Late night thoughts on Assessing Prior Knowledge

So it’s 11:50 pm on a Tuesday night, so what?  I can still think critically, right?  It was the last day of classes and I had an amazing day, but then all of a sudden Twitter started gearing up and lots of discussions began and my mind started racing.  I had planned on writing a blogpost about a student’s awesome inquiry project (which, it ends up, took me about 2 hours to figure out a way to make an iBook on my iPad into a video to try to post on my blog, so that will have to wait), but then I read a great post by Andrew Shauver (@hs_math_physics)

Mr. Shauver writes about the pros and cons of direct instruction vs. inquiry learning but has a great balanced viewpoint towards both of them. In this post, he is discussing the how and when teachers should or can use either method of instruction.  It is important, Shauver states to remember that “inquiry can work provided that students possess the appropriate background knowledge.”

I would totally agree, but I’m just wondering how we assess that – does it really work to lecture for a day and then say they now possess the appropriate background knowledge?  Do we lecture for two days and then give them a quiz and now we know they possess it?  I wonder how we know?  At some point, don’t we have to look at each student as an individual and think about what they are capable of bringing to a mathematical task?  We should set up the problems so that there is some sort of triggering of prior knowledge, communication between peers, resources available for them to recall the information?

Joseph Mellor makes a great point that in PBL most of the time you might plan a certain outcome from a problem, or set of problems, but the triggering didn’t work, or the kids didn’t have the prior knowledge that you thought.  He says that he is often either pleasantly surprised by their ability to move forward or surprised at how much they lack. In PBL, we depend on the students’ ability to communicate with each other, ask deep questions and take risks – often admitting when they don’t remember prior knowledge – hopefully to no suffering on their part. This can be a big hurdle to overcome and can often lead to further scaffolding, a deeper look at the writing of the problem sequence, fine tuning the awareness of their true prior knowledge (not just what the previous teacher said they “learned”) or yes, maybe a little direct instruction in some creative ways.  However, I do believe that given the opportunity a lot of students can be pleasantly surprising.  What do you think?

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!

Worked examples in PBL?

Apologies for not writing in so long. Transitions can be hard and making my way through a new school, new place to live and way too many other changes in my life have caused me to put this blog lowest on the priority list. However, in preparing for my course at the PEA conference next week, I came across a wonderful article in the Interdisciplinary Journal for Problem-Based Learning by David Jonassen at the Univesity of Missouri. I have meant to write about this for quite a while because he write about “Supporting Problem Solving in PBL” and has created this great structure that describes the components and scaffolds for PBL environments. It kind of shows the different parts of a PBL environment and the cognitive ways in which students move through the environment focused on the problem, but how they navigate learning. One of the pieces that he talks about that was in this environment was “worked examples.” When I first read this, I was aghast and totally taken aback. How could this be? Why would someone propose that worked examples are part of PBL and isn’t this totally against everything that PBL stands for? I mean, why not just go back to direct instruction and have the teacher standing up at the board working examples for the whole class? OK, that’s a little extreme. I think I over-reacted and went to Jonassen’s part of the article where talks about this.

He states “The most common method for supporting schema construction is the worked example” which I believe is him stating that from a cognitive standpoint the “most common” way for a student to build a schema of seeing how to do something is for someone to show them how to do it. I do believe there is research that shows this. However, I do not believe that there is research that shows that this is the best way for the to construct a schema for understanding. In fact, Jonassen goes on to say that “worked examples should break down complex solutions into smaller meaningful solution elements, present multiple examples in multiple modalities for each kind of problem, emphasize the conceptual structure of the problem vary formats within problem types, and signal the deep structure of the problem…It is doubtful that worked examples are effectively applicable to very ill-structured problems. How can you model a solution that is unknown?” So if teachers did what he says here, they would work examples in many modalities – all representations so that the conceptual connections could be made and not just the procedural ones. Students would be able to see the bigger picture of mathematics more often because they would realize that in the real world they are not given problems that are repetitive and exactly like one that has already been worked out for them. They would be prepared for the fact that they could be given a problem that may have a solution that is unknown. We have a responsibility as teachers to prepare them for that possibility.

So I believe that what Jonassen is saying here is, don’t be afraid to, if necessary, stand up and work out a problem for a student if they are confused and ask you to show them something. That is part of your job to clarify a question or a process for them. However, it should not be part of the plan. Be open to different modalities of representing the work – not all students think the same and they need to see the differences in order to understand the full concept to big picture overall anyway. Limiting yourself to one way of working out an example is not helping them in anyway. So allowing yourself to be open to helping them “work it out” is really the best way to handle it for everyone.