Think about where the learning happens in PBL

After a few weeks of recovery, I wanted to write about having a BLAST of a time at our first attempt of putting together the PBL Summit my friend Nils Ahbel and I organized from July 16-19.  I wanted to thank all of those who came and participated in the discussions and talks and who shared their ideas so freely.  It’s such a great reminder of the huge resources we all are to each other as math teachers.  I know that I at least tripled my Professional Learning Network and hope that all of the participants did too.

I’d also like to thank everyone who gave feedback and the amazing ideas for next year – including a pre-conference session for those of you who might have been PBL “newbies” and might have needed more of an intro, topic-level groups, more in-depth SIGs for people who want to dive deeply into writing or assessment writing too.  The ideas just kept flowing and I think we will have a wonderful plan for next year too.

One of the take-aways that I left the PBL Summit with was how differently people view what “learning” means in PBL.  From my long career both teaching and studying PBL, I have had a lot of time to form my own frameworks for student knowledge construction and pedagogical theory and often take for granted that all of us are on the same page. As I have traveled and talked to many other math teachers and heard others who are experts in PBL (both PjBL and PrBL) speak, I realize more and more that we are often NOT on the same page.  This does not mean that any one of us is more right or wrong.  We just need to understand each other more.

My big question to everyone I talk to is “where/when does the learning happen?” or “where/when do the students construct their knowledge and understanding of the mathematics?”  If students are presented with a problem, for example they watch a wonderful interesting video of a basketball player shooting at a basket or watching someone fill a water tank and they come up with their own question based on a real-life phenomenon from the video, how do those students know the mathematics to answer those interesting questions?  If students are sitting through direct instruction lessons to be exposed to the mathematics but using them to answer their own questions, this is definitely an improvement than passive mathematics classes of the past.  Having students take ownership of the material in this way is is a powerful method of creating agency for mathematics learning.  The problems that they are solving and from where they are posed are extremely relevant to the motivation and agency in learning.

I would posit that PBL can be more and mean more and in more ways to student learning. Even when posed with a good problem (one they did not come up with themselves).  In PBL, students can:

  • see the need for a new method without the teacher introducing it
  • see the need for discussing other students’ ideas
  • find their own organizational strategies for problem solving
  • access prior knowledge that they did not realize they needed before
  • use their resources to discuss the problem with each other
  • use resources to find new solutions and follow their own thinking
  • make connections between topics in mathematics that they might not have realized before
  • create community in the mathematics classroom (like in other disciplines – humanities, fine arts and science)
  • realize that reflection is one of the most important parts of the learning process
  • learn to relate to others in math class
  • see mathematics as a creative endeavor

and so much more. I’d love to hear from people some that I have left out.  In my mind, even the mathematical learning happens in these contexts and students are the shapers of where and when this happens.  Robert Kaplinsky is one of those amazing PBL teacher/speakers who has a somewhat different approach than I do, but is very similar in many ways and I heard him say this April, “Don’t teach what students need to know before they do a problem-based lesson.” In that way, we are all on the same page, for sure.

How do we get kids to value others’ ideas in math class?

Some recent common situations:

A very gifted student comes to me (more than once) after class asking why he needs to listen to other students talk about their ideas in class when he already has his own ideas about how to do the problems.  Why do we spend so much time going over problems in class when he finished all the problems and he has to sit there and listen to others ask questions?

A parent asks if their child can study Algebra II over winter break for two weeks and take a placement test in order to “pass out” of the rest of the course and not have to take mathematics.  A college counselor supports this so that they can move forward in their learning and get to Calculus by their senior year.

Tweet from a fellow PBL teacher:

Over the summer, a student wants to move ahead in a math course and they watch video after video on Khan Academy and take a placement test that allows them to move ahead past geometry into an Algebra II course.  Why would they need to spend a year in a geometry course when they have all of the material they need in 5 weeks of watching videos all alone?

It is a very accepted cultural norm in the U.S. that math is an isolated educational experience.  I’m not quite sure where that comes from, but for me, it remains a rather traditionalist and damaging view of mathematical learning.  I would even go so far as to say that it could be blamed for the dichotomous view of mathematics as black or white, right or wrong, fast or slow, etc.  For many students, if they don’t fit that mold of a mathematics learner who can learn math by watching someone do it, sitting nicely and taking notes for 45 minutes while we ‘cover’ section 2.4 today, then they are ‘bad at math.’

Leone Burton once said that the process of learning mathematics is an inherently social enterprise and that coming to know mathematics depends on the active participation in the enterprises so valued and accepted in that community (Burton, 2002).  In other words, if we accept the status quo of the passivity of mathematics learning that is what we will come to believe is valued.   In her research on the work of research mathematicians and their mathematical learning she found that the opposite of the status quo was true.  The collaborative nature of their practice had many benefits that mathematicians could claim including sharing work, learning from one another, appreciating the connections to others’ disciplines and feeling less isolated (Grootenboer & Zevenbergen, 2007).  Collaboration was highly valued.

We are doing students a disservice if we allow them to remain in the status quo of being passive mathematics students or thinking that they do not have to share and/or listen to others.  The CCSS are asking (well, requiring) them to critique others’ work and give feedback on problem solving methods.  They need to be able to say what they think about others’ ideas and construct their own argument.  How are they going to learn how to express their reasoning if they don’t listen to others and attempt to make sense of it?

When working and/or learning in isolation students are not asked to do any of this or even asked to make mathematical sense oftentimes.  They are just asked to regurgitate and show that they can repeat what they have seen.  How do we know they are making any sense if they do not have to respond to anyone or interact with a group?  The importance of the social interaction becomes apparent in this context.

So what I try to explain to students is that mathematics means more to me than just being able to have a concept “transmitted” to them by someone showing them how to do something, but for them to actually do mathematics in a community of practice.  Creating that community takes a lot of work and mutual respect, but it’s something that is definitely worth it and I encourage everyone to keep inspiring me to keep doing it!  Thanks @JASauer.

Keeping the Dice Rolling: Questioning in PBL

Returning from a week-long conference is always invigorating for me – not for the reasons that many people think.  I do appreciate the great feedback I get from my “teacher-students” that I interact with during the week who are so extremely eager to learn about PBL – this truly invigorates me and allows me to do so much work over the summer myself.  However, what I always look forward to is how much I personally learn from the interactions with my students that week.  At this point, PBL is so popular in its use in mathematics classrooms across the country, although people see me as an expert in the field, I gain so much from the questions and process of those who are learning that it is so useful for me to move through that process with them all the time.  I believe this is why they call it “professional development”!  So I just wanted to give a HUGE shout-out of thanks to everyone who took my workshops, came to my Cwic sessions, had conversations with me or interacted in some way – it might have been one of the best professional weeks I’ve ever had!

Since that week in New Hampshire, I’ve done a lot of reading, editing of my own materials, and catching up with my own work.  I recently read a blogpost on edutopia entitled “The Importance of Asking Questions to Promote Higher-Order Competencies” which stood out to me as something that we talked a great deal about in my own PBL classes, although this blogpost was not specifically about PBL or math at all.  It was written by a professor at Rutgers University in the Psychology Department, Maurice Elias, who is part of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, and made me wonder if he had done any work with Cindy Hmelo-Silver, who is also at Rutgers and does work with PBL in Psychology.  The concept of asking questions is something that we discuss and practice in my workshops because Hmelo-Silver says that it is a characteristic of an experienced PBL teacher to ask probing questions that are metacognitive and at a higher-order level.  Interestingly, the four areas that Elias discuss are often not linked to higher-order thinking (for example, yes/no questions) so I thought I might take his “Goldilocks” example and try it through the lens of math PBL.  Elias’ four questioning techniques are 1)Suggest 2) Ask a Closed Question 3)Ask an open question and 4)The Two Question Rule.

The idea of “suggestion” is one that I always tried to stay away from since student voice and experience is first and foremost in my mind as a pillar of the PBL pedagogy.  Allowing students to make first attempts at making those connections on their own I believe takes precedence over critical thinking skills of choosing from alternatives.  However, that concept of making a choice between alternatives is important as well and might be a very good skill to have them practice every now and then deliberately.  I think I will begin to try this in class.  The next time when it seems like no one has an idea or when the student at the board is going in the wrong direction, I may decide to say something like “Should Joe go with the method of completing the square or factoring here?”

The second idea of asking the closed question (yes or no) is also one that I have always tried to stay away from.  In my experience it’s kind of a conversation staller, but the way it’s explained by Elias in his blogpost is actually a very interesting twist on the closed question.  It takes a yes or no question but embeds an opinion in it, so almost forces a justification of the closed question with the yes or no.  It makes the teacher find a way for the student to continue (well, the teacher must make sure the student follows up).  So for example, if the teacher asks asks, “Do you think the quadrilateral is a rhombus?” it might seem very obvious that a student could just say yes or no and the conversation could just end there.  Everything I’ve read about closed questions say that you should not phrase the question that way but be sure that the question has within it some interest in the student’s opinion. “Why do you think it’s a good idea to argue that this quadrilateral is a rhombus?” (Which is a closed question in disguise but opens up the conversation).

Then there’s the Open-Ended Question (or what Bingham calls a True Question) which I have written about before.  I talk about this in my workshops as well and real open-ended questions are questions that the teacher doesn’t really know the answer to.  I love Bingham’s analogy of trying to predict with your students what the sum of two dice will be (the answer)  but trying to keep the dice rolling for as long as possible without knowing the answer.

Dice Metaphor

What’s an example of this type of question in mathematics?  This is a tough one because as we know so well, there are definitely right and wrong answers in mathematics.  However, we can ask questions like “Why did you chose that method?” and “What do you think of Sara’s argument? Do you agree with her?” These types of questions can make mathematics teachers very uncomfortable but we can keep the box wiggling for great deal longer than we could before with these questions and they allow us to work towards the CCSS Mathematics Practice Standards of persevering and critiquing other students’ work.

Elias’ Two Question Rule isn’t just as simple as asking a follow-up question, but makes the assumption that students want to see if when you ask a question the first time, you really wanted to know what they wanted to say.  For example, in most mathematics classrooms, students are accustomed to the I-R-E form of dialogue which is short for Initiation-Response-Evaluation (Teacher-Student-Teacher) where the teacher generally knows that answer that they want for the question they have asked (kids know this, they’re not dumb).  So when the same old kids do the response part of this, instead of just doing the evaluation part, why not blindside them and actually rephrase the question and ask it again in a different way, or ask one kid themselves individually in order for them to know that you really want to hear from them?  I think that’s what Elias is talking about.  (or even better don’t use IRE, break that darn habit, I know I’m still trying to!)

We had some great fun during my workshops role modeling and just trying out different ways of questioning the mock student who was at the board – it’s hard to break old habits.  But the more we are aware of what we are trying to do and do it deliberately, the more important it becomes and bigger agents of change we can be as well. If you have any thoughts on these questioning techniques in math PBL classroom – please let me know

Hmelo-Silver & Barrows (2006). Goals and strategies of a PBL Facilitator. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning , 1(1), 21-39