When Alex Cocoles encountered a tough question on his Advanced Placement chemistry exam a month ago, the Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory senior did not fret — he knew exactly how the chemical reaction in a battery works thanks to the marshmallow fight in Dr. Ramsey Musallam’s class.
That day, Musallam had showed the class how electrons flow in batteries by dividing his students into anodes (negative charge) and cathodes (positive charge) and lining them up on opposite sides of the room. He provided the anodes with marshmallows and told the students to throw them at their classmates. When the cathodes tried to retaliate, he jumped on a desk and shouted, “Stop!”
Why? As a rule, electrons only flow from negative to positive charges.
“When I wrote the final, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a cathode — I got marshmallows thrown at me. I’m a catcher; I gain electrons,’” Cocoles said.
Musallam’s ability to engage his students’ curiosity in innovative ways landed him a spot as a featured speaker on a recent episode of “TED Talks” on PBS. The chemistry teacher is at the forefront of the “flip-teaching” and inquiry-based learning movements, and his methods are sparking his students’ imaginations.
“What we tend to do in school is teach kids and then ask them questions about what we taught them. But really, the art should be flipped,” Musallam said. “We should get them to ask questions first and then those questions serve as windows into instruction.”
Musallam, 37, understands what it’s like to go through the motions in high school, to be uninspired. He described himself as a D-plus student at Elk Grove High School in Sacramento who did just enough schoolwork to stay eligible for the basketball team.
But he scraped through and eventually picked up a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from UC Davis in 1999. After a year in the tech industry, he jumped into the classroom by answering a craigslist ad for a gig at Sacred Heart that didn’t require a teaching credential.
In 2006, Musallam started experimenting with new technology in the classroom, helping to develop what is now referred to as flip teaching.
Flip teaching is a simple concept with groundbreaking potential. Traditionally, teachers lecture in class and students take notes before doing homework on what they learned. But Musallam changed the process. He films his lectures and then posts them to his website for students to watch prior to class. Then in class, they do the “homework” together, solving problems and puzzles as a group.
“The most important time to have a professional educator with students is when they’re working through problems, when they’re trying to figure things out,” Sacred Heart Principal Gary Cannon said. “The idea that we need 30 people in one room to hear someone talk is outdated by technology.”
But flip teaching is just the beginning of Musallam’s paradigm shift. The revolution took place when he discovered what he calls inquiry-based instruction.
“It was putting lipstick on a pig,” said Musallam, who has a doctorate in education. “I was mistaking technology for pedagogy.”
The idea behind inquiry-based instruction is that students learn best when they are presented with questions that are perplexing enough to trigger their curiosity, driving them to seek answers.
Musallam’s breakthrough occurred after he was diagnosed with a large aneurysm in his heart in May 2010. He needed open-heart surgery, and he was curious as to why his surgeon was so confident in the outcome. The answer: The doctor’s curiosity drove him to ask hard questions, he embraced trial and error, and through reflection he revised his procedure.
In the process, Musallam developed his three rules of teaching: curiosity comes first, embrace the mess and practice reflection.
Musallam continues to make videos, but now he piques students’ curiosity first by creating situations that force them to ask questions.
Take the lab on battery energy. First he set up a question — why is only half of the class allowed to throw marshmallows? — that ignited students’ curiosity. Then they watched a lecture online at home before solving problems together in class.
“A student doesn’t necessarily have a question about cathodes and anodes,” Cannon said. “You have to create a situation with marshmallows or whatever to create that question.”
Musallam also grabs the class’s attention with explosions, by turning lemons into batteries and by popping balloons with hydrogen. He’s also the host of an Internet-based show, “Infinite Thinking Machine;” he writes on his blog, Cycles of Learning; and he teaches an education class at the University of San Francisco.
Despite his ingenuity, Cannon said Musallam’s best assets are his curiosity and his ability to build relationships with students.
“Ramsey is an outstanding science teacher, but he knows that it’s just a vehicle for teaching the whole student — the head and the heart,” Cannon said.