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Calvin Kalman wins national physics teaching award

by Alison Ramsey

If you break your class into discussion groups and then bring them together to share their views, you would think that you'd end up with less time to teach complex issues.

In fact, you have more time. Even better, your students learn to think for themselves. This seeming paradox has been put to the test time and again by longtime physics professor Calvin Kalman.

On June 8, Professor Kalman will be presented with the Canadian Association of Physicists' Medal for Excellence in Teaching. While he is in Fredericton to accept the award, Kalman will give a talk on his methods at a plenary session of the CAP's annual conference.

"It's a great bonus because it will be an audience of people who would not usually come to a talk on teaching methods," he said.

Kalman has two winning, student-centred styles, one for introductory classes, another for advanced students. Both make use of collaborative discussion groups and the other half of his method, freestyle writing.

In introductory courses, "they come in with preconceptions about the world around us that experiments have shown are not correct," Kalman said.

He poses a question -- "You need a clear problem in front of you" -- such as, If you throw a ball up in the air, does it stop momentarily before coming down? Logic tends toward "yes." Practice proves "no."

In discussion with each other, "the preconceptions that students have become clearly enunciated. That's the trick." It requires about half an hour for each of the four problems he sets during the course. Kalman said it tunes their brains towards critical thinking.

In advanced classes, he sets students the task of evaluating course work from the point of view of four different science philosophers. They discuss their thoughts in class. "They see things from four different viewpoints. It allows them to develop their own ideas."

Students also perform freestyle writing, which Kalman calls "writing to learn." They are instructed to let their thoughts roam on paper while tackling a particular problem. This produces fragments of sentences, sometimes just words or phrases.

"It allows their thoughts to unfold," Kalman said. "It's based on the way certain people can take a problem, sleep on it, and get the answer in the morning. The process of freestyle writing provides a method of dialogue, a sounding-board for themselves. If you can get past the censorship [of your own logic], you can engage the whole mind."

Kalman sometimes has the class do just two minutes of such writing after absorbing information on the overhead projector. Then they talk to their neighbour, which he calls "free write pair share." Advanced classes continuously do one-page reports, with groups making weekly critiques of course work. "They then re-think the whole collection," Kalman said.

How do these techniques result in more time for complex issues? "When they come to class, they've wrestled with the material and are prepared to discuss it," he explained. "They follow the discussion more carefully in class and are participants.

"I don't have to spend time discussing simple things. Teachers usually spend a lot of time on the simple things, which puts students to sleep. Anyone who's managed to get this far, through high school and CEGEP -- you're not dealing with dullards. They are able to deal with simple matters on their own." It all results in more time for the average student's queries.

Kalman developed the method at the suggestion of his wife, Judy Kalman, an English professor at Concordia. At first, he was skeptical, but "she convinced me to try it." The first year, "one student with a C average was asking and answering questions during the freestyle writing at an A level." He was hooked.

Kalman, a 30-year veteran at Loyola College and Concordia, benefits from the method, too. "It keeps me from burning out. If I just dusted off the notes every year, I'd be bored to tears."

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.