I wouldn’t be disappointed if I weren’t working so hard

Facepalm

I taught a class today that didn’t go well. Actually, it went pretty badly.

I tried to engage in a discussion with my students that required critical thinking about statistics in the media, and they mostly didn’t engage with me. It took me a long time to plan out the lesson, carefully choose my resources, and prepare everything to guide them to a deeper understanding an appreciation.

And it mostly crashed and burned. You can read the play-by-play on the class blog, if you want (link).

Each day I write a post explaining what happened during class for anyone who missed it, and for the reference of those who were there. Today I shared my frustration with their stance in the room. From that post:

You’re not here to “do school”. You’re here to develop skills and learn to think critically. Calculating medians is not a way to develop your brain. Completing tasks is not the point.

I need you to be able to analyze, interpret, draw conclusions, and make decisions based on data. Any spreadsheet can calculate medians, but Excel can’t tell you whether three minutes of exercise is enough each week or whether e-cigarettes are a good thing.

I’m fully aware that our school system tends to prioritize finishing activities over real learning. Math can be particularly vicious because of the number of discrete, technical skills required to even begin to “see the big picture” of how everything relates and works together.

But I’m trying hard to break outside of that mode. Really hard. I’m trying to make real learning the priority. And I’m not above admitting that I made a mistake here. This lesson wasn’t designed well, or I didn’t prepare my students well for this approach today, or maybe both. But here’s what I need next:

I want what’s best for each of you, and that means actual learning, not just task completion. If there’s something you need in this class to make that happen and I’m not providing it, I need you to tell me. Today didn’t work, and I don’t want a repeat performance tomorrow. None of us does, I hope. Help me out.

I really mean that. I was so much more disappointed today because of how much planning and time went into this failure. And worse: I don’t know what I’ve learned from the experience. I’m now counting on my students to tell me what they really need to meet the goals I’ve set out for them.

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No perfect instructional strategies

I read Donna Fry’s post (http://fryed.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/find-the-right-inch/) this evening, and as a result I reflected on my practice as a central resource teacher. It also brought to mind an experience I had a number of years ago when I worked as the Special Assignment Teacher for Numeracy with our board. The math teacher in me cringes at the emphasis that people (including math teachers) place on memorization in math, instead of modelling and problem solving. And many math teachers think that they can learn the formula for teaching (you know, the approach used by their teachers).

One of the most powerful moments I had in supporting math teachers was with an LTO who was struggling with engagement in her Applied class. I observed her class for a period, and we had a reflective conversation afterwards. Based on her own perception of her class and her teaching, I suggested she try getting the students to work through the next day’s planned problems in small groups and on chart paper. She was concerned about the behaviours in the room, and didn’t think students would work well together. She didn’t have chart paper in the department, so I brought some for her. She was uncomfortable, but was willing to give it a shot, as nothing else she had tried had proven effective.

I couldn’t be there for the lesson itself, but I spoke with her afterwards about it. She told me that she was stunned at their level of engagement, and that they were even excited to share their solutions with each other. I congratulated her on trying out a new strategy, and told her it was great to hear that the students were engaged.

A month later, I spoke with her again. She told me that she was discouraged, because the students only responded to the “chart paper activity” a couple of times before they were just as disengaged as before. She thought we had stumbled across the perfect instructional strategy for that class, and was frustrated that it didn’t always work. I kicked myself for not pushing to stay more regularly involved, because she had fallen into a common trap.

There is no formula, there are only models and approaches and careful consideration of all of the factors involved. Each concept, each skill, is a new problem to be solved, both for teachers as instructors (determining which strategies will work well for this concept, with these students, on this day) and for students as learners (developing understanding of the concept, and of themselves as learners).

So we need to reflect, talk to others, and learn as much as possible about our practice. As we do, we should also share that understanding with others, to support them as they develop, and to invite feedback, which we can use to improve our own practices.

Thanks to Donna for a great post, and for an excuse to ramble, tell a story, and soapbox a little. :)