Great Parable - Read and tell me what you think!
The Barometer Story
by Alexander Calandra - an article from Current Science, Teacher's Edition, 1964.
Some time ago, I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. It seemed that he was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would do so if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.
The Barometer Problem
I went to my colleague's office and read the examination question, which was, "Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer."
The student's answer was, "Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building."
Now, this is a very interesting answer, but should the student get credit for it? I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify that the student knows some physics, but the answer to the question did not confirm this. With this in mind, I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed to this, but I was surprised that the student did.
Acting in terms of the agreement, I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, since I had another class to take care of, but he said no, he was not giving up. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him, and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which was:
"Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S= 1/2 at^2, calculate the height of the building."
At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded and I gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague's office, I recalled that the student had said he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.
"Oh, yes," said the student. "There are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building."
"Fine," I said. "And the others?"
"Yes," said the student. "There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.
"Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of 'g' at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of 'g', the height of the building can, in principle, be calculated."
Finally, he concluded, "If you don't limit me to physics solutions to this problem, there are many other answers, such as taking the barometer to the basement and knocking on the superintendent's door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: 'Dear Mr. Superintendent, here I have a very fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.'"
At this point, I asked the student if he really didn't know the answer to the problem. He admitted that he did, but that he was so fed up with college instructors trying to teach him how to think and to use critical thinking, instead of showing him the structure of the subject matter, that he decided to take off on what he regarded mostly as a sham.
First I would say that the question needed to be more specific, as in - "Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building by using a barometer in the manner in which it was intended."
Second I would say that the kid was a snot-nose smart ass. The class was about physics, not some touchy feely creative writing sit in.
And thirdly, it doesn't make sense that the kid would say this at the end. It reverses the kid's reason for doing what he did. All of his answers were about alternative ways of solving the problem and specifically NOT about the structure of the subject matter.
So what gives?
My take is basically what you said in your first post: The way we ask questions determines A LOT when it comes to the kind of answers we get! If the teacher was going to be fair, he would have to recognize that he had erred when he phrased the question that way. Sure, the kid MIGHT not know anything about the class, but this was about right and wrong!
Next, I thought about the purpose of teaching the material and not the AUDIENCE for who we are presenting the material! If we are not good at what we do, the students will find ways to poke holes in our credibility! There is always a chance there is someone smarter then we are in the audience.
Then, to me, the most important point: The kid KNEW his stuff, but he was tired of the pedantic ways of professors who knew it all. There are times when we all act like we are smarter than everyone, but then someone comes along and knocks us off our horse. How we handle that situation is to me the entire point of the story.
I would have given him no credit. It was a physics class, and learning how to think critically and solve problems is kind of important and is why we make students take geometry and other math courses beyond algebra (and basically learn stuff they might never use in real life.)
For him to mock it and say “just the facts” are what are important shows that he really doesn’t understand the class. Maybe he understands simple physics, but he doesn’t understand the class. Or the subject. He is not as bright as he thinks he is.
And maybe the author back in 1964 trying to rebel against changes in the education system wasn’t as bright as he thought he was either. The story would work better in a different subject other than math or physics, though there is probably just a lot of simple “resistance to change” lying underneath.
I’m not sure how it applies to today. Both critical thinking and the facts tend to missing in education.
As far as handling the situation, if the kid can really think critically, then he should know the proper way to answer the question to get a good grade. If he chooses to answer differently to make a point, that is his prerogative. But he has to drink the hemlock so to speak and take the bad grade.
I wholeheartedly agree with your point. However, I am more intrigued with the story than the characters. Like you pointed out, what was the author trying to get across in 1964?
Seriously, if you are familiar with our ED System, then you probably realize that we are at the mercy of these so-called "critical thinkers" who get their jollies trying to muff up a teacher's sole purpose: to assess the ability of the students to prove their understanding of the course curriculum (whatever it may be!). But DAILY, we are required to pause our daily agenda to listen to these (as it was so aptly put "snot-nosed kids" express their disapproval for this concept: Sometimes, You are just WRONG and you need to deal with it. Clever as he is and as much as I wish I had the audacity to confront a few teachers with something this fresh, I knew my place and I dealt with the fact that I was not the teacher! Am I wrong here? Why do we need to justify what we are certified as "Professionals" to teach... so we can allow our students the freedom of expression and individualism?
Hmmm... I wish I could hear more opinions on this!
Yeah, this really gets into your definition of "critical thinking."
From the story I sorta pictured more the scenario along the line of some guy upset that kids no longer had to learn the multiplication table up to 20 and instead were learning "new math."
I interpreted "critical thinking" to mean problem solving and analysis instead of just rote memory, but if it means asking students their opinions for self-esteem and self-expression reasons...bah. That's probably one reason why everybody with barely a high school education feels that they are qualified to edit high school science books.
Interesting story. I will forward this story to a friend of mine who is teaching physics at an university. Though he is more into quantum physics I'm pretty sure that he will be impressed by the student's ability to solve a fundamental problem of physics (namely how to measure, and how to measure distances correctly in this case).
Thank you for sharing this story.
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