How to change everything and nothing at the same time!

I’ve been thinking a lot about trends in education… Some are trendy because they are flashy and look neat… Others because there is a lot of hype from influential people.  But where my interest lies is in seeing if these things are actually helping our students have richer learning experiences than before.  Or will we end up seeing all kinds of changes in our programming that lead to the same experiences?

New and Old

So before you continue, I need to tell you that I’m writing this blog as a way for me to reflect, not as a way to criticize any particular practice. Please don’t assume my intent is to vilify certain practices, I’m actually trying to see if we’ve changed how we believe students learn & therefore the experiences we provide for them, or if we’ve kept things relatively the same.  I am trying to figure out where to put my energy, where to focus my attention.

1. Teacher lectures, student passively listens

A common practice of my math teachers when I was a child was for my math teachers to drone on for most of the period.  Tracy Zager quipped in her TMC keynote speech this summer that the only way she would be able to recognize her high school math teachers was if they turned around and had a piece of chalk in their hands.  While the joke got some groans, there seems to be some truth here.

The idea that teachers need to impart their knowledge through direct instruction while students are expected to follow along has thankfully changed much over the years.  For many students passively listening isn’t how learning happens.  Students need to be actively thinking, actively involved in the doing, using their reasoning skills to make things make sense.  While some students are actively thinking in a lecture, many aren’t.

Now let’s take a look at a few newer teaching strategies:

Which of these allows our students to be more active in the learning process?  Which ones promote passive learning?

2.  Teacher explains things, then students practice them. 

Similarly, as a child most math classes were about copying what the teacher just showed us how to do. For instance, the teacher would show us how to add fractions, then we would get a worksheet or textbook page directly related to adding fractions. All of the “problems” would obviously be about adding fractions  – no thinking was required, just copying the same strategy.

In recent years we have learned more about teaching through problem solving, the importance of productive struggle, building an understanding of the math together…  All pointing to students starting the learning process through rich experiences and problem solving…where the learning starts with the students’ ideas, not the teacher’s.

So I wonder which pedagogical strategies and resources are helping us make these changes and which are keeping things similar to before:

I think this list might cause some more thought. At least for me there are a few items here that might promote productive struggle in some situations, and rob students of thinking in other situations. Which ones do you see helping us allow our students to be able start with thinking instead of copying someone else’s thinking?

3.  Learning isolated facts, procedures and tricks

What we focus in math class on has changed quite a bit from when I was in school.  Memorizing random math facts, learning tricks  or procedures about how to solve very specific problems…was the norm in my school. From alligator inequalities, to invert and multiply rules, to placeholder zeros with an X through it when multiplying, to mad minutes…  All of these were about getting the answers, without ever helping us understand what was going on.

Thankfully today we recognize that conceptual understanding is equally important and we are learning to build understanding together. But which resources are helping us make these shifts, and which might be encouraging us to continue with previously help beliefs?

  • Nix The Tricks
  • Math manipulatives
  • Common Core Standards
  • Computer apps/games
  • Pinterest

Again, this list might require some actual discussion. Which ones do you see as helping us provide better experiences?  Which ones depend?  And what might things depend on?

It seems to me that if we want to make changes, we need to consider WHY those changes might lead to different experiences!  We need to consider how learning via that new strategy or tool will help our students learn.  Seeing past what is an easy change and past all of the gimmicks requires us to be really reflective!
Hopefully you know which items you see as valuable learning opportunities for your students  and which ones are just more of the same (with a shiny new package). 


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