Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Week 1 in Math - My Motivations & Understanding Expectations with Students

What, Why and Where

I am finally embarking on my vision of a "gradeless" classroom. What does that mean? It means that my students will receive feedback that is feedback-based. Learning becomes about learning. Grades take a step back and are determine for reporting periods.

Why am I going here? I am giving the ownership of learning back to my students. For too long I have been the owner of the learning. It was believed that the teacher "gave" marks and students always wanted to know what they needed to "do" to get an 80. The shift is simple - I give feedback based on set criteria that students need to work toward and they reflect on their learning and act on a next step to meet those criteria. 

Where am I now? In the past 2-3 years I have done some work with creating overarching learning goals and reformatting evaluations (i.e. taking marks off of quizzes, using one-point rubrics to give feedback, etc.). Ultimately these changes have led me to need to go to a fully feedback-based classroom so that I can focus on doing this well. So this year (my grade 10 classes in particular) will learn math through feedback based on 5 overarching learning goals.

Our First Few Days

After spending a period on vertical surfaces solving a problem in groups we started to attack the curriculum. I wanted students to have a chance to find out what the curriculum was and to understand the lens through which the curriculum is taught. In fact, I wanted them to own it.

The Math Processes - the lens through which the Ontario math curriculum is taught

Students were in 7 groups of 3-4 students and each group was assigned to one of the processes. They were tasked with rewriting their process in their own words. I gave them two prompting questions to consider to help with the process: What does it mean? What will it look like in class?

Groups then rotated around and had a chance to add or suggest changes to the work of the other groups. When they returned to their own group they were to look at the suggestions made and decide on their final sentence - sharing their final work in a shared document.

As a group we looked at the final sentences which was my chance to ask them questions about their choices of words. This lead to us making some changes (I tried to make sure we were keeping as much of their wording as possible) and agreeing as a class that we understood what it looked like.

Overall Expectations - the content

Students were given the curriculum for one of the strands of the course and were tasked with rewriting the overall expectations in their own words. When they were finished I had the groups working on the same strand get together and come to an agreement before sharing it on our shared doc. We then looked at it as a class.

With my second section I made a better point of talking about the language in the document, defining words they needed and talked about what words were important to leave in.

Learning Map - putting them together

I reworded my overarching learning goals to use the students words from the above and then shared my learning map with the students. The 5 goals on this map are where we will focus our attention for the semester. Instead of having 7 processes and 10 overall expectations students how have 5 goals to manage and reflect on.

Reflection

While I am at a school where deconstructing curriculum is not new to grade 10 students it was their first time doing it with math "jargon" so the struggle was largely around the vocabulary used. When I do this again with students who are new to this process in math I would spend time at the start looking at math and instructional vocabulary and make sure that we know what they mean and which ones are important to keep.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Everyone has an Opinion

As a math educator there is nothing I dread more than the wrath of opinions sent my way when standardized tests scores are released (not to mention the fact the it seems to get worse every year...somehow the media gets hold of results before they are public). Everyone has an opinion. And they are entitled to one.

But it does not make them an expert.

It is easy to sit at the sidelines and put blame on someone else - teachers, the curriculum, and the like. Currently most of them blame is on the curriculum and/or so-called "discovery math" instruction.

The Curriculum

Standardized expectations set by the ministry that is publicly available here.

Now I do not ever call myself a math ed expert. My experience is limited to Ontario in grade 9-12 with a bit of tutoring at the grade 6 level. This is the only experience I can speak from. But I am sure I could find many colleagues (elementary and secondary) that would agree that there is too much emphasis on math content. Every grade level is loaded with content that is needed and content has always been in the drivers seat. Elementary grades have to cover content in 5 areas each with a multitude of specific expectations to get to.

Flip to the front matter of either sets of curricula and you will find 7 Mathematical Processes. These are supposed to be the lens through which math is taught - and we need to remind each other of this. Perhaps a redesign of curriculum to make this front matter the meat of each grade would be beneficial. Check out BC's new curriculum - it is competency focused. I am sure it is not perfect, but frankly, it is genius.

You won't catch me claiming that the curriculum does not need to be revisited.

"Discovery Math"

I use the phrase discovery learning in quotations because it is misunderstood by most people. It is over-simplified into this little box definition and believed by many to mean that we give students a problem and then never help them. This is a myth.

I am sure that there is a lot of support needed for teachers to embrace the research behind "purposeful struggle" and I am also willing to go out on a limb and guess that there are many teachers teaching math who are not comfortable doing it (I have friends who would attest to this) and are probably even less comfortable with embracing a different way of teaching. But discovery math is not to blame.

We absolutely need learners to play with numbers and learn ways that they are related. They need to find the number sense within them. Math is not as simple as we make it out to be. It is not a bunch of facts that we memorize and use without understanding (lack of understanding leads to mistakes!) - hey you might be good at arithmetic, but this does not a mathematician make. We need to develop a future filled with people who can problem solve, use logic, reflect and communicate - we do not need a future of human calculators.

Using traditional teaching forced me to always tell kids what to do and how to do it. I could tell them why, but to them why was not important. Students got a lesson and then practiced that work. They only worked on that one skill and never made connections to other ideas. Traditional teaching forced me to teach to the middle of the class and made differentiation nearly impossible.

Discovery math allows me to do a variety of things and to differentiate my classroom. Research supports learning as a complex structure that requires much more than memorizing (and even the parts you do need to "remember" need to be forgotten and recalled many times to bring them into long-term memory). In fact, learning is one of the most counter-intuitive things I know. I bet most people can come up with at least one example of something they thought they had learned only later to realize they had tricked themselves into it - only their short term memory had any idea at the time. By using a discovery approach students have to struggle with ideas (makes learning seem like it takes more effort to achieve - because it does - but lasts a lot longer and leads to making connections to ideas already understood) but they get to do it in an environment with 29 of their peers and a learning coach to help out when the "struggle" moves from purposeful to frustrated.
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Don't get me wrong. I don't have an answer. And there isn't a simple one. I cannot tell you why only 50% of last year's grade 6 students met the provincial expectations (but I can tell you that these tests are not straight-forward and disadvantage many groups of students).

I have rambled at this point and could keep going. I could justify every decision that I made in deciding how I would be running my classroom this year. We don't make these decisions on a whim. We do not do them just because someone tells us to.

One opinion writer this week wrote that the one thing that has not changed are kids - that kids are still kids, capable of learning. This is an oversimplification of a very complex discussion - I could easily disagree with her. But one thing is for sure.

We do it for the kids. Every day.