A classic research study found that teachers make more important decisions in the course of an hour's work than almost any other professional. We are constantly "reading the vibes" from students, speeding up or slowing down, and moving on or doubling back to ensure comprehension. But for most teachers, these decisions are based on very informal indicators—questions, blank stares, and fidgets. We can be deceived by the false confidence that a quiet class can project. It's also human nature to avoid the really disconcerting uproar that a totally confused bunch of students can create.
That's why refining our formative assessment tools is such an important process, and it's also why the Uncovering Student Ideas series has become so valuable to classroom teachers. Volume 4, by Page Keeley and Joyce Tugel, adds another 25 "probes" to the NSTA collection, bringing the total to 100.
What is a probe? It's a simple, one-page problem involving a real-world situation. Each has an open-response opportunity, and many have extensions for further analysis. After each probe in this book, the authors offer good explanations for teachers, discussions of curricular implications, and correlations to standards. There's also a synopsis of related research and good references.
Like all of the probes in the series, those in Volume 4 are difficult to pin to any specific level. The text, graphics, and way the questions are posed make them suitable to elementary classrooms, but the concepts involved easily extend through middle school standards as well. Research shows that many students leave high school with the same misconceptions with which they entered, so an occasional probe there wouldn't be out of place at all. And teachers will want to preview them in advance, because I can assure you that you'll find at least some areas in which your own naive preconceptions are challenged. I've offered probes to my graduate students in educational evaluation and they are invariably puzzled, amazed, and fascinated by the issues that these simple problems raise.
Here's an example that sent me out on my morning walk thinking hard. As a chick egg incubates, does it increase or decrease in mass? Or stay the same? My first reaction was that the egg must stay the same, since it seemed like such a great analogy for conservation of mass. But then my biological training came into play: metabolism requires energy. No food is getting in, but some gas must be going in and out. If the developing chick is burning energy, it must be losing mass...Or can it pick up humidity through its shell? Like a good mystery, it's against the rules to peek at the explanations until you've challenged yourself! You'll have to grab a book to find out!
Uncovering Student Ideas is highly recommended for teachers at every level; it contains a set of essential tools that cross discipline, grade, and ability levels. There's no better way to guide your planning and decision-making process. It's also a great source of ice-breakers for informal professional development sessions.