The “Wounded Healer” Archetype in the PBL Teacher

I have been doing a lot more work with teachers this year as I am not in the classroom.  I love watching people teach and talking to them about their teaching.  It is clearly a passion for so many people and the modeling of lifelong learning has been so inspirational for me and their students.

One issue that seems to arise in all PBL classrooms, no matter how progressive the teacher, is this feeling that they need to somehow, someday really just not allow the students to be frustrated.  Even those who buy into the whole PBL, student-centered, productive struggle pedagogy – deep inside they understand the belief from their own education, that math is black-and-white there needs to be some resolution that is acknolwedged and /or provided by the teacher.

I was talking to a friend about this dilemma a while ago (thanks @phiggiston!) and saying how interesting it is to me that a teacher’s belief from their past can, in the moment, while teaching, often override their beliefs in the current pedagogy.  In other words, if a teacher has not experienced independent learning as needed in PBL, it is extremely difficult to not give into the impulse to “save” the students from that feeling of struggle or unease.

Well, coincidentally, @phiggiston has a background in both religious work and in psychotherapy training, so the first the he says to me is, “it’s kind of like the patient-therapist relationship in a way.” And I’m thinking, my teaching is nothing like being a therapist, but of course, I listened intently.  I guess there is a Jungian theory that says that “sometimes a disease is the best training for a physician.”  In fact, Jung goes as far as to say that

“a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient.”

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So what does this mean for PBL teaching?  I had to think of this for a while and also read some Jung as I am not up on the psychological theories that connect to education.  I wasn’t quite sure that this “Wounded Healter” achetype paralleled the PBL teacher as much as I originally thought.  Here are some points:

  • Jung says that for the wounded healer the therapeutic encounter should be regarded as a dialectical process  It’s not just I’m going to the doctor and she’s going to tell me what wrong with me.  There needs to be some kind of dialogue in order for a real healing to happen.  In the classroom, I would argue that this is true about the teacher-student relationship.  Traditionally, it has been that not having dialogue would result in learning that was not as long-lasting, effective and/or connected to the students own ideas.  It is pretty clear that the PBL teacher needs to create the dilectical process in order for the best learning to happen.
  • Jung argues that the physician must help create a safe space where the “patient’s “inner healer” is made available to her unconsciously.” At the same time the physician, should let go of the way she is activiated by the same wounds. This idea is extremely relevant in the PBL classroom.  Why do we want to make students comfortable and relieve their anxiety about mathematical learning?  My take would be because we hate the way it makes us feel. Knowing that struggle is all to close in our memory can actually help us hand over the power to “heal themselves.”  If we can get over that feeling, it will become more of the norm in the classroom.
  • There are risks to this type of teaching – the risk of being vulnerable because you are looking at your own wounds, and also looking fragile to the patient (or student).  This is a very common concern of teachers who are beginning PBL teaching.

“The experience of being wounded does not make him/her less capable of taking care of the patient’s disease; on the contrary, it makes him/her a companion to the patient, no longer acting as his/her superior.”

In other words, it is worth the experience of creating that open relationship.  I go back to Hawkins’ theory of learning (I-thou-It) in which the relationships that exist form a triangle between teacher-student-material.

Hawkins (1974)

Hawkins (1974)

All of these relationships must be nurtured in order for the best learning environment to exist. (For more on this check out Carol Rodgers presentation slides here.)

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So does this mean if you did not have this type of experience learning math that you can’t learn to empower your own students in this way?  I think not.  When I ilook back on my own mathematical experiences many of them were extremely traditionally taught.  However, I think what you need to have inside you is both the belief that students are capable of owning and constructing their own knowledge and the ability to create a space that allows them to remain uncomfortable.  You have to be willing to let go of your own insecurities and anxieties about learning math and realize that the more you do that, the more the students will feel it as well.

I am currently working on a quasi-research project about this and when/how PBL teachers choose to intervene in class discussion.  If there is anyone who is interested in helping me out with this, I’d really appreciate it.

Reducing Cognitive Load in PBL

One of the things that I have been thinking about for a very long time is the idea of those who oppose PBL.  Namely those who prescribe to behaviorist and cognitive scientist theories of learning, which I know a great deal about because of my doctoral work.  So many teachers, parents and others have asked me about this over the past 25 years that you’d think I would have an answer.  I know I have thoughts but I do want to do more research in this area.

I do not pay lip-service to the ideas of cognitive load theory for sure and definitely respect those who follow these ideas.  I do think there is a place for thinking about this theory in PBL, but not an argument for why NOT to do it.  At its heart though, I believe the learning outcomes that are important in the different types of theory (CLT vs. constructivist learning for example) is what ends up differentiating them and also the way the knowledge is constructed.  I do believe in the importance of reducing the Cognitive Load for students so that their long-term memory can be triggered and practiced.

So I do believe there is a place for this in PBL – it just hasn’t been discussed a great deal.  There is always this us vs. them notion that one is right and the other is wrong – it comes from very strong belief systems and I totally understand where they are coming from.  However, if PBL is done well in a scaffolded, structured way, I believe that you can both reduce cognitive load and also ask students to think creatively.

Here is an image I saw from an article in the Guardian recently entitled Teachers: Your Guide to Learning Strategies that Really Work by Carl Hendrick. This graphic is describing the six ways to make your classroom best-ready for learning.

 

Positive Class room climate

 

When I was looking at this, the first thing I thought of is “This is my PBL classroom.”  However, I could tell there would have to be some discussion of the “reducing cognitive load” part.  All the other aspects, I believe you can find in some other blogpost of mine somewhere.  In a PBL classroom, the way that students get timely feedback is in so many ways (see my rubrics, journals, etc.).  The nightly homework is the scaffolding of learning and monitoring of independent practice – again when done well.  I won’t go through every one of these, but would love your takes (in the comments below) on each of them.

So then, how can we talk about reducing cognitive load in PBL – where is lecture and worked problems that the teacher does?  I would argue that the cognitive load is reduced by the scaffolding of the problems in the curriculum.  In other words, by triggering students’ prior knowledge the cognitive load is reduced in such a way that they are remembering something they have learned from the past, and then being asked to look at something new.  The “something new” goes through many phases of problems – concrete, multiple representations, all the way through to abstract – in order to slightly build up the cognitive load.  Again, this is all if it is done well and very deliberately with the idea of not to overload students’ thinking but to help to build the schemas that are needed for constructing knowledge both individually and socially.

The problems are worked by the students, yes – I will give you that.  But it is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that the steps are correct, students get feedback on their thoughts and ideas, that on the board at the end of the discussion is a correct solution and so much more.  What this type of teaching does, in my view is both reduce cognitive load to a point, yet also allow students to gain agency and ownership of the material through their prior knowledge and experience.

Something else that Mr. Hendrick says in his article is:

“Getting students to a place where they can work independently is a hugely desired outcome, but perhaps not the best vehicle to get there. Providing worked examples and scaffolding in the short-term is a vital part of enabling students to succeed in the long-term.”

And I would ask, what does students’ success mean in this framework?  Some studies have shown that worked examples are beneficial in only some cases for student learning.  Others have shown that students that are taught with worked examples out-perform those who received individual instruction.  I could go on and on with the studies contradicting each other.  But what if they weren’t in contradiction?  What if there was a way that they could work together – both reducing cognitive load and also giving students agency and voice in the classroom?  Allowing students the freedom to become independent problem solvers but also scaffolding the learning in such a way that their cognition was not overloaded?  Maybe I’m an optimist, but I do believe there is a way to do both.

Looking at PBL Practice from a Thematic Perspective

So I’m here down in Florida – loving it (all sing-songy like Oprah would say).  I’ve been to so many talks that have been great learning experiences so far.  The weather is beautiful – I went for a very long walk and tried to think about what my talk was missing.  I did a bunch of edits and now I think I’m ready to post it.

Here’s the powerpoint of the talk:

Here’s the document that I handed out with some “threads” of themed topics:

Three Threads Document

Please contact me with any questions, comments or concerns – I love talking to people about PBL and my work.

How do you justify the time that PBL takes?

I just wanted to respond to a really great question that someone asked on Twitter the other day.

This is a common concern of teachers starting out with the idea of PBL. What does “Class Discussion” mean, first of all? I would agree that discussion does “eat up valuable” time in class on a daily basis, for sure. But what is actually happening in that discussion where something else would be normally happening in the math classroom? What does the discussion replace?

In my mind the discussion itself replaces the lecture, teachers ‘doing of problems” for the kids to then repeat, then kids often sitting on their own or in pairs doing problems that were just like the ones the teacher showed them how to do. The importance of the class discussion (which honestly is the main idea of PBL) is for students to share their ideas of prior knowledge, connections between problems, where they are confused and see where others were not confused and what prior knowledge and experience they brought to the problem.

Here’s a diagram that I use when doing PD work with PBL teachers to help explain all of what is supposed to be happening during class (it’s a lot!)


The student presentations are really just a jumping-off point. It is not just for students to explain “how they did a problem” – as they say – or they think what they’re supposed to do. The steps of Hmelo-Silver’s “process of learning in PBL” diagram that I’ve circled in pink is what students would/should do for homework. However, the part that is circled in blue is actually the learning process that happens in the class discussion – so is this time that has been “eaten up” in class or is it actually a very necessary part of the important learning, reflection and self-regulation of the process that needs to happen?

Is this harder for students? Heck, Yeah. There is so much more focus, listening, questioning and reflection that is needed in order for this process to be successful and productive. But there are ways to make it easier for students and that’s what the “class discussion” time is for. It takes a lot of practice and mastery on the teachers’ part to realize what is needed. Making mathematics discussion productive is a very important part of teaching in PBL and definitely not a part that should be seen as subtle, intuitive or straightforward.  There is so much more to this that I can not put in a single blog entry, but it’s definitely worth beginning the discussion.  Would love to hear others’ thoughts.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now…

This past July, I spent a few days at the MAA Mathfest in Chicago for the first time. The main reason I went was because the Academy of Inquiry-Based Learning was having a Conference within the Mathfest with the theme of “Diversity in IBL.”  IBL is generally what college faculty call the type of teaching and learning that many of us at the secondary level has been calling PBL for years.  I was so interested to hear many mathematics professors talking about the struggles of writing curriculum, dealing with facilitating discussion, using writing – all of the same parts of this type of teaching that we may have been talking about for so any years.  I highly suggest that we could benefit from talking to each other.  If you would like to get involved with this movement, Stan Yoshinobu, the Director of the Academy of Inquiry-Based Learning, has put forth some challenges for his community.  Check them out.

One of the most interesting talks that I attended was by a professor from Denison University, Lew Ludwig, titled, “Applying Cognitive Psychology to the Mathematics Classroom.”  As a devout social constructivist, I generally like going to talks where I can learn more about other views of education.  Seeing both sides definitely helps me understand many of the views of my colleagues and see if evidence supports my own perspective. Ludwig had published a review of another article that was titled, “Inexpensive techniques to improve education:  Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice”(Roediger and Pye, 2012).

Basically, the presentation summarized three simple techniques that cognitive psychology had evidence helped student learning. The three techniques were called

  1. The distribution and interleaving of material and practice during learning.
  2. Frequent assessment of learning (test-enhanced learning, continual assessment)
  3. Explanatory questioning (elaborative interrogation and self explanation; having students ask themselves questions and provide answers or to explain to themselves why certain points are true).

In the original article, the authors write:

“Repetition of information improves learning and memory. No
surprise there. However, how information is repeated determines
the amount of improvement. If information is repeated back to back
(massed or blocked presentation), it is often learned quickly but
not very securely (i.e., the knowledge fades fast). If information is
repeated in a distributed fashion or spaced over time, it is learned
more slowly but is retained for much longer”

When this was reported, I was first in shock.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing something in a presentation about Cognitive Psychology that was actually supported by the definition of PBL that I use.  The curriculum I use takes the idea of looking at topics and teaching them over a longer time span, but distributed among other topics.  I have called this decompartmentalization of topics, which helps students see the connectedness of mathematics.

The second idea, consistent assessment, is based on the concept that testing is not really a great measure of how much a student has learned, but it actually solidifies the learning that has occurred.  So three groups of students were given different ways of learning by reading a passage of information. The first group read a passage four times. The second group read the passage three times and had test.  The third group read the passage once and was tested three times.  Their performances on tests on the information in the passage 5 minutes later and then one week later.

Diagram of retention testing research

from Roediger & Pye (2012) p.245

So if we connect the idea that testing is not the best method of seeing how much students have learned and the fact that consistent assessment actually helps students retain their knowledge, what I do in my PBL classrooms, is not only “test” but do all sort of forms of assessment (writing, oral assessment, hand-in homework with feedback, labs, quizzes, problem sets, self-assessment, etc.) alternately throughout the term.  There is probably not a week where students are not assessed in at least 2 ways. I feel that this has led students to have good retention of material and the assessments are strong measurements of their learning.

The last one was the one I was most excited to hear about – explanatory questioning.  This seemed to give students so much more responsibility for their own learning than traditional cognitive psychology as I had understood it.  The authors of this study claim that explanatory questioning can be broken in to two areas:

Elaborative Interrogation – students generating plausible explanations to statements while they are studying and learning.  This speaks directly to the idea of mathematical discussion and how students generate explanations when they ask themselves “why?”

Self-Explanation – students monitoring their learning and describing, either aloud or silently some features of their learning.  This idea can be found all over the PBL classroom but in mine, it’s generally found most in metacognitive journaling where students use self-explanation the most.

“Obviously, the elaborative interrogation and self explanation are related because both strategies encourage or even require students to be active learners, explaining the information to themselves (perhaps rephrasing in language they understand better) or asking themselves why the information is true.”

I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading – this is an article on educational methods based on cognitive psychology that is suggesting that we require students to be active learners and “explain the infomation to themselves”?  This is lunacy.  I have been teaching for 25 years where students have been complaining to their parents that they have had to explain things to themselves – who would’ve known that I was applying cognitive psychology?

My guess is that these ideas are only enhanced by the social aspect of the classroom and other constructivist ideas – clearly the constructivitst classroom in enhanced by or agrees with some of these cognitive psychology methods as well.  Listening to both sides of the theories is actually helpful and I’m seriously going to continue doing this! Although I never thought that there might be strong connections between cognitive psychology theories and PBL, I do know that it’s life’s illusions I recall and I “really don’t know life, at all.”

PBL and second language learners

As I am not going to be in the classroom next year, I have been going through some old boxes from my study and as many people who have been teaching for a long time have, I have boxes and bags full of cards from past students.  I spent the afternoon one day going through these, reminiscing about so many great kids that I remember.  One of them I had a card from the beginning of her freshman year and also one from the end of her senior year.  Crazy!!

I don’t claim to be an expert in emergent English language learners and mathematics at all.  I did have 10 years of teaching experience at a school (Emma Willard) where they had an ESL program and many students came into my mathematics classes who were not proficient in the English language.  I do think those girls knew what they were getting themselves into and were up to the challenge, but some of them were very frightened.

Since she has now been out of college for a while, I would assume it’s ok for me to share this on my blog.  Here is the card she gave me as a new student in 2001:

Jinsup's card from freshman year

Jinsup’s card from freshman year

This card was written with the voice of a student who was used to a very structured, repetitive mathematics class and I believe she knew that coming into the U.S. things would be different, but possibly not as different as they were in my class.  When she said, “I’m so nervous that you will let me to talk a lot in the class” I’m sure she was saying that she was nervous that I would expect her to contribute to the class discussion.  What I did with many of those students, including Jinsup, was I focused in the beginning on letting them listen and write.  I gave them lots of feedback on their journals and made sure they had the correct vocabulary and that their grammar in their writing made sense.  I allowed them to ask more questions initially than to present their ideas until their confidence became stronger.  Jinsup, as most Korean and Japanese students did, had excellent skills, as that was what their math education had focused on since elementary school.  However, she was not very good at reasoning, sense-making or critical thinking on her own.  It was almost as if she had not been asked to communicate about mathematics, as she was trying to say in her note to me.

However, she ended up doing very well in that first class and then I taught her again in precalculus (which we called Advanced Math) and then in BC Calculus her senior year.  Her excellent background allowed her to focus on the reasoning aspects of all of these courses and in the end, I was very impressed with her growth.  She really got the best of both worlds – the skills from her Asian mathematics education and the collaboration, communication and reasoning skills from the PBL here.

This is the note she wrote me at the end of her senior year:

Jinsup's card at end of her senior year

Jinsup’s card at end of her senior year

Although I know this is only an anecdote and I don’t really have research evidence that PBL totally works with ELLs I do have confidence that with the right environment and patience, it is actually a great way of teaching for many of these second language learners.  It allows them to find their voice in a language that is already new to them but at the same time have some practice in terminology that they may have heard before.  I think this might be my next interesting research project – if anyone has some thoughts on this I’d love to hear them.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes….Turn and Face the Strange.

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace I’m going through

Well, you know it’s been a long time since you wrote a blogpost when a perfect stranger sends you an email and says,  “I hope you’re just busy or I’m looking at an old blog you don’t update anymore or something and everything is ok.” It was a very nice email and I often forget when I get busy and wrapped up in what’s going on in my own life that there are actually people that read my blog and my tweets.  I need to keep up with my communications and I feel horrible.  So I have many apolgies to make.

But first let me tell a story that just happened a few weeks ago.  I was doing a 2-day workshop at a school that had made a decision to implement PBL in the first two years of their high school curriculum.  Because it was such a cross-curricular choice, almost everyone in the department was going to be required to teach a PBL course at some level or another.  We had spent a great deal of time talking about ways to facilitate discussion, make best use of class time, allow students the agency to work out understanding together, etc.  At the end of the second day, we were reflecting on what we were still concerned about for the coming fall.

Many teachers had very specific questions about how to put the theory into practice, but then one wonderful veteran teacher spoke up.  He talked about how he was very excited to try this type of teaching and what it really meant for the students’ learning in his class.  However, he then got very serious and sincere – he basically said, “What if I’m not good at it? I am mean I know I am very good at explaining mathematics to students, I’ve been doing it for 20 years this way.  I enjoy helping kids understand by telling them my understanding.  What happens if I am not good at holding back and letting them struggle?”

Of all the questions that teachers have asked me PD workshops, I thought this was the most honest and probably most unasked question that existed.  He was being extremely vulnerable and I think asking what everyone wanted to know.  We had a wonderful conversation about how he coached football for many years and how this type of teaching is very similar to coaching.  We talked about the satisfaction that you see on students’ faces when they are allowed to take ownership of the knowledge in the classroom and each others’ understanding.  It will be a difficult change in his pedagogy but it is worth a try. He’s probably one of the most brave teachers I have met in my work.

If you are one of these people that is interested in learning more about PBL and how it could enhance your classroom pedagogy, I am looking to pilot an online course this summer.  Click here to subscribe to a mailing to find out more and possibly enroll in the class.

So honestly, change is not that bad – it gives me anxiety and makes me worry.  But honestly, communicating and learning all about it is really the best.  I am moving out of the classroom for a year next year to see how that goes.  I’ll be doing Learning Experience Design for Online Learning and also Teacher Support for Math Teachers who are teaching with PBL.  Hopefully, I’ll also be planning the 2018 PBL Summit as well!

Turning to face the strange – and taking the pace I’m going through – please be forgiving of the changes in my life while I get back into blogging!

What I get out of Student Writing

I have been using journaling in math class since 1996 – which was a really important year in my teaching career for lots of reasons, but it was definitely because I was introduced to the idea of math journals.  Since then I’ve done many different iterations for what my expectations are.  Even this year I did something new where I allowed students to write about errors they made on assessments in order to attempt to compare their assessment problems to what they did on homework in the hope of reflecting on the work pre-assessment for future problem sets.

However, a lot of students still use their journal almost like a problem-solving conversation with me, especially after we have already gone over a problem and they still don’t understand a method.  Here is one I ran across just the other day in my lower-level geometry class and thought it just perfectly expressed some of the goals I am hoping to accomplish with journaling.

I’ll call this student Cindy and we had just introduced the theorems about parallel lines through a geogebra lab and this had been the first problem they looked at that took the concepts out of the context of the lines and threw it into a triangle.  For many students this might be an easy transfer of skills (including the algebra, other theorems, etc.) but for the kids I have – not necessarily.  Here is what Cindy wrote:file_001-1

The first thing that Cindy does in her journaling is make her own thinking explicit (which I love).  She is stepping me through her thinking and the questions that arose for her.  This is actually a major step for many students who are confused – are they able to even know what they are confused about?

She writes: “I know the problem probably deals with the parallel line theories that we dealt with.” and then lists the types of angles we studied and then with a big “OR” says “maybe it has something to do with the sum of the angles of parallelograms and triangles?”  Little does she know that what she is doing is practicing synthesizing different pieces of prior knowledge – is it overwhelming to her? – possibly, but she went there and that’s so great!  I wanted her to know that I was excited that that she even thought about the sum of the angles so I gave her some feedback about those ideas.

She wrote down what she knew about the sums of the angles which we had also studied.

She writes her first equation to think about: “5x-5/=180” using one of the angles in the top triangle.  I would’ve loved to know where that was coming from.  What made her write that?  She then notes that “but it wouldn’t work because if x is the measure of the angle than the equation should be set to 180”

There is so much that this tells me about her confusion.  She is not understanding what the expression 5x-5 is supposed to be representing in the diagram I think, or she isn’t connecting what x is “not representing” (the angle) and the whole expression is representing too.  She also is confused about between the sum of the whole triangle’s angles and just that one angle.

She then looks at the two expressions she is given, 5x-5 and 4x+10 and I think makes a guess that they are corresponding angles – she doesn’t give any reason why they are corresponding.  She just asks the question.  But the cool thing is she says “Let’s try it.”  I love that.  Why not – I am always encouraging them to go with their ideas and the fact that she tries it is wonderful.  The funny thing is she does end up getting the same value for the two angles so she asks: “Does this mean that this is correct?” and then “What do I do for “6y-4?” and still has not connected many of the ideas line the fact that these angles are a linear pair and that’s where the 180 comes into play, or even why the angles were corresponding in the first place.  So many questions that she still has, although I am encouraged by her thinking and risk-taking.

This journal entry allowed me to have a great follow-up conversation with Cindy and she was able to talk to me about these misconceptions.  I’m not sure I would’ve had this opportunity to clarify these with her if she had not written this journal entry and then she would not have done so well on the problem set the following week.  I just love it!  Let me know if you use journals and if you feel the same clarifying or communicative way about them too.

See my website for lots of sample entries and also other blogposts and resources about journaling if you are interested.

 

Yours, Mine and Ours

Yesterday we had a speaker in our faculty meeting who came to talk to us about decision-making process in our school.  He spoke about the way some colleges, universities, independent schools are very different from businesses, the military, and other governing bodies that have to make decisions because we are made up of “loosely-coupled systems.” These are relationships that are not well-defined and don’t necessarily have a “chain of command” or know where the top or bottom may be.  They also don’t necessarily have a “go-to” person where, when a problem arises, the solution resides in that location.  The speaker said that this actually allows for more creativity and generally more interesting solution methods.

About mid-way through his presentation he said something that just resonated with me fully as he was talking about the way these systems come to a decision cooperatively.

“The difference between mine and ours is the difference between the absence and presence of process.”

Wow, I thought, he’s talking about PBL.  Right here in faculty meeting.  I wonder if anyone else can see this.  He’s talking about the difference between ownership of knowledge in PBL and the passive acceptance of the material in a direct instruction classroom.

Part of my own research had to do with how girls felt empowered by the ownership that occurred through the process of sharing ideas, becoming a community of learners and allowing themselves to see others’ vulnerability in the risk-taking that occurred in the problem solving.  The presence of the process in the learning for these students was a huge part of their enjoyment, empowerment and increase in their own agency in learning.

I think it was Tim Rowland who wrote about pronoun use in mathematics class (I think Pimm originally called it the Mathematics Register). The idea of using the inclusive “our” instead of “your” might seem like a good idea, but instead students sometimes think that “our” implies the people who wrote the textbook, or the “our” who are the people who are allowed to use mathematics – not “your” the actual kids in the room.  If the kids use “our” then they are including themselves.  If the teacher is talking, the teacher should talk about the mathematics like the are including the students with “your” or including the students and the teacher with “our”, but making sure to use “our” by making a hand gesture around the classroom.  These might seem like silly actions, but could really make a difference in the process.

Anyway,  I really liked that quote and made me feel like somehow making the process present was validated in a huge way!

End of Term Reflections

Phew…exams given…check…exams graded…check…comments written…check…kids on bus…check.  Now I can relax.  Oh wait, don’t I leave tomorrow to drive to my sister’s for Thanksgiving?

Such is the life of a teacher, no?  Just when you think you are on “vacation” there’s always something else to do.  I had an exam on Saturday then worked the rest of Saturday and Sunday finishing up that grading and writing my comments that were due this morning at 9 am.  But wait, I told some people I would write a blogpost about what my classroom is like, so I really wanted to do that too.  That’s OK though, I think it’s important for me to reflect back on this fall term – what worked and what didn’t for my classes.

I have three sections of geometry this year that I teach with PBL and a calculus class that I would say is something of a hybrid because we do have a textbook (as an AP class I needed to do what the other teachers were doing), but I do many problems throughout the lessons.

In my geometry classes, the student have iPads on which they have GeoGebra, Desmos and Notability where they have a pdf of their text (the problems we use) and where they do all of their homework digitally.  My class period for that course alternate between small group discussions in the Innovation Classroom in the library on Mondays and Thursdays and whole class discussions with student presentations of partial solutions (a la Jo Boaler or Harkness) on Tuesdays and Fridays. (We meet four times a week 3 45-minute periods and 1 70-minute period.)  Because my curriculum is a whole-curriculum PBL model, we spend most of the time discussing the attempts that the students made at the problems from the night before.  However, in class the discussion centers around seeing what the prior knowledge was that the presenter brought to the problem and making sure they understood what the question was asking.

classroom-shot1

Whole Class Discussion in regular classroom

 

geom-class-2

Small Group Discussions in Innovation Lab

If this didn’t happen we end up hearing from others that can add to the discussion by asking clarifying questions or connecting the question to another problem we have done (see Student Analysis of Contribution sheet).

One of the things that I had noticed this fall in the whole class discussion was that the students were focusing more on if the student doing the presentation was right immediately as opposed to the quality or attributes of the solution method.  There was little curiosity about how they arrived at their solution, the process of problem solving or the process of using their prior knowledge.  Unfortunately, it took me a while to figure this pattern out and I felt that it had also weeded itself into the small group discussion as well.

One day in the small group discussions, it became clear to me that the students were just looking for the one student who had the “right” answer and they thought they were “done” with the question.  This spurred a huge conversation about what they were supposed to be doing in the conversation as a whole.  I felt totally irresponsible in my teaching and that I had not done a good enough job in describing to them the types of conversations they were supposed to be having.

This raised so many questions for me:

  1. How did I fail to communicate what the objectives of discussing the problems was to the students?
  2. Why is this class so different from classes in the past (even my current period 7 class)?
  3. How can I change this now at this point in the year?
  4. How can I stress the importance of valuing the multiple perspectives again when they didn’t hear it the first time?

In my experience, sometimes when students are moving forward with the fixed mindset of getting to the right answer and moving on, it is very difficult to change that to a more inquiry-valued mindset that allows them to see how understanding a problem or method from a different view (graphical vs algebraic for example) will actually be helpful for them.

My plan right now is to start the winter term with an interesting problem next Tuesday.

“A circular table is pushed into the corner of the room so that it touches both walls. A mark is made on the table that is exactly 18 inches from one wall and 25 inches from the other.  What is the radius of the table?”

table-picture-problem

I have done this problem for many years with students and I have found the it works best when they are in groups.  I usually give them the whole period to discuss it and I also give them this Problem Solving Framework that I adapted from Robert Kaplinsky’s wonderful one from his website.  I am hoping to have a discussion before they do this problem about listening to each other’s ideas in order to maximize their productivity time in class together.  We’ll see how it goes.