What does “making students metacognitive” mean? – answering “why should someone learn?” in Math

So I recently tweeted a nice article that I read that discussed “12 Questions to Help Students See Themselves as Thinkers” in the classroom (not specifically the math classroom


and appropriately, Anna Blinstein tweeted in response:


So I thought I needed to respond in a post that spoke to this question. First of all, I should state the caveat that even when I am in a more “standard” classroom (i.e. not a PBL classroom) – which happened to me last year – I try as much as possible to keep my pedagogy consistent with my values of PBL which include

1) valuing student voice
2) connecting the curriculum
3) dissolving the authoritative hierarchy of the classroom
4) creating ownership of the material for students

I find that helping students to be metacognitive helps with all of this. An important aside her is also Muller’s definition of 21st century learning* which is much more than that 20th century learning and education that often comes with direct instruction in the mathematics classroom (not always).I think it’s important to note that the more fluid concept of knowledge that is ubiquitous with technology today and is no longer static in textbooks or delivered by teachers.  Students can go find out how to do anything (procedurally) nowadays, but it is the understanding of it that is more important and the true mathematical learning and sense making.

Anyway, I think I would write way too much if I responded to every one of the questions, but how would I use these questions in my direct instruction class that I taught last year?  What I tried to do was introduce a topic with some problems (and then we would do some practice with problems from the textbook so I could keep up with where my colleague was in the material).  Well, this course was Algebra II, which often referred to prior knowledge that always reminded students of something they had studied before.  I let them use computers to look things up on the internet and use the technology at hand, GeoGebra, Graphing Calculators, each other to ask questions about the functions we were studying.  They could look up topics like domain, range, asymptotes (why would there be an asymptote on a rational function)…but then the bigger questions like “what am I curious about?” had more to do with how did those asymptotes occur, what made vertical vs. horizontal asymptotes and then I would have them do journal entries about them (see my blogposts on metacognitive journaling – journaling and resilience, using journal writing, page on metacognitive journaling).

The more “big picture” questions like “Why learn?” and “What does one *do* with knowledge?” I find easier to deal with because the students ask those.  I think that all teachers find their own ways to deal with them, but I enjoy doing is asking students about a tough question they are dealing with in their life – I use the example of whether or not I should continue working when I had my two kids.  Was keeping my job worth it financially over the cost of daycare? and of course I had to weight my emotional state when I wasn’t working – this is why I enjoy learning and what I do with my knowledge.  When kids see that there’s more to do with functions than just points on a grid, it becomes so much clearer for them – but you know that!

What I really like about Dr. Muller’s list is that he lays out some nice deliberate ways in which we as math teachers can get students to think more clearly and reflectively about mathematics as a purposeful process as opposed to a just procedures that they can learn by just watching a Kahn Academy video.


*”Learning – here defined as the overall effect of incrementally acquiring, synthesizing, and applying information – changes beliefs. Awareness leads to thoughts, thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to behavior. Learning, therefore, results in both personal and social change through self-knowledge and healthy interdependence.” Muller http://tutoringtoexcellence.blogspot.com/2014/08/helping-students-see-themselves-as.html

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

Does PBL teach Resilience?

I just read a great blogpost by a business writer, Gwen Moran, entitled, “SIx Habits of Resilient People.” When I think of people that I admire in my life for their resilience there was usually some circumstance in their life that led them to learn the quality of resilience because they had to. Even the examples that the author uses in this blogpost – being diagnosed with breast cancer, almost being murdered by a mugger, the inability to find a job – these tragedies that people have had to deal with can be turned into positive experiences by seeing them as ways in which we can learn and grow and find strength within ourselves.

But wouldn’t it be great if it didn’t take a negative experience like that to teach us how to be resilient? What if the small things that we did every day slowly taught us resilience instead of one huge experience that we had no choice but to face? Having to deal with small, undesirable circumstances on a daily basis, with the help and support of a caring learning community would be much more preferable, in my opinion, than surviving a mugging. (Not that one is more valuable than the other). But I just wonder – and I’m truly ruminating here, I have no idea – if it is possible to simulate the same type of learning experience on a slower, deeper scale by asking students to learn in a way that they might not like, that might make them uncomfortable, that asks more of them, on a regular basis.

I think you know what I’m getting at. Does PBL actually teach resilience (while also teaching so much more)? In my experience teaching with PBL the feedback I’ve received from students has been overwhelmingly positive in the end. But initially the comments are like this:

“This is so much harder.”
“Why don’t you just tell us what we need to know.”
“I need more practice of the same problems.”
“This type of learning just doesn’t work for me.”

Having students face learning in an uncomfortable atmosphere and face what is hard and unknown is difficult. Thinking for themselves and working together to find answers to problems that they pose as well as their peers pose is very different and unfamiliar. But does it teach the habits that Gwen Moran claim create resilient people? Let’s see. She claims that resilient people….

1.Build relationships – I think I can speak to this one with some expertise and say that at least if the PBL classroom is run with a relational pedagogy then it is very true that PBL teaches to build relationship. My dissertation research concluded nothing less. In discussing and sharing your ideas, it is almost impossible not to – you need relational trust and authority in order to share your knowledge with your classmates and teacher and this will only grow the more the system works for each student.

2. Reframe past hurts. – If we assume that real-life “hurts” are analogous to classroom mistakes, then I would say most definitely. PBL teaches you to reframe your mistakes. PBL is a constant cycle of attempting a problem->observing the flaw in your solution ->trying something else and starting all over again. This process of “reframing” the original method is the means by which students learn the the PBL classroom.

3. Accept failure – This may be the #1 thing that PBL teaches. I am constantly telling my students about how great it is to be wrong and make mistakes. You cannot have success without failing in this class. In fact, it is an essential part of learning. However, students in the US have been conditioned not to fail, so that reconditioning takes a very long time and is a difficult process.

4. Have multiple identities – In a traditional classroom, certain students fulfill  certain roles – there’s the class clown, the teacher’s pet, the “Hermione Grainger” who is constantly answering the teacher’s questions, etc. But what I’ve found happens in the PBL classroom is that even the student who finds him/herself always answering questions, will also find him/herself learning something from the person s/he thought didn’t know anything the next day. Those roles get broken down because the authority that once belonged only to certain people in the room has been dissolved and the assumption is that all voices have authority. All ideas are heard and discussed. PBL definitely teaches a student to have multiple identities while also teaching them a lot about themselves, and possibly humility, if done right.

5. Practice forgiveness – This might take some reinterpreting in terms of learning, but I do believe there are lessons of forgiveness in the PBL classroom. Students who expect themselves to learn everything the first time and when they don’t, feel stupid, need to forgive themselves and realize that learning is an ongoing process. Learning takes time and maybe needs more than one experience with a topic to see what the deeper meanings and understandings really are. Since PBL is not just a repetitive, rote teaching method, students need to learn how to be patient and forgiving of their own weaknesses as a learner and take time to see themselves as big picture learners.

6. Have a sense of purpose – This habit is about “big picture” purpose and looking at a plan. From the research that I did, I also found that PBL brings together many topics in mathematics, allowing students to see the “big picture” connections between topics much better than traditional teaching does. The decompartmentalization that occurs (as opposed to compartmentalizing topics into chapters in a textbook) is confusing at first because they are not used to it, but eventually students see how topics thread together. Just the other day in my geometry class we were doing a problem where they were asking to find as many points as possible that were 3 units away from (5,4) on the coordinate plane. A student in the class asked, “is this how we are going to get into circles?” The whole class was like “Oh my gosh, it is, isn’t it?” Bam, sense of purpose.

All in all, I feel that PBL meets Moran’s criteria of “resilience characteristics” in ways in which it allows students to practice these habits on a regular basis.  So not only does PBL help students learn collaboration, communication and creativity, but perhaps they will see the benefits over time in learning how to move forward from a setback – just a little.


Top 5 Recommended Readings for PBL Teachers Part 2

So, I finally got this done and I’ll continue with the top three readings that I just found extremely useful in my teaching last year.

3. The Innovators’ DNA: by J. Dyer, H. Gregersen and C. Christensen

I rarely recommend books that I have not read yet, but this one is actually on my list to read next so I am recommending it because everything about it just feels right to me.  Again, this is not an education book, but a book that is really for business people.  The research that was done in preparation for writing this book was looking to see what characteristics people who are viewed as transformative innovators in the business world all share.  The authors have come up with five major traits or behaviors that innovators share –

  1. associating
  2. questioning
  3. observing
  4. experimenting
  5. networking

You can read a wonderful summary of this book at this link, but I would highly recommend the book as well.  It is our job as progressive educators and teachers of PBL to teach these skills.  If it isn’t obvious to us already, as PBL teachers, I’ll say it again – that PBL is custom-made for teaching these types of skills which clearly is what this book is stating employers are now looking for.

One thing that I do not read enough of is how PBL encourages the skill of associating.  I write a lot about this in my blog and researched it in my dissertation.  In fact, connection is one of the main themes that came out in my research that students enjoyed about PBL.  The skill of associating is a major skill that is extremely important to innovation and in fact, Steve Jobs in quoted as saying, “Creativity is connecting things.”  Allowing students to practice making those connections themselves is key in order for students to practice their own creativity, especially in mathematics.

2. The Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Ed Burger and Michael Starbird

This little gem, published in 2012, was the focus of Ed Burger’s key note address at the 2012 NCTM Annual conference.  He actually didn’t try to sell the book too much, but focused on the idea of teaching effective thinking (so then, yeah, I went and bought the book – what can I say, he’s a great speaker).  As I was reading through it, all I could think about was how relevant it was to teaching mathematics with PBL.  If every student in a PBL classroom took to heart every one of the five elements that are put forth in this book, the classroom would be so much more effective (as would any classroom).

So Burger and Starbird but forth these five elements of effective thinking:

  1. Understand Deeply
  2. Make Mistakes
  3. Raise Questions
  4. Follow the Flow of Ideas
  5. Change (which they call the Quintessential Element)

So, you might ask – what’s so great about those?  I know this?  Well, it’s not those five that are so great – if you are a PBL teacher you probably are already telling your students these already.  What I think is so great about this book are the pieces of advice that Burger and Starbird give for each of these five elements.  In each chapter, these are not only examples from their own teaching but actual ways to promote each of these elements not only individually but in your classroom as well.  The anecdotes that are shared in the book are not only heart-warming but as a teacher you can see how you can make them useful in your own practice.

The combination of deliberately stating these five (and adding CHANGE as the most important) is really key for PBL.  Students may know that you want them to understand deeply and in order for them to do that they need to raise questions about their own understanding, but if you don’t constantly and deliberately create a culture for them and you in your classroom it is not a message they will receive seriously.

And the best book, that I would highly recommend reading:

  1. A New Culture of Learning, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

This book, in my opinion, is what PBL is all about.  Whether you teach in a school that uses a problem-based curriculum, uses text books and is trying projects, or if you are just trying to create a more student-centered approach to your teaching – this book is getting at the heart of what is creating a change in our schools nationwide.  It is why there is a huge movement going on with teachers in our nation trying to find something different to do in their classrooms.  Thomas and Brown describe this movement as a shift from a “teaching-centered culture” in our nation’s schools to a “learning-centered culture” which may be the most important shift in education since organized schooling began in the U.S. altogether.

This shift is based on the idea that knowledge is flexible (yes, the idea of Truth with the capital T does not exist – shhhh, don’t tell anyone).  Even in mathematics, the way that we solve problems and even the mathematics that we teach students – which topics are “most important” today- is changing rather regularly.  This has become so much more clear and visible because of not only the Internet itself, but our access to it.  Thomas and Brown suggest that we must be willing to admit that what is most important about education now is not what we teach in schools, but how students learn.  Can a student learn in the collective? Are they able to harness different modes of inquiry?  Do they experiment in their learning? This shift in the purpose of schooling is not really new to teachers but to our society it is major.  Teachers need to learn how to make this switch and articulate the deliberateness of what they are doing in their classroom in order to focus on the shift. (By the way, this also has major ramifications for teacher educators).

 I love the five dispositions that will help construct the new culture of learning (very applicable to a PBL environment!)

  1. Keep an eye on the bottom line (ultimate goal is to improve)
  2. Understand the power of diversity (strongest teams are rich mix of talents and abilities)
  3. Thrive on change (create, manage, seek out change)
  4. See learning as fun (reward is converting new knowledge into action)
  5. Live on the edge (explore radical alternatives and innovative strategies, discover insights)

All of this is so relatable to my own classroom and curriculum.  The more I create problems and experiences that allow my students do have these dispositions, the more I know that I am fostering the “culture of learning” instead of a traditional culture of “teaching.”

So that’s it.  My top 5 list of readings for PBL teachers – please let me know what you think and if you end up utilizing any of these authors’ ideas.  I know that I have been invigorated by these readings and hope that you will be as well!  Have a happy and fulfilling 2014!

Top 5 Recommended Readings for PBL Teachers of 2013 Part 1

Happy New Year!  It’s been a busy end of 2013 for me.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading and catching up with some writing.  So, the New York Times came out with their top 75 Best-Selling Education Books of 2013 and some of them are really great reads and some are just books that are commercially hyped education jargon.  I’ll let you read it for yourself and see which you think are which.  But this inspired me to think about what I would recommend as great reading for PBL teachers in terms of mathematics.  It’s not always easy to get inspired to continue with PBL so I am always on the look-out for good reads and things that might help me to find ways to motivate students in the classroom.  I also hate those lists from articles that seem to have all the answers but then when you read them nothing is ever really black and white like “To Flip or Not to Flip: that is the Question” or “5 Resolutions to Modernize Your Teaching For 2014” or “Top 100 Tools for Learning in 2014” – geez, does anyone just write about one thing anymore?  Or even give critical analysis of why these are the reasons to flip, or an argument as to the top 100 tools – anyone can make a list.

Including me!  So here goes nothing – well, I mean something.  I tried to put together some good reading that emphasizes the skills that are needed for working with students in a problem-based classroom.  One of the things I hear most from teachers is not necessarily how to work with the curriculum, but how to get students working with each other and how to foster the type of classroom community (curiosity, openness and risk-taking) that is needed in order for students to want to be engaged.

5. The Mistake Manifesto: How Making Mistakes Can Make Us Better by Alina Tugend, 2011.

I first came across Tugend’s writing when I read her Op-Ed piece in the NY Times while ago, but this essay on making mistakes says so much about Tugend’s great attitude towards how mistakes are not only helpful, but are a wiser and more powerful way of learning.  She says that “we do single-loop learning when we need to do double-loop learning.”  I love that and I believe that PBL’s  method of returning to ideas in its scaffolded and multi-topic approach often allows students to revisit ideas multiple times.  Tugend talks about how most of our society creates a fear of making mistakes because we have this idea that we aren’t supposed to make mistakes.  This is in turn makes us all risk-averse unfortunately and only allows the most unstructured students and learners to be creative innovators.  This is what we have to turn around.  Her manifesto doesn’t necessarily tell us how to do this, but it’s a wonderful argument for why we should.

4. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

This book’s original intent was to investigate the psychological experience of happiness, however this past year it became connected for me to the process of problem-based learning.  OK, so this book is not from 2013 – or even from the past few years, but what happened in 2013, is that I read an article that sent me to this book.  The article was called “The Problem-Based Learning Process as finding and being in Flow” by Terry Barrett and it discussed the concept of ‘flow’ (from Csikszentmihalyi’s book) and compared the PBL process (the discourse that occurs, the exchange of ideas and that learning process itself) to the optimization of creativity that occurs in the ‘flow’ process.  In this book, Csikszentmihalyi defines ‘flow’ as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.  The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”(Csikszentmihalyi, p.4).  Wouldn’t that be great if that’s the way students viewed learning?  One way to see it is like this:


(Barrett, 2013)

The idea being that the state of flow in learning comes when the optimal problem or activity is presented to students such that the difficulty and time or skills given keeps their interest long enough to minimize anxiety and maximize love of learning and the return on their learning (reinforcement of confidence, efficacy, enjoyment, agency, etc.).   A lot of the book is based on the idea of the state of flow helping to create the optimal state of happiness so it might not relate directly to teaching, but I highly recommend the last two chapters which are entitled “Creating Chaos” and “The Making of Meaning” which can be directly translated to the PBL classroom and are highly useful for the PBL teacher looking to see how you can create the state of flow for your students.

Tomorrow I will catch up with numbers two and three! (hopefully get you #1 as well)

Get Comfortable with Uncertainty: A Short Dialogue

And so it begins.   The students are flustered. The emails are coming at night.  The faces stare at me, scared to death.  Although I repeat numerous times, “You do not have to come to class with each problem done and correct” students are totally freaking out about the fact that they can’t “do their homework” or they can’t “get” a certain problem on the homework.  No matter how many times I attempt to send the message the first few weeks about how unnecessary it is to come to class with a problem complete or an answer to show, students feel the need.

Tomorrow I am writing on my large post-it notes in HUGE capital letters, “Get comfortable with uncertainty because it’s not going anywhere.”  Every year about this time, I give the speech about how my homework is extremely different from any homework they have probably encountered in math class.  These are not problems that you are supposed to read, recognize and repeat.  They are there to motivate your thinking, stimulate your brain and trigger prior knowledge.  In other words,  you need to be patient with yourself and truly create mathematics.

Today I met with a young woman who I thought was about to cry.  She came and said, “I can’t do this problem that was assigned for tomorrow.”  Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Why don’t you read the problem for me?

Girl:  Find points on the line y=2 that are 13 units from the point (2,14)

Me:  Ok, so show me what you did. (she takes out her graph paper notebook and shows that she graphed the line y=2, plotted the point (2,14)).  Great, that’s a great diagram.

Girl:  But it didn’t make sense because in order for it to be 13 units away, it had to be like, diagonal.

Me: Huh, what would that look like?

Girl: (drawing on her diagram) There’d be like two of them here and here.

Me; yeah?

Girl: But it can’t be like that….

Me: yeah? Why not?

Girl: Um…cause it wouldn’t be a straight distance.  I think..

Me: Is it 13 units away from (2,14)?

Girl: yeah, I think so…

Me: Hmmm….how far is (2,14) from the line y=2?

Girl:  Oh that’s easier – it’s like 12. ..Oh My gosh..it’s like a hypotenuse….and the other side that I don’t know is like the a and the 12 is like the b.  I can just find it.  Oh my gosh that’s so easy.  And the other one is on the other side.    Why didn’t I see that?

Me:  Well, you did…actually….

Girl: well, after you asked me that question…

Me: yeah, but eventually you’ll learn how to ask yourself those questions.


And they do….it’s just the beginning of the year.  We have to give them time – time to look into their prior knowledge as a habit, time to surprise themselves, time to have those moments, time to enjoy the moment and revel in the joy and courage and disappointment.  It’s all a part of the breakthrough that is needed to realize that they are creative and mathematics needs them to be.  It’s amazing and it’s worth it.

The Downside of Naming “Feminine” Traits

I recently read this article from the Harvard Business Review stating that “Feminine” Values Can Give Tomorrow’s Leaders an Edge.   A study was done asking 64,000 people from over 13 countries all over the world for the traits, skills and competencies that were perceived to be appreciated in leaders in the world of business and leadership.  The conclusions (from statistical modeling) that the analysts came to were that tomorrow’s leaders must overwhelmingly learn to have what our culture has defined to be “feminine” traits.  Here’s the list of the survey said were the top 10 desired traits for modern leaders:


I don’t disagree with these traits, honestly, and as a feminist it actually excites me that the values that I work to foster in the classroom are being valued in the boardroom and society in general (Dewey would be proud too).  However, something that is troubling me is the ever-popular dichotomy that is being set up here that seems to always be at the heart of many issues that rise in our society.  Something I wrote about in my dissertation and any time I talk about Relational Pedagogy is the idea of breaking down this concept of masculine vs. feminine thinking, not only in mathematics or education, but in human relations altogether.

I will be the first person to motivate and encourage young women in the STEM fields or take a young boy who likes cooking and say, “you, go guy” and hand him an apron – but that is about individualism and allowing young people to be who they want to be and feel empowered.  In my classroom, allowing students to see multiple perspectives and have their voice heard whether they are male or female is entirely my top priority because they are individuals and their relationship with mathematics is unique.  For a long time in math education, the ideas in this study were how young girls were viewed – researchers thought that if we just saw how girls were different from boys that we could see why they weren’t “doing as well” as boys.  However, we saw that they were doing just as well.

So my problem with this study is not the fact that women will be empowered to become leaders in business – no, that’s really exciting to me.  In fact, maybe some men will see the potential in women and decide to hire more women in the future and this will create more jobs for women and this will in turn, create a more equitable workplace and more favorable working conditions, which will then create more exciting options for business situations because of the fact that different perspectives are being looked at with such different views being taken in problem solving in business.  That is extremely exciting to me!

However, my problem with this study is this.  In order to make such radical changes in how people view gender differences in our society we really need to stop making such huge oppositional statements.  In support of this view, Mendick (2005) stated

By aligning separate-ness with masculinity and connected-ness with femininity, these approaches feed the oppositional binary patterning of our thinking and in the final analysis reiterate it (p 163).

If we just continue to point out how “unfeminine” men are because they are less expressive and how “unmasculine” women because they can be undecisive all we are doing is perpetuating the oppositions that separate us instead of our humanness that can bring us together as learners and our vulnerability that can help us problem solve with our strengths and weaknesses that will make us stronger if we work together.

There was an article published in 2010, about how if you put more women in a group of people the “collective intelligence” increases – the group works better together.  I’m sure there’s some tipping point though that if the group has all women there are diminishing returns for this measure.  There has to come a time when we value the relationships in our learning, our work and our classrooms and as teachers foster all of these traits to the best of our abilities.

How do you measure success?

Last week I was being observed by a colleague and my class was doing an exercise in GeoGebra about circles, arcs and inscribed angles. I don’t think I can do the experience I had justice as I try to describe to you what happened in this class, but strangely, I just can’t believe that someone else was there to witness it. Have you ever attempted to scaffold learning in a way such that the questions you asked would move the students forward so that they came to the conclusions themselves? Well, this is what I do everyday in the PBL classroom and sometimes it’s a success, sometimes it’s in between and I do more “telling” than I’d like, but on this day I couldn’t believe what happened.

I had the students construct a circle with a central angle and measure the arc and the angle and see that they had the same angular size. This was no surprise to them. My plan was then for them to extend one side of a radius of the central angle and make an inscribed angle that intercepted the same arc so that they would measure that one and see that it was half the central angle and the arc it intercepted. Often when I do this students don’t understand that the angles intercept the same arc, or something else goes wrong. However, one this day, I wished I had been recording the flow of the conversation that went flawlessly after my simple question, “What do you observe about the two angles?” From one student to the next around the table it went:

“Well, it’s definitely smaller…”
“Mine’s almost ninety and the other one looks like it’s almost 45.”
“Maybe it’s supposed to be half?”
“Yeah because the side is a diameter and the other one’s sides a radius – like it’s in a proportion?”
“No, that can’t happen, you know the angles of a triangle don’t work like that..”
“move it around and see if you can get it to be exactly a half…”

After a while, they all agree that it seems like the inscribed angle is half the intercepted arc. So I prompt them again,”So why do you think it might be exactly half? Is there any relationship between these two angles that might make it that way?”

“Is it like because of the midsegment theorem? The radius is half the diameter so it makes them parallel?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like the other one is parallel though…”
“It seems like the other central angle next to that one adds up to 180 with the one that intercepts the arc.”
“Hey wasn’t there a theorem about that?”
“Oh my gosh, yes”
“It was like about outside angles or something like that being …like if you add the two inside you get the one outside”
“Oh I see, the triangle on the other side is an Isosceles triangle because it’s a circle..”

At this point, I almost freaked out because I hadn’t said anything in almost 15 minutes or so, they weren’t doing it all themselves and almost every student (except maybe 2 or 3, who were still engaged at least) had contributed something to the conversation. I mean, I was in teacher ecstasy, and to top it all off, I had somewhere there to see it all. I couldn’t believe it. Besides that I had been having a really bad day, and this just turned it all around. I don’t know if this was all a function of the practice of PBL, or a function of the kids in the class, but it was truly amazing. I heard at least three of students leaving class that day say “that was a great class!”, what more could I ask for?