Sometimes Throwing Out Your Lesson is the Best Option

This past week I got out a lesson that I have taught so many ways over the years that I cannot remember the original way I taught it.  I have never taught it the same way twice.  It irritates me and, more importantly, it aggravates my students – not in a good way.  It is a vector drawing lab. If you don’t teach physics, you may not understand how much time we spend on this topic, usually with little success for long-term understanding.

So this year when I was looking through all of my past revisions of lessons and labs, I made some changes and was ready Monday when my students came to class.  At that point, I threw out my lab. I don’t know why I did it, other than I was still unhappy with it.  I turned to my students and said that I was creating the lesson on the spot and it was a competition.  Now, I hate competitions in the classroom because they have a severe negative side.  But I was ready to go with this one, just to see what would happen.

Here is what I told them(remember, I was making this up as I went):

  • They had to get together in groups of up to four people.
  • They had to find a place in our school to start(our building is almost a 1/2 mile around)
  • They would place an “X” on the ground with tape.
  • They needed to come up with a list of 10-20 vectors, complete with distance and directions, for ANOTHER group to follow to the end.
  • They would hide something within a couple of steps near the ending spot.
  • The second period all teams would be handed a random list from another group
  • Each team had to draw a scaled vector drawing of this list of directions.
  • The map must have all vectors drawn and labeled correctly and  must have a resultant displacement vector drawn and labelled correctly.
  • Only at that point would I allow them to go follow their steps and maps to find the hidden item.
  • The first team back would get a prize. (at first I had no clue what the prize would be.)

What ensued was pure chaos – and I loved it! I don’t think I have laughed so hard during a lesson in a long time.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the students have to teach each other (a lot of the time by arguing) how to perform the activity.  Probably the most important thing I witnessed was that the students CARED about understanding the lab.  It was not that the lab was fun or interesting, they actually needed to know how to look at and view vectors.  It is probably the only real world/real life example of how vectors are used that many of them will ever use.  I have done vector treasure hunts before, but none with the complete freedom this one had.


Throughout the day I redid this lesson three times.  Each time I modified it and made it better.  For example, the rest of the classes had to have a solid 20 steps.  This way, all groups had the same number.  Many of the groups came back and realized they only had 19. At first they freaked out and thought they had to redo the lab, but then someone inevitably realized they could just break one long vector into 2 small ones.  This showed they understood vectors! I could not have been happier.  Another thing I figured out was that they would hide a pic of my face somewhere at the end and that the reward was a candy bar.  They loved it when they ran back and “won.”  Of course, I never told them what the prize was at the end-until all groups made it back. I also added that at least one of the vectors had to be over 40 meters.

I think the best part was watching them do scaled drawings.  Of course, many people have little to no experience doing this, so when they tried picking a scale, almost all of them picked a scale which was too small or usually – too big.  The number of pages that had to be taped together was ridiculous but they got the point – check ahead before committing to a scale.

Things I learned from this:

  • IMG_3617Students can do way more than you think they can when PROPERLY motivated. (I learned this a long time ago but I need to be reminded every now and then)
  • Proper motivation does not have to be a reward.  This time it was,kinda, but to them, it was showing they could do this quickly.  The looks when they RAN back into the room panting was the best reward I could get. Even the students who knew they “lost” ran back fast and with a smile.
  • The only students who were not happy about it were two groups who could not find my pic  at the end. One had been removed by workers who remove the outside of a drinking fountain while they were working on.  The other was well hidden under a shelf.
  • Some students did try to “cheat” by watching another group hide their “prize.” So I have decided to have students hide multiple pics along their route and they circle the vectors that end near a hiding spot.
  • I want to have prizes for completion of the activity for all teams. Maybe “prize levels”
  • I am going to come up with more competitive learning strategies this year when it to the team’s benefit where all members of a team learn a topic.IMG_3618-1

I think the best part of this activity though was that I was happy during the lesson. School has been way too stressful the past few years and this was a great break from that stress.

Revelations like this are why I love teaching.