My students told me what’s going on in my class

I talked to my data management kids today about the not–so-great class we had yesterday. We pushed all the desks aside and put our chairs into a (sort of) circle for this conversation. I explained how frustrated I was with the lack of feedback I was getting during class, and that I was concerned that my goals did not align with their goals for the course.

I asked them why they were taking the course, and what they were hoping to get out of it. My speculation last night was partly on target: their primary goals are to get a high school diploma, with a good mark in this course, so that they could get into “the next thing” (university programs for most of them). Some mentioned that they thought statistics would be helpful for their planned program. Overwhelmingly the course is seen as a means to an end. It’s not 110+ hours of learning; it’s more like a long tunnel they must pass through to get on with life.

This is what I was afraid of, and yet sitting there with my students I can’t blame them. Our school system (through post-secondary as well) trains them to focus on achievement, which is measured by task completion and marks. Our system doesn’t (can’t?) train them to value learning over these other goals, because the system itself doesn’t value learning over task completion and marks.

We had an honest conversation about what really matters in a math class. We talked about how they all learn exactly the same things even though they don’t all have exactly the same plans for the future. We talked about how we have a “just-in-case” curriculum: you must learn these skills just in case you need them someday.

And the most frustrating part for me was that they all know that a lot of what we do in class doesn’t really matter in the sense that it doesn’t really change them. They haven’t been improved by learning how to use the hypergeometric probability distribution. They will forget it when the exam is over because it doesn’t matter much to them. It’s not something that they’ll use, likely. And if they need it, it’ll be because they’re steeped in all the math that goes along with it.

But not everything we do is like that in my class. Some things do matter. And I’m feeling a bit guilty tonight because I think I should have focused the course a bit differently, spending more time on the parts that will change my students. We’re only a few weeks from the end of the course and we don’t have the luxury of a slow, thoughtful pace that the remaining topics deserve. I can’t fix that now, but I can work on it for next year.

I grabbed the Chromebook cart and sent my kids to a Google Form with three paragraph-response prompts:

  • Start
  • Stop
  • Continue

They each wrote anonymously about what they think we should start to do in our class (perhaps an approach they like from another class), stop doing (approaches I’m taking that aren’t working for them), and continue doing (class components they don’t want to lose if I change things). Their responses were fascinating, and I’m going to read them over a few more times to make sure I get it all. It was pretty clear they don’t want any more audio clips, though :)
Our conversation also revealed that I misinterpreted their silence as a lack of interest or understanding. What I learned from them today was that there were portions of yesterday’s class that they did enjoy, but I couldn’t see it. They didn’t provide feedback I was expecting and I didn’t adjust my teaching to suit their needs. It was a difficult conversation for me (and probably them), and it took some time, but it was worth it. I understand my students better now, and I think I can be a better teacher.

It’s not all fixed, but I don’t feel quite like I did yesterday. I’m going to go to class tomorrow with a plan to improve my teaching and their learning at the same time.


6 thoughts on “My students told me what’s going on in my class

  1. It must be so hard to teach back to back to back days like that. Not enough time to absorb, digest, re-group, plan, change.

    • Yup. Honestly I was dreading today’s class, knowing how hard it might be to talk about what could just be my own failings. My kids are great, though, so it was easier once we started.

  2. Thank you for the follow-up!

    I like your discussion technique. Presently I’m teaching adult Aboriginal students, and we do twice-weekly “circles” exactly as you described it: literal circle, very open talk. We use it more to touch on what’s going on in the program as a whole rather than the class specifically, but I think the format in general is very useful, and I’m certainly going to try it with teenagers whenever I get back into a high school.

    It sounds like one thing you can do for the next time you teach the course is simply look for other ways to get feedback from students, whether it’s semi-regular circles, or another Google Form, etc.

    If you haven’t heard of it already, check out Socrative. It’s a quiz app that only requires students to go to the website and enter a classroom code rather than downloading anything or logging in (I’m a big fan of that easy entry for students). On top of that, it has a handy “exit ticket” functionality that lets you quickly poll the class for a single, open-ended response. Might be a speedier alternative to getting feedback at the end of a lesson than setting up a Google Form.

    Like you, I grapple with the cognitive dissonance required of teachers who care both about their students’ actual learning and also the curriculum. You’re very right when you say that “the system itself doesn’t value learning over task completion and marks.” Also, it’s very easy for people to champion “inquiry-based learning,” but it’s actually really challenging to make “natural” inquiry tasks in the artificial setting of a classroom! We creative, intelligent teachers can do it—under ideal conditions. Add in the stress of a few months in school, marking, planning, extra-curriculars, and of course, life outside of school, and it’s no wonder we struggle to come up with cool tasks sometimes.

    The very fact that you’re willing to engage with your students about this, however, and find ways to fight back against that tendency, means you’re doing something right. Your plans might backfire spectacularly, but I think that’s better than going the “safe” route of pulling out a textbook and checking off learning goals as students go through questions…. You are a definitely walking the walk that others often only talk.

    Judging from what you described in your posts, it sounds like you had a good idea for your lesson, but the specific activities or the modes of delivery you chose didn’t work with that particular group of students (whereas with another group, maybe it would have worked wonderfully!). I look forward to hearing what you do next time, whenever you happen to teach it again, as well as to how the rest of this semester goes for you.

    Good luck!

  3. I’m teaching 7/8 and my students have the same perspective. They want to be spoon fed the information, then regurgitate it for me on the test, get their mark and be done with it. I have tried hard this year to give them lots of choices only to be disappointed by the lack of engagement and quality of work. Like you I refuse to give up! We are doing self directed inquiry projects to end the year. Hopefully by giving even more choice I will see the engagement and quality improve.

  4. What a fantastic, courageous, humbling approach you took here! There is no doubt that you put your students first here. Don’t under estimate the value of what you did. Thanks for sharing that experience.

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