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## A Nice Little Story

Much has been discussed on this blog about the pedagogy of the revised curriculum. Some people (mostly in Manitoba) want to debate about whether the pedagogy of discovery, exploration, and constructivism actually works. This week, I had a conversation with a colleague, who shared the story of her two daughters with me. I hope my colleague isn’t a reader of this blog. I didn’t actually ask her if I could share the story. But it is too relevant not to.

Daughter 1 – High School Student

Daughter 1 is a product of the old math curriculum. She receives very high grades (in the 90’s). My colleague, a math educator, fears that these grades are earned by memorization and imitation, and have very little understanding behind them.

Daughter 2 – Junior High School Student

Daughter 2 is in her fourth year of learning with the revised curriculum. Her grades are decent, and she loves math. She has been fortunate to have four years of teachers who embrace the philosophy of the revised program of studies.

The Story

While on holidays over Christmas, my colleague’s husband took to reading alcohol content labels on the beverages he was buying. In their hotel room, Daughter 1 noticed a bottle with 6% alcohol and another with 12% alcohol. She commented that if mixed, the alcohol content would be 18%. Daughter 2 jumped in, and tried to correct her older sister. The older sister wasn’t understanding the explanation, so Daughter 2 used all the strategies we want kids to use. She drew pictures. She experimented (hopefully not by sampling). She convinced her older sister that the alcohol content of the mixture would lie between 6% and 12%. She even extended it the next morning at breakfast when comparing 1% and 2% milk.

Which daughter is better equipped to handle the rigours of University math?

## Peter Liljedahl on Problem Solving

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with Peter Liljedahl from Simon Fraser University. The session was on assessment, but he opened with his take on problem solving. I’m going to discuss the assessment stuff in a later post, but I really wanted to talk about his problem solving process while it was fresh in my mind.

Peter grouped us randomly by having us select cards, and then gave us the following problem.

1001 pennies are lined up in a row. Every second penny is replaced with a nickel. Then every third coin (might be a penny or a nickel) is replaced with a dime. Then every fourth coin is replaced with a quarter. What is the total value of the coins in the row?

He gave each group a whiteboard marker, and a window or small whiteboard to work on. We were to solve the problem on the space we were given. Peter circulated and encouraged us to look at what was written on the other windows if we were stuck. In the end, most of us were satisfied that we were right. Peter never told us the answer or revealed it in any way.

Here’s what interested me about Peter’s take on problem solving, which is very similar to what I have advocated as Learning Through Problem Solving.

1. The problem wasn’t written down any where. He just told us the story, clarified, and put us to work. This isn’t a textbook problem.
2. He grouped us randomly, rather than letting us sit with the people we came with. Throughout the day, he kept on re-grouping us. His feeling is that this frequent changing of the groups leads to more productive classes, and helps include all students. Kids are more willing to work with someone they don’t like when they know that it won’t be for long. This process helps include even the shy and “outcast” students in the classes. These students are included because the people working with them know that the groups will change again very soon, and so they can be patient for that long. Peter also has a way to assess group processes, which I will discuss in the subsequent post on his assessment material.
3. Writing on non-permanent surfaces is critical to Peter’s process. He has observed that when kids work on paper, they take a long time to start. When they work on something like a window or a whiteboard, they start right away, because they know they can erase any mistakes easily. Groups that are stuck can step back and see what the other groups are doing as a way to help them get started. When finished, each group’s work  is displayed prominently around the room so that students can share solutions with each other in a non-threatening way. Students could do a gallery walk and discuss the different solutions, or sit down and write down one that works for them individually.
4. This is the third time I have had the pleasure of working with Peter. He has never once told us the right answer. This drives teachers nuts. I’ve tried it in classrooms, and it drives kids nuts. The message, though, is that they have to figure out the answer. The teacher isn’t going to let them off the hook. An even more important message is that the teacher is less concerned about the answer than she is about the process. These are two pretty nice messages.

Peter’s problem solving process fits really nicely with the Learning Through Problem Solving discussed frequently on this blog. There’s always a “yeah, but” when I share some of this with teachers. They have one whiteboard, no windows, and nothing else to write on in their classrooms. Let me solve that problem for you.

Superstore has \$20 whiteboards that are just the right size. Staples has tons of different sizes available for less than \$30 each. I’m confident you could get enough whiteboard space in your classroom for 15 groups to work for less than \$300. Your principal will find that kind of money in a hurry, especially when you explain that you are going to use it to enhance mathematics instruction by engaging students in group processes that will lead to better problem solving skills. I’ll write you a letter if you need one.

## Prepare Kids for a Contract Job, Not an Hourly Wage Job

I had a long drive home from an assessment session yesterday, and I was reflecting on some of the conversations we had. We talked about how some teachers justify strange assessment practices because they sincerely believe that they are helping prepare their students for the real world.

It occurred to me that this view of our role in preparing students for life after school treats the real world like a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant.  This view of the real world values things like showing up on time, having a great attitude, and working hard. Those are admirable qualities in the guy who serves me my curly fries. They should have nothing to do with my assessment of students’ mathematical abilities.

A better view of our role in preparing kids for the real world would be to treat the real world like a contract job.  This view of the real world values things like taking responsibility to finish what you start, taking as long as you need to do the job right, seeking help from others when needed, and producing good work every time. These are great qualities in the guy who designs the bridge I drive across every day. These are the things I should be encouraging in  my students, and should be reflected in my assessment practices.

## Homework

I can’t believe I’m about to wade into the homework debate, but here goes.

When I became a consultant, they spent a great deal of time teaching me how to coach and facilitate.  One thing they taught me was to be up front about my assumptions and biases.  So here’s three pretty important ones.

1. As a kid, I hated doing homework.
2. As a teacher, I hated chasing kids to get their homework done.
3. As a parent, I am learning to hate fighting with my kid to do her homework.

A few years ago, while tutoring a student, I came to the realization that most of the math homework we assign is a waste of time.  Her teacher had assigned her questions 1-15, parts a, c, and e.  She did 1a and knew how to do it.  I suggested that we move on to #2, but she was the kind of kid who did every question assigned, so she did 1c and 1e even though they were exactly like part a, but with different numbers.  It occurred to me at that point that I needed to look at how much and what kind of homework I was assigning.

I started paying more attention to which students were completing what homework assignments.  Some kids did it all, and some kids did none.  The problem is that the students who needed the practice, didn’t do the work, and the students who didn’t need the practice, diligently did every single question I assigned.

At about that time, some teachers in my department were complaining about how kids didn’t do homework.  I threw out the idea of just not assigning it at all to alleviate everyone’s (teacher, student and parent) stress.  That suggestion didn’t go over well.  In my classes, I consciously started giving less homework.  My thought was that if we assigned 4 useful questions and the kids did 3, we were way better off than if we assigned 20 rote practice questions and the kids did 6.

I also started differentiating my assignments.  Kids who needed practice got a manageable amount of practice.  Kids who needed deeper thinking got richer questions.  As a kid, I hated it when I got done an assignment, only to have the teacher give me more of the same.  I learned not to get done.  We do that to our strongest kids.  Instead of giving them better assignments, we just make them do more work, and because they’re good kids, they tend to do it.

Another change I made was to move away from giving my class practice time at the end of the lesson.  I tend to talk less than most high school math teachers.  In an 80 minute block, I try hard to keep lessons to no more than 40 minutes, so that kids have at least 40 minutes to work.  I used to give that work time at the end.  Kids were tired after a 40 minute lesson, and it was difficult to focus them on the practice questions.  I started breaking my lessons into smaller sections, so that I’d teach for 10 minutes, and then assign 2 question, then teach for 10 minutes and assign 2 questions, and so on.  By doing this, the kids really felt they had to do the questions, because it seemed like part of the lesson.  As such, I assigned far fewer questions at the end of the lesson.  Most kids had nothing to take home at all, which I felt good about, and I’m sure they felt good about.  More importantly to the people who will suggest kids need lots of practice to be successful, my student’s grades didn’t suffer by doing less homework.

If I get brave later on, I’ll add a post about how I feel about assessing homework.

## Fishing Story

Here’s a WCYDWT for Alberta’s Math 10-3 on Ratios and Rates.

This fish, a 60 pound sturgeon, was recently caught and released in a small self-contained pond on a golf course near the Red Deer River.  When local biologists heard about the catch, they decided to investigate.  They surmise he (or she) came into the pond when the river flooded five years ago, and then spent the next five years feeding happily on the stocked trout.  Since sturgeon are endangered, it was important to return him (or her) to the river, which they were able to do.

This story reminded me that about ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to be present when a team of biologists surveyed a cutthroat trout population on a remote mountain stream.  Biologists typically use a method called electroshock fishing to stun fish so they can be tagged and released. They had a boat with a generator on it and a long metal prod which they poked around in the water.  When the current got near enough to a fish, it would be momentarily stunned, and float to the surface.  The biologists then weighed, measured and tagged the fish before returning it to the stream.  Any fish that had been previously tagged had its number recorded and it was again weighed and measured.  It was a humbling experience to see that there were actually abundant numbers of fish in that stream, because I had been unable to catch any earlier that day with my fly rod, but I digress.

I have used the story of watching the biologists electroshock fish several times in my classes as a ratio problem and asked students determine the population of fish in that stream.  Sometimes I gave my students the number of fish tagged on the first day, and then the number of tagged fish caught on a second run of the same stretch of river later on.  Other times (and probably a better problem), I had my students design an experiment to predict the population of fish before providing them the actual numbers.

Red Deer Advocate story about the fisherman who first caught the fish

Red Deer Advocate story about the biologists capturing and releasing the fish back to the river

## Understanding vs. Doing

At a session I facilitated today, I was going over our old (1996) curriculum as compared to our revised (2010) curriculum.  Many of the outcomes are similar, but the big difference is in the wording of the outcomes.  I asked the participants to compare the two below.

1996

13. Use the Pythagorean relationship to calculate the measure of the third side, of a right triangle, given the other two sides in 2-D applications.

2010

2.  Demonstrate an understanding of the Pythagorean theorem.

The outcomes get at essentially the same thing.  In my opinion, though, the big difference is in the word “understanding” in our 2010 curriculum.  Back in 1996, we don’t appear to have been too concerned about whether or not the students understood it, as long as they could do it.  I threw this thought out in my session, and one person challenged it and said that they were the same thing.  He insisted that a student couldn’t do something unless that student actually understood it.

I disagreed, and he claimed I was arguing semantics (which I had to look up later).  I had to move on, but I certainly thought about what he had said on my flight home.  In the end, though, I stand by my original assertion.  I think that too often we ask kids to “do” things in math class without really trying to get at understanding.  Some kids imitate our algorithms, score well on tests, without having a true understanding of the math involved.

I tried to think of a real-world example of this distinction, and so far the best one I have come up with is as follows.  I know that if I push the gas pedal on my car, it will move forward (if I put that stick thing in the spot marked “D”, which I assume stands for “Go”).  This is something I am confident I can do.  I do not, however, have any understanding as to why the car goes forward or what is going on to make that happen.  I do it without any understanding at all.

## Lecture Method vs. Peer Instruction

Eric Mazur is a Harvard Physics professor.  I came across this video when somebody posted it on Dan Meyer’s blog in response to another person who was demanding data to prove that Dan’s methods would work.  Professor Mazur has data to prove the merit of his shift from being a lecture style instructor to an instructor who facilitates peer teaching.  Peer teaching is definitely a strategy we could employ in our revised curriculum in Alberta.  If a University Physics professor can facilitate learning without having to tell his students everything, then certainly a high school math teacher who wanted to teach for understanding could emulate this process.  This video is about 80 minutes long, but is worth the time if you can spare it.  For those who can’t, I’ve summarized the key points below.

The reason that Professor Mazur switched his style was because his students were not showing gains when he compared pre-test results to post-test results.  Despite going through an entire term of his lecture style physics class, students could not show a significant improvement in their understanding of basic physics.

His Key Messages:

• Students who have recently learned something are better at explaining it to other students than a teacher who learned and mastered it years ago. It is difficult for a teacher who has mastery of a concept to be aware of the conceptual difficulties of the beginning learner.
• Give students more responsibility for gathering information and make it our job to help them with assimilation.
• You can’t learn Physics (or Math or anything) by watching someone else solve problems.  You wouldn’t learn to pay the  piano by watching someone else play.  You wouldn’t train for a marathon by watching other people run.  If you want to learn problem solving, you have to do the problems.
• Better understanding leads to better problem solving.  The converse of this statement is not necessarily true.  Better problem solving does not necessarily indicate better understanding.
• Education is no longer about information transfer.
• He says that in his original methods he covered a lot, but the students didn’t retain much so the coverage was basically meaningless.  In his new method, he has relaxed the coverage a little bit, but increased the comprehension enormously.

The Peer Instruction Process

• Students pre-read the lecture notes or text.
• Class is then used for depth, rather than coverage.
• Depth is attained through what he calls a concept test.

The Concept Test:

1. A question is posed.
2. The students think silently about the question for a minute or so and it must be completely silent in the class.
3. Students answer individually and vote by show of hands or by SMART Response systems.
6. Explanation

Then he will “lecture” for a couple of minutes, and repeat the process with his class.

Benefits of his process:

• This process promotes active engagement.  “It is impossible to sleep through class, because every few minutes, your neighbor will start talking to you.”
• He can continually assess where his students are.

Challenges:

• Teachers have to find the right questions to ask in their classes.
• Students will write on their evaluations that professor Mazur isn’t teaching them anything and that they have to learn everything themselves.

My take on all this:

I see this process as being one we could employ in our high school classes.  I don’t think we’d expect kids to pre-read sections of the textbook, but we could certainly present problems to them in this manner and allow them to explore and construct solutions without having to tell them so much.