I compiled tweets related to my recent expedition to Ottawa to check out thinking classrooms! Each teacher implements the framework in unique ways that are often tethered to their characters, resulting in wonderful examples of places where students can engage in thinking. It was an incredible experience to be a part of. Follow the link below to see some posts that outline my journey!
The other day in class, I asked my students, “What do you want to get out of this class?”
I meant – what do you want to focus on today and what do you want to leave with today, but it just didn’t come out quite like that.
One hand went up, and the response was, “I would really like to get an A in this class.”
I chuckled softly and asked if anyone had anything else to add.
Another hand went up, and the response was, “I’d really be happy with a B in this class, even just a C+.”
And shortly after that, another student told me the grade they want “to get.”
I was baffled how no one seemed to think these were ridiculous answers. The norms of our culture, and the upgrading setting in particular, were prevalent to me more than ever. These people, in the end, want to get their grade, and move on. They want to forget about anything they learned, and move on with the interesting things in their lives. Fair enough, I get that.
But what baffles me more is that HOURS go into this! HOURS go into attaining a goal of a letter grade that doesn’t reflect in any specific way what was learned, and how that person as a whole has been enriched in some particular way as a citizen of society.
This is the system.
The system places value on this letter grade. It does not place value on:
- the social skills developed within collaborative problem solving activities
- the processes generated within the act of solving a problem
- the new found ability to explain a mathematical concept to a peer
- the insights garnered into why society has engaged in mathematics
- the time and dedication committed to understanding complicated mathematics
I have seen evidence of all of the above in my students while they have worked together on problems in groups, on whiteboards and off whiteboards. There is a community in the classroom that I see and feel when I enter it. A community where students feel comfortable walking across the room to check in on someone they care about and see if they are understanding the content, and where students listen to their peers and have the patience to hear them out before explaining their perspective on a problem.
How do these things get valued more?
It is my hope that throughout the term, the focus on the grade will become overshadowed by the focus on learning – as a process rather than as a product.
I fear, however, that it is very possible the pressures and demands of the system may ultimately prevail.
. . . unless we chip away at the system . . . ?
This term for me was quite a ride. I was teaching a full course load, taking my second to last PhD course, working on dissertation stuff, travelling to conferences, and trying to have a bit of a life too. It was my first term teaching a Math 12 equivalent upgrading course at my institution. The first round of teaching a course always has it’s challenges. Luckily I had some material to work from. However, I like getting creative with my teaching, and I always want to make changes. It never ends. Now that this crazy term is over, I have some time for reflection.
One thing in particular that I have been reflecting on recently, is my use of groups. I always start my term off with the use of random grouping, whiteboards, and problems (Hat tip to my advisor Peter Liljedahl). Lots of engagement is created with this, and it establishes the tone for a thinking classroom. I was impressed with how my students pushed me and questioned why everything is the way it is when they came across something. There were a lot of debates and opportunities for starting up mathematical arguments.
Fine and dandy.
However, there was one interesting occurrence. My students went through a bit of an emotional experience while writing a test while I was away (at a conference . . . and stuck in another country) and this changed the dynamics of my classroom completely.
I got the evil stare from many when I arrived back, and I worked really hard to recreate a good learning atmosphere.
One thing that came up was the use of random groups. Students really wanted to stick to working with students they found helpful to their learning. Fair enough. So I let this emerge naturally. Groups settled into these sort of learning pods, and people felt comfortable moving around to talk with others from different groups. Problems were tackled, questions were formed, justifications were made . . . great! I don’t think the groups would have worked quite this well had they not been placed in random groups for the first four weeks.
In retrospect, I notice that the groups that formed seemed aligned in their attitudes towards the course, their goals of learning, their mathematical abilities, and in the end, groups tended to receive the same grades. Now some of these things may have caused them to be drawn to each other, while other may have developed out of each group’s subculture. It’s interesting to me in what conditions a teacher should pursue random grouping, and in what conditions, a teacher should let them emerge (as I felt I needed to in this term). Either way, this indicates how strong the social is in learning.
This term, I have been giving group problems on my tests, and it has been fruitful.
Giving group problems as part of an assessment helps students treat group work during class time more seriously. In the past, I have tried to get students to work on problems in groups during class time, but they most often gravitated to working individually in the groups. This was because they knew that in the end, they were going to be tested individually.
This term, I noticed a point in time when there developed a resistance against group work. A colleague suggested that I try putting a group problem on a test to show that I value group work. I tried it, and it worked! No longer do I need to convince students to work in groups. Sure, there are still a few who just want to work on their own, but the majority have come to value working together and learning from each other.
I am still tinkering with the logistics. I have tried giving a problem for them to work on and then getting them to come up and ask for the rest of the test on which they will then write up the problem they solved together on their own. I have also tried giving a similar problem as the test for them to work on right before the test so that they will be ready for it when they complete their test. Finally, I included a group problem on the last midterm as described below:
Students were to in groups build a three dimensional object out of parts that I provided. They would then each describe and draw the object on their papers and give the object to another group to work on. The other group would then describe and draw the shape they received, and then work together to find the volume and surface area of the shape. Each student would then hand in a write up of the activity and then complete the rest of the midterm. The activity was graded as one of the midterm questions.
In giving such a task, I worried that students would just come up with simplistic objects in order to take the easiest possible route. However, the drive for most groups was quite the opposite. They challenged themselves with the most complicated shapes they could come up with! They even surpassed the outcomes of the unit in creating shapes such as:
Because they had created their own shapes, they had this drive to engage themselves in figuring out the volume and surface area regardless of how complicated it got! Many fruitful ideas and questions came out of their discussions.
If the stage is set right, group work can be very productive. However, I am constantly searching for new ways to switch up my group work strategies because too much of a good thing can take a hit. I have found that if I organize my class in the exact same way too many times in a row, students lose interest and it is no longer a novelty.
“Keep it fresh” is the advice I like to follow and remind myself of every time I plan a lesson.