Out of the Woods

UPDATE 1/20/27:  Difficulties concentrating today, so I am submitting this already published post for the MTBoS 2017 Blogging Initiative, Week 3, “Read and Share”.  Looking foward to some feedback!

I am struggling to write this post, and I am not sure why. I want to offer a thorough response to a blog post as evidence of my growth, but am battling (maybe?) feeling underqualified and lacking in credibility. And strangely vulnerable.

I could describe my eight little years of teaching as a classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Its like I downloaded the awesome constuctivist app I really wanted, but never thought to or knew how to update it. My current situation allows me to finally view the forest, a chance to look around and consider the bigger picture. This perspective has helped me recognize and understand my shortcomings and offers me insights for moving forward. MTBoS is helping me update my app, and essentially, I want to test it out to see if I’m understanding how to use it. Consider it a formative assessment.

The inspiration for these musings comes from Justin Aion  . Actually, I mentioned him (and This Post) the last time I blogged, so thank you, Justin, for the two-fer.

It would be best for you to read his whole post, of course.  He leads with a brief description of his school’s current math textbook:

Each section begins with an introductory activity that is frequently hands-on.

The task is this:

Justin Aion’s Photo

Draw a pentagon with extended sides.
Label the external angles.
Cut out the external angles.
Put the external angles together and make and observation.
Repeat with a hexagon and an octagon

Seems straight forward enough, right?  But what happened was this:

It didn’t go as I would have hoped.

Apparently, even mostly on-task groups did not get done, in spite of the fact that they had just done the same thing with internal angles. I know EXACTLY the feeling. Been there, by golly, many, many times. Loads of empathy here. Too much precious time spent on a hands-on activity and no learning taking place. In fact, it would not surprise me that this is the #1 Reason for Avoiding These Kinds of Tasks.

He also writes,

(Students) are much more attentive to the tasks when they are working individually or when I’m giving direct instruction.

I suspect that means it’s a larger issue than just these kids in this class.

Justin works hard to see the forest while standing in the trees; in my opinion, his suspicions are spot on.

What I see is a chance for me to check my understanding.

First, I connected his final comments to my recent reflecting on teaching and learning. That was my last post, and my hypothesis is that students are passive learners because they are put in the passive role. School happens to them.

Wait, this was an “age/grade appropriate” task, though. Hands-on! Engaging! Student-centered! Everything a constructivist teacher’s heart would desire!

What I am beginning to understand is that “engagement” is more complex than providing something for students to do. That not all tasks are created equal, and implementation matters.  I’m not talking about comparing mindless worksheets to learning in groups; I’m talking about those activities and tasks the look great on the surface, when in fact they do not genuinely engage because they are not designed to.   These pseudo-engaging activities are easy to miss, and I did, many times over.  Here’s what I noticed about the lesson from Justin’s textbook:

  • From the students’ perspective, the need to explore external angles is non-existent (other than compliance), so there is no intrinsic motivation.*
  • Also missing: student-generated observations and questions. No perplexity, no curiosity, no ownership.
  • The method to explore external angles does not come from students but from a textbook (and the teacher). No exploring, no creativity, no problem-solving.
  • Student role is passive: they are merely following directions. In an attempt to keep students “on task”, teachers often model step by step directions, keeping their grip on the active role. “Engaged” means “looking busy”.
  • The low cognitive demand throughout the task actually frees them up to socialize. Hence the fun (for students) and frustration (for teachers). Some may even want to prolong this “easy” part to avoid what feels more challenging: making an observation. Coping via procrastination.
  • There’s no intrinsic reason to finish, either; experience has shown these students that whatever they are ‘supposed to learn’ from this hands-on busy work will be stated for them, anyways, by the teacher (or by the “smart” kids).

I am not yet knowledgeable/confident enough to play  “What Can You Do With This?”  although I have ideas brewing. For now, what I do have to offer is this:
Assuming you want to empower students to be productive, active learners, consider developing the habit of regularly running lessons, activities, and tasks through the role-lens. All of them– your creations, the textbook’s (especially these), something gleaned from the internet– as often as you are able. Examine closely what students will be doing and keep tweaking** until you think the active role has switched to them, where it belongs more often than not. Take a risk and trust them to rise to the challenge. Be vigilant, be intentional.

What can you let go of and turn over to students?

Will they be asking and answering their own questions?

Will they notice patterns and make conjectures without you prompting them?

Will they be curious and driven to make sense of something, even if that something is math?

Will they own the learning and all the work it took to get there, together?

Anyway, that’s what I would try to do, were I feeling a bit lost in the woods.

*Which also perpetuates the perception/myth that math is a Random Bunch of Useless Stuff No One Really Cares About.

**Here are some practical ideas and resources for tweaking from a couple of Experts that are not overwhelming. The ideas, that is, although Dan Meyer and Kate Nowak are probably also not overwhelming. They are two of many that have been instrumental to updating my app me.

From Dan Meyer:

Makeover Monday .  His MM summary is here.

His delightful  video on relevance ,  also located here.

From Kate Nowak :

Make Them Figure Something Out

Plan a Killer Lesson Today


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