the kids ready for this level of challenge and introduce it in chunks. That last piece sounds more like my style and may be better for kids in the long run.
Let me give you some context. The assignment is called the CONPTT Grid.
http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lessons/conptt.pdf

Here the students are confronted with the nature of science and asked to determine if some pseudo or non-science like phrenology or astrology fit the nature of science. The site goes through six criteria for science. Science has consistency (you can repeat experiments or observations and generally obtain consistent results), observability (you can observe the phenomenon using your 5 senses, it is naturally occurring (there is no supernatural in pure science), predictability (you can use the observations or experiments to make predictions), testable (the natural cause is testable through experimentation or observation),  and it is tentative (the findings are subject to change as information and technology advances). These sound straight forward but without giving the students a chance to build their ability to state an opinion and ask them to back up that opinion with evidence the task is frustrating and difficult.
Many students will approach the ideas with simplistic answers. I cannot accept that level so I painstakingly type comments into the work and ask them to re-submit their work with more evidence and explanation. I know that this is not a phenomenon tied only to this assignment. Any assignment early in the course that asks for good well defended opinions will be a bit of a stretch. The question is, where to go to look for help in getting the kids to hone their argue from evidence skills.

Interestingly I think the best help may come from those irritating judge shows. Judge Judy, who actually quite entertaining, decides her cases based on the evidence and makes the evidence clear in her judgments. Perhaps we should put something like Alchemy or Phrenology on trial and have a Judge Judy decide the case after the students present their findings!

That is where I am right now. I will structure a courtroom in my class and ask the kids to present their evidence. I will find several pseudo sciences to use as the focus. I, as the judge, will have the task of making clear the evidence. With a little luck and a bit of hard work I can get the kids to focus on the evidence and not the easy undefended answers.  The payoff will be more resiliencies in my classes without having to lower the demands of my first unit. The long term benefit comes in my students developing their abilities to argue and reason. That is more than worth the extra work.

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