An Example of Teaching THROUGH problem solving?

Many math resources attempt to share the difference between teaching FOR problem solving and teaching THROUGH problem solving. Cathy Seeley refers to teaching THROUGH problem solving as “Upside-Down Teaching” which is the opposite of a “gradual release of responsibility” model:

And instead calls for us to flip how our students learn to a more active model:

So, instead of starting a unit on Geometry with naming shapes or developing definitions together, we decided to start with a little problem:

Create as many polygons as possible using exactly 2 pattern block pieces. Sort your polygons by how many sides they have.

As students started placing pattern block pieces together, all kinds of questions started emerging (questions we took note of to bring to the whole group in a few minutes):

What is this shape called? It has 6 sides, so is it a hexagon?
This shape has 12 sides. Am I allowed to do this?
Are these the same shapes or different? Do I have to line up the sides or can I place a shape in the middle like I did here (on the right)?

By the end of a period, students had worked through the definitions of what a polygon is (and isn’t), the difference between concave and convex polygons, defined the term “regular polygon” (which was not what they had been calling “regular” before), and were able to name and create triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, heptagons, octagons, nonagons, decagons and undecagons. Recognizing a variety of possible ways a shape can look was very helpful for our students who might have experienced shapes more traditionally in the past.

One group compiled their polygons together (with one minor error):

Instead of starting with experiences where students accumulate knowledge (writing out definitions, taking a note, direct instruction), an upside down approach aims to start with students’ ideas. This way we would know which conversations to have with our students, and so our students are actively engaged in the process of learning.

I want to leave you with a few reflective questions:

  • Why might it benefit students to start with a problem instead of starting with the teachers’ ideas?
  • Why might it benefit teachers to listen to students’ thinking before instruction has occurred?
  • What does it mean to effectively monitor students as they are thinking / working? (See This POST for examples)
  • Can all mathematics topics begin with tasks that help our students make connections between what they already know, and what they are learning? Can you think of a topic that can not be experienced this way?
  • The final stage in the You-We-I model is where the teacher helps make specific learning explicit for their students. How do you find time to consolidate a task like this? How do you know what to share? (See This POST for an example)
  • How might this form of teaching relate to how we view assessment? (See This POST)
  • How might this form of teaching relate to how we view differentiated instruction? (See This POST)
  • How do you find problems that ask students to actively think before any instruction has occurred? (See This POST for examples)

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Feel free to write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).

Spatial Puzzles: Cuisenaire Cover-ups

Foundational to almost every aspect of mathematics is the idea that things can be broken down into pieces or units in a variety of ways, and then be recomposed again. For example, the number 10 can be thought of as 2 groups of 5, or 5 groups of 2, or a 7 and a 3, or two-and-one-half and seven-and-one-half…

Earlier this year I shared a post discussing how we might decompose and recompose numbers to do an operations (subtraction). But, I would like us to consider why some students are more comfortable decomposing and recomposing, and how we might be aiming to help our students early with experiences that might promote the kinds of thinking needed.

Doug Clements and Julie Sarama have looked at the relationship between students’ work with space and shapes with students understanding of numbers.

“The ability to describe, use, and visualize the effects of putting together and taking apart shapes is important because the creating, composing, and decomposing units and higher-order units are fundamental mathematics. Further, there is transfer: Composition of shapes supports children’s ability to compose and decompose numbers”

Contemporary Perspectives on Mathematics in Early Childhood Education p.82, Clements and Sarama

The connection between composing and decomposing shapes and numbers is quite exciting to me. However, I am also very interested in the meeting place between Spatial tasks (composing/decomposing shapes) and Number tasks that involve composing and decomposing.

A few years ago I found a neat little puzzle in a resource called The Super Source called “Cover the Giraffe”. The idea was to cover an image of a giraffe outline using exactly 1 of each size of cuisenaire rods. The task, simple enough, was actually quite difficult for students (and even for us as adults). After using the puzzle with a few different classes, I decided to make a few of my own.

After watching a few classrooms of students complete these puzzles, I noticed an interesting intersection between spatial reasoning, and algebraic reasoning happening…. First, let me share the puzzles with you:

Objective:

To complete a Cuisenaire Cover-Up puzzle, you need exactly 1 of each colour cuisenaire rod. Use each colour rod once each to completely fill in the image.

Below are the 5 puzzles:

Assessment Opportunities

Knowing what to look for, helps us know how to interact with our students.

  • Which block are students placing first? The largest blocks or the smallest?
  • Which students are using spatial cues (placing rods to see which fits) and which students are using numerical cues (counting units on the grid)? How might we help students who are only using one of these cueing systems without over-scaffolding or showing how WE would complete the puzzle?
  • How do our students react when confronted with a challenging puzzle?
  • Who is able to swap out 1 rod for 2 rods of equivalent length (1 orange rod is the same length as a brown and red rod together)?
  • Which of the following strands of proficiency might you be noting as you observe students:
Adding It Up, 2001

Questions to Reflect on:

  • Why might you use a task like this? What would be your goal?
  • How will you interact with students who struggle to get started, or struggle to move passed a specific hurdle?
  • How might these puzzles relate to algebraic reasoning? (try to complete one with this question in mind)
  • How are you making the connections between spatial reasoning and algebraic reasoning clear for your students to see? How can these puzzles help?
  • How might puzzles allow different students to be successful in your class?

I’d love to continue the conversation about how we can use these puzzles to further our students’ spatial/algebraic reasoning.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3

If interested in these puzzles, you might be interested in trying:

“The More Strategies, the Better?

As many teachers implement number talks/math strings and lessons where students are learning through problem solving, the idea that there are many ways to answer a question or problem becomes more important. However, I think we need to unpack the beliefs and practices surrounding what it means for our students to have different “strategies”. A few common beliefs and practices include:

Really, there are benefits and issues with each of these thoughts…. and the right answer is actually really much more complicated than any of these.  To help us consider where our own decisions lie, let’s start by considering an actual example. If students were given a pattern with the first 4 terms like this:

See VisualPatterns.org for more visual patterns

…and asked how many shapes there would be on the 24th design (how many squares and circles in total).  Students could tackle this in many ways:

  • Draw out the 24th step by building on and keeping track of each step number
  • Build the 24th step by adding on and keeping track of the step number
  • Make a T-table and use skip counting to find each new step (5, 9, 13, 17…).
  • Find the explicit rule from the first few images’ data placed on a T-table (“I see the pattern is 5, 9, 13, 17. each new image uses 4 new shapes, so the pattern is a multiplied by 4 pattern…. and I think the rule should be ‘number of images = step number x4+1’. Let me double check…”).
  • Notice the “constant” and multiplicative aspects of the visual, then find the explicit rule (I see that each image increases by 4 new shapes on the right, so the multiplicative aspect of this pattern is x4, and term 0 might just be 1 circle. So the pattern must be x4+1″).
  • Create a graph, then find the explicit rule based on starting point and growth (“When I graph this, my line hits the y-axis at 1, and increases by 4 each time, so the pattern rule must be x4+1”).

While each of these might offer a correct answer, we as the teacher need to assess (figure out what our students are doing/thinking) and then decide on how to react accordingly.  If a student is using an additive strategy (building each step, or creating a t-table with every line recorded using skip counting), their strategy is a very early model of understanding here and we might want to challenge this/these students to find or use other methods that use multiplicative reasoning.  Saying “do it another way” might be helpful here, but it might not be helpful for other students.  If on the other hand, a student DID use multiplicative reasoning, and we suggest “do it another way”, then they fill out a t-table with every line indicated, we might actually be promoting the use of less sophisticated reasoning.  

On the other hand, if we tell/show students exactly how to find the multiplicative rule, and everyone is doing it well, then I would worry that students would struggle with future learning.  For example, if everyone is told to make a t-table, and find the recursive pattern (above would be a recursive pattern of+4 for total shapes), then use that as the multiplicative basis for the explicit rule x4 to make x4+1), then students are likely just following steps, and are not internalizing what specifically in the visual pattern here is +4 or x4… or where the constant of +1 is.  I would expect these students to really struggle with figuring out patterns like the following that is non-linear:

See VisualPatterns.org for more visual patterns

Students told to start with a t-table and find the explicit pattern rule are likely not even paying attention to what in the visual is growing, how it is growing or what is constant between each figure. So, potentially, moving students too quickly to the most sophisticated models will likely miss out on the development necessary for them to be successful later.

While multiple strategies are helpful to know, it is important for US to know which strategies are early understandings, and which are more sophisticated.  WE need to know which students to push and when to allow everyone to do it THEIR way, then hold a math congress together to discuss relationships between strategies, and which strategies might be more beneficial in which circumstance. It is the relationships between strategies that is the MOST important thing for us to consider!

Focusing on OUR Understanding:

In order for us to know which sequence of learning is best for our students, and be able to respond to our students’ current understandings, we need to be aware of how any particular math concepts develops over time. Let’s be clear, understanding and using a progression like this takes time and experience for US to understand and become comfortable with.

While most educational resources are filled with lessons and assessment opportunities, very few offer ideas for us as teachers about what to look for as students are working, and how to respond to different students based on their current thinking. This is what Deborah Ball calls “Math Knowledge for Teaching”:

If any teacher wants to improve their practice, I believe this is the space that will have the most impact! If schools are interested in improving math instruction, helping teachers know what to look for, and how to respond is likely the best place to tackle. If districts are aiming for ways to improve, helping each teacher learn more about these progressions will likely be what’s going to make the biggest impacts!

Where to Start?

If you want to deepen our understanding of the math we teach, including better understanding how math develops over time, I would suggest:

  • Providing more open questions, and looking at student samples as a team of teachers
  • Using math resources that have been specifically designed with progressions in mind (Cathy Fosnot’s Contexts for Learning and minilessons, Cathy Bruce & Ruth Beatty’s From Patterns to Algebra, Alex Lawson’s What to Look For…), and monitoring student strategies over time
  • Anticipating possible student strategies, and using a continuum or landscape (Cathy Fosnot’s Landscapes, Lawson’s Continua, Clement’s Trajectories, Van Hiele’s levels of geometric thought…) as a guide to help you see how your students are progressing
  • Collaborate with other educators using resources designed for teachers to deepen their understanding and provide examples for us to use with kids (Marian Small’s Understanding the Math we Teach, Van de Walle’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics, Alex Lawsons’s What to Look For, Doug Clements’ Learning and Teaching Early Math…)
  • Have discussions with other math educators about the math you teach and how students develop over time.

Questions to Reflect on:

  • How do you typically respond to your students when you give them opportunities to share their thinking? Which of the 3 beliefs/practices is most common for you? How might this post help you consider other beliefs/practices?
  • How can you both honour students’ current understandings, yet still help students progress toward more sophisticated understandings?
  • Given that your students’ understandings at the beginning of any new learning differ greatly, how do you both learn about your students’ thoughts and respond to them in ways that are productive? (This is different than testing kids prior knowledge or sorting students by ability. See Daro’s video)
  • Who do you turn to to help you think more about the math you teach, or they ways you respond to students? What professional relationships might be helpful for you?
  • What resources do you consult to help you develop your own understanding?

I’d love to continue the conversation about how we respond to our students’ thinking.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3

If interested in this topic, you might be interested in reading:

Decomposing & Recomposing – How we subtract

Throughout mathematics, the idea that objects and numbers can be decomposed and recomposed can be found almost everywhere. I plan on writing a few articles in the next while to discuss a few of these areas. In this post, I’d like to help us think about how and why we use visual representations and contexts to help our students make sense of the numbers they are using.

Decomposing and Recomposing

Foundational to almost every aspect of mathematics is the idea that things can be broken down into pieces or units in a variety of ways, and be then recomposed again. For example, the number 10 can be thought of as 2 groups of 5, or 5 groups of 2, or a 7 and a 3, or two-and-one-half and seven-and-one-half…

Understanding how numbers are decomposed and recomposed can help us make sense of subtraction when we consider 52-19 as being 52-10-9 or 52-20+1 or (40-10)+(12-9) or 49-19+3 (or many other possibilities)… Let’s take a look at how each of these might be used:

The traditional algorithm suggests that we decompose 52-19 based on the value of each column, making sure that each column can be subtracted 1 digit at a time… In this case, the question would be recomposed into (40-10)+(12-9). Take a look:

52 is decomposed into 40+10+2
19 is decomposed into 10+9
The problem is recomposed into (40-10) + (12-9)

While this above strategy makes sense when calculating via paper-and-pencil, it might not be helpful for our students to develop number sense, or in this case, maintain magnitude. That is, students might be getting the correct answer, but completely unaware that they have actually decomposed and recomposed the numbers they are using at all.

Other strategies for decomposing and recomposing the same question could look like:

Maintain 52
Decompose 19 into 10+9
Subtract 52-10 (landing on 42), then 42-9
Some students will further decompose 9 as 2+7 and recompose the problem as 42-2-7
Maintain 52
Decompose 19 as 20-1
Recompose the problem as 52-20+1
Decompose 52 as 49-3
Recompose the problem as 49-19+3

The first problem at the beginning was aimed at helping students see how to “regroup” or decompose/recompose via a standardized method. However, the second and third examples were far more likely used strategies for students/adults to use if using mental math. The last example pictured above, illustrates the notion of “constant difference” which is a key strategy to help students see subtraction as more than just removal (but as the difference). Constant difference could have been thought of as 52-19 = 53-20 or as 52-19 = 50-17, a similar problem that maintains the same difference between the larger and smaller values. Others still, could have shown a counting-on strategy (not shown above) to represent the relationship between addition and subtraction (19+____=53).

Why “Decompose” and “Recompose”?

The language we use along with the representations we want from our students matters a lot. Using terms like “borrowing” for subtraction does not share what is actually happening (we aren’t lending things expecting to receive something back later), nor does it help students maintain a sense of the numbers being used. Liping Ma’s research, shared in her book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, shows a comparison between US and Chinese teachers in how they teach subtraction. Below you can see that the idea of regrouping, or as I am calling decomposing and recomposing, is not the norm in the US.

Visualizing the Math

There seems to be conflicting ideas about how visuals might be helpful for our students. To some, worksheets are handed out where students are expected to draw out base 10 blocks or number lines the way their teacher has required. To others, number talks are used to discuss strategies kids have used to answer the same question, with steps written out by their teachers.

In both of these situations, visuals might not be used effectively. For teachers who are expecting every student to follow a set of procedures to visually represent each question, I think they might be missing an important reason behind using visuals. Visuals are meant to help our students see others’ ideas to learn new strategies! The visuals help us see What is being discussed, Why it works, and How to use the strategy in the future.

Teachers who might be sharing number talks without visuals might also be missing this point. The number talk below is a great example of explaining each of the types of strategies, but it is missing a visual component that would help others see how the numbers are actually being decomposed and recomposed spatially.

If we were to think developmentally for a moment (see Dr. Alex Lawson’s continuum below), we should notice that the specific strategies we are aiming for, might actually be promoted with specific visuals. Those in the “Working with the Numbers” phase, should be spending more time with visuals that help us SEE the strategies listed.

Aiming for Fluency

While we all want our students to be fluent when using mathematics, I think it might be helpful to look specifically at what the term “procedural fluency” means here. Below is NCTM’s definition of “procedural fluency” (verbs highlighted by Tracy Zager):

Which of the above verbs might relate to our students being able to “decompose” and “recompose”?

Some things to think about:

  • How well do your students understand how numbers can be decomposed and recomposed? Can they see that 134 can be thought of as 1 group of 100, 3 groups of 10, and 4 ones AS WELL AS 13 groups of 10, and 4 ones, OR 1 group of 100, 2 groups of 10, and 14 ones…….? To decompose and recompose requires more than an understanding of digit values!!!
  • How do the contexts you choose and the visual representations you and your students use help your students make connections? Are they calculating subtraction questions, or are they thinking about which strategy is best based on the numbers given?
  • What developmental continuum do you use to help you know what to listen for?
  • How much time do your students spend calculating by hand? Mentally figuring out an answer? Using technology (a calculator)? What is your balance?
  • How might the ideas of decomposing and recomposing relate to other topics your students have learned and will learn in the future?
  • Are you teaching your students how to get an answer, or how to think?

If you are interested in learning more, I would recommend:

I’d love to continue the conversation about assessment in mathematics.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3

Rushing for Interventions

I see students working in groups all the time…  Students working collaboratively in pairs or small groups having rich discussions as they sort shapes by specific properties, students identifying and extending their partner’s visual patterns, students playing games aimed at improving their procedural fluency, students cooperating to make sense of a low-floor/high-ceiling problem…..

When we see students actively engaged in rich mathematics activities, working collaboratively, it provides opportunities for teachers to effectively monitor student learning (notice students’ thinking, provide opportunities for rich questioning, and lead to important feedback and next steps…) and prepare the teacher for the lesson close.  Classrooms that engage in these types of cooperative learning opportunities see students actively engaged in their learning.  And more specifically, we see students who show Agency, Ownership and Identity in their mathematics learning (See TruMath‘s description on page 10).


On the other hand, some classrooms might be pushing for a different vision of what groups can look like in a mathematics classroom.  One where a teachers’ role is to continually diagnose students’ weaknesses, then place students into ability groups based on their deficits, then provide specific learning for each of these groups.  To be honest, I understand the concept of small groups that are formed for this purpose, but I think that many teachers might be rushing for these interventions too quickly.

First, let’s understand that small group interventions have come from the RTI (Response to Intervention) model.  Below is a graphic created by Karen Karp shared in Van de Walle’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics to help explain RTI:

rti2
Response to Intervention – Teaching Student Centered Mathematics

As you can see, given a high quality mathematics program, 80-90% of students can learn successfully given the same learning experiences as everyone.  However, 5-10% of students (which likely are not always the same students) might struggle with a given topic and might need additional small-group interventions.  And an additional 1-5% might need might need even more specialized interventions at the individual level.

The RTI model assumes that we, as a group, have had several different learning experiences over several days before Tier 2 (or Tier 3) approaches are used.  This sounds much healthier than a model of instruction where students are tested on day one, and placed into fix-up groups based on their deficits, or a classroom where students are placed into homogeneous groupings that persist for extended periods of time.


Principles to Action (NCTM) suggests that what I’m talking about here is actually an equity issue!

P2A
Principles to Action

We know that students who are placed into ability groups for extended periods of time come to have their mathematical identity fixed because of how they were placed.  That is, in an attempt to help our students learn, we might be damaging their self perceptions, and therefore, their long-term educational outcomes.


Tier 1 Instruction

intervention

While I completely agree that we need to be giving attention to students who might be struggling with mathematics, I believe the first thing we need to consider is what Tier 1 instruction looks like that is aimed at making learning accessible to everyone.  Tier 1 instruction can’t simply be direct instruction lessons and whole group learning.  To make learning mathematics more accessible to a wider range of students, we need to include more low-floor/high-ceiling tasks, continue to help our students spatalize the concepts they are learning, as well as have a better understanding of developmental progressions so we are able to effectively monitor student learning so we can both know the experiences our students will need to be successful and how we should be responding to their thinking.  Let’s not underestimate how many of our students suffer from an “experience gap”, not an “achievement gap”!

If you are interested in learning more about what Tier 1 instruction can look like as a way to support a wider range of students, please take a look at one of the following:


Tier 2 Instruction

Tier 2 instruction is important.  It allows us to give additional opportunities for students to learn the things they have been learning over the past few days/weeks in a small group.  Learning in a small group with students who are currently struggling with the content they are learning can give us opportunities to better know our students’ thinking.  However, I believe some might be jumping past Tier 1 instruction (in part or completely) in an attempt to make sure that we are intervening. To be honest, this doesn’t make instructional sense to me! If we care about our content, and care about our students’ relationship with mathematics, this might be the wrong first move.

So, let’s make sure that Tier 2 instruction is:

  • Provided after several learning experiences for our students
  • Flexibly created, and easily changed based on the content being learned at the time
  • Focused on student strengths and areas of need, not just weaknesses
  • Aimed at honoring students’ agency, ownership and identity as mathematicians
  • Temporary!

If you are interested in learning more about what Tier 2 interventions can look like take a look at one of the following:


Instead of seeing mathematics as being learned every day as an approach to intervene, let’s continue to learn more about what Tier 1 instruction can look like!  Or maybe you need to hear it from John Hattie:

Or from Jo Boaler:


Final Thoughts

If you are currently in a school that uses small group instruction in mathematics, I would suggest that you reflect on a few things:

  • How do your students see themselves as mathematicians?  How might the topics of Agency, Authority and Identity relate to small group instruction?
  • What fixed mindset messaging do teachers in your building share “high kids”, “level 2 students”, “she’s one of my low students”….?  What fixed mindset messages might your students be hearing?
  • When in a learning cycle do you employ small groups?  Every day?  After several days of learning a concept?
  • How flexible are your groups?  Are they based on a wholistic leveling of your students, or based specifically on the concept they are learning this week?
  • How much time do these small groups receive?  Is it beyond regular instructional timelines, or do these groups form your Tier 1 instructional time?
  • If Karp/Van de Walle suggests that 80-90% of students can be successful in Tier 1, how does this match what you are seeing?  Is there a need to learn more about how Tier 1 approaches can meet the needs of this many students?
  • What are the rest of your students doing when you are working with a small group?  Is it as mathematically rich as the few you’re working with in front of you?
  • Do you believe that all of your students are capable to learn mathematics and to think mathematically?

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).

Noticing and Wondering: A powerful tool for assessment

Last week I had the privilege of presenting with Nehlan Binfield at OAME on the topic of assessment in mathematics.  We aimed to position assessment as both a crucial aspect of teaching, yet simplify what it means for us to assess effectively and how we might use our assessments to help our students and class learn.  If interested, here is an abreviated version of our presentation:

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We started off by running through a Notice and Wonder with the group.  Given the image above, we noticed colours, sizes, patterns, symmetries (line symmetry and rotational symmetry), some pieces that looked like “trees” and other pieces that looked like “trees without stumps”…

Followed by us wondering about how many this image would be worth if a white was equal to 1, and what the next term in a pattern would look like if this was part of a growing pattern…

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We didn’t have time, but if you are interested you can see the whole exchange of how the images were originally created in Daniel Finkel’s quick video.

We then continued down the path of noticing and wondering about the image above.  After several minutes, we had come together to really understand the strategy called Notice and Wonder:

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As well as taking a quick look at how we can record our students’ thinking:

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Shared by Jamie Duncan


At this point in our session, we changed our focus from Noticing and Wondering about images of mathematics, to noticing and wondering about our students’ thinking.  To do this, we viewed the following video (click here to view) of a student attempting to find the answer of what eight, nine-cent stamps would be worth:

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The group noticed the student in the video counting, pausing before each new decade, using two hands to “track” her thinking…  The group noticed that she used most of a 10-frame to think about counting by ones into groups of 9.

We then asked the group to consider the wonders about this student or her thinking and use these wonders to think about what they would say or do next.

  • Would you show her a strategy?
  • Would you ask a question to help you understand their thinking better?
  • Would you suggest a tool?
    Would you give her a different question?

It seemed to us, that the most common next steps might not be the ones that were effectively using our assessment of what this child was actually doing.

b7

Looking through Fosnot’s landscape we noticed that this student was using a “counting by ones” strategy (at least when confronted with 9s), and that skip-counting and repeated addition were the next strategies on her horizon.

While many teachers might want to jump into helping and showing, we invited teachers to first consider whether or not we were paying attention to what she WAS actually doing, as opposed to what she wasn’t doing.


b8

This led nicely into a conversation about the difference between Assessment and Evaluation.  We noticed that we many talk to us about “assessment”, they actually are thinking about “evaluation”.  Yet, if we are to better understand teaching and learning of mathematics, assessment seems like a far better option!

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So, if we want to get better at listening interpretively, then we need to be noticing more:

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Yet still… it is far too common for schools to use evaluative comments.  The phrases below do not sit right with me… and together we need to find ways to change the current narrative in our schools!!!

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Evaluation practices, ranking kids, benchmarking tests… all seem to be aimed at perpetuating the narrative that some kids can’t do math… and distracts us from understanding our students’ current thinking.

So, we aimed our presentation at seeing other possibilities:

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To continue the presentation, we shared a few other videos of student in the processs of thinking (click here to view the video).  We paused the video directly after this student said “30ish” and asked the group again to notice and wonder… followed by thinking about what we would say/do next. b15

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Followed by another quick video (click here to view).  We watched the video up until she says “so it’s like 14…”.  Again, we noticed and wondered about this students’ thinking… and asked the group what they would say or do next.

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After watching the whole video, we discussed the kinds of questions we ask students:

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If we are truly aimed at “assessment”, which basically is the process of understanding our students’ thinking, then we need to be aware of the kinds of questions we ask, and our purpose for asking those questions!  (For more about this see link).


We finished our presentation off with a framework that is helpful for us to use when thinking about how our assessment data can move our class forward:

b19

We shared a selection of student work and asked the group to think about what they noticed… what they wonderered… then what they would do next.

For more about how the 5 Practices can be helpful to drive your instruction, see here.


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So, let’s remember what is really meant by “assessing” our students…

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…and be aware that this might be challenging for us…

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…but in the end, if we continue to listen to our students’ thinking, ask questions that will help us understand their thoughts, continue to press our students’ thinking, and bring the learning together in ways where our students are learning WITH and FROM each other, then we will be taking “a giant step toward becoming a master teacher”!


So I’ll leave you with some final thoughts:

  • What do comments sound like in your school(s)?  Are they asset based (examples of what your students ARE doing) or deficit based (“they can’t multiply”… “my low kids don’t get it…”)?
  • What do you do if you are interested in getting better at improving your assessment practices like we’ve discussed here, but your district is asking for data on spreadsheets that are designed to rank kids evaluatively?
  • What do we need to do to change the conversation from “level 2 kids” (evaluative statements that negatively impact our students) to conversations about what our students CAN do and ARE currently doing?
  •  What math knowledge is needed for us to be able to notice mathematicially important milestones in our students?  Can trajectories or landscapes or continua help us know what to notice better?

I’d love to continue the conversation about assessment in mathematics.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3 @MrBinfield


If you are interested in reading more on similar topics, might I suggest:

Or take a look at the whole slide show here

 

The Importance of Contexts and Visuals

My wife Anne-Marie isn’t always impressed when I talk about mathematics, especially when I ask her to try something out for me, but on occasion I can get her to really think mathematically without her realizing how much math she is actually doing.  Here’s a quick story about one of those times, along with some considerations:


A while back Anne-Marie and I were preparing lunch for our three children.  It was a cold wintery day, so they asked for Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup.  If you’ve ever made Lipton Soup before you would know that you add a package of soup mix into 4 cups of water.

Lipton soup

Typically, my wife would grab the largest of our nesting measuring cups (the one marked 1 cup), filling it four times to get the total required 4 cups, however, on this particular day, the largest cup available was the 3/4 cup.

nesting cups.JPG

Here is how the conversation went:

Anne-Marie:  How many of these (3/4 cups) do I need to make 4 cups?

Me:  I don’t know.  How many do you think?  (attempting to give her time to think)

Anne-Marie:  Well… I know two would make a cup and a half… so… 4 of these would make 3 cups…

Me: OK…

Anne-Marie:  So, 5 would make 3 and 3/4 cups.

Me:  Mmhmm….

Anne-Marie:  So, I’d need a quarter cup more?

Me:  So, how much of that should you fill?  (pointing to the 3/4 cup in her hand)

Anne-Marie:  A quarter of it?  No, wait… I want a quarter of a cup, not a quarter of this…

Me:  Ok…

Anne-Marie:  Should I fill it 1/3 of the way?

Me:  Why do you think 1/3?

Anne-Marie:  Because this is 3/4s, and I only need 1 of the quarters.


The example I shared above illustrates sense making of a difficult concept – division of fractions – a topic that to many is far from our ability of sense making.  My wife, however, quite easily made sense of the situation using her reasoning instead of a formula or an algorithm.  To many students, however, division of fractions is learned first through a set of procedures.

I have wondered for quite some time why so many classrooms start with procedures and algorithms unill I came across Liping Ma’s book Knowing and Teaching Mathematics.  In her book she shares what happened when she asked American and Chinese teachers these 2 problems:

liping ma1

Here were the results:

Liping ma2

Now, keep in mind that the sample sizes for each group were relatively small (23 US teachers and 72 Chinese teachers were asked to complete two tasks), however, it does bring bring about a number of important questions:

  • How does the training of American and Chinese teachers differ?
  • Did both groups of teachers rely on the learning they had received as students, or learning they had received as teachers?
  • What does it mean to “Understand” division of fractions?  Computing correctly?  Beging able to visually represent what is gonig on when fractions are divided? Being able to know when we are being asked to divide?  Being able to create our own division of fraction problems?
  • What experiences do we need as teachers to understand this concept?  What experiences should we be providing our students?

Visual Representations

In order to understand division of fractions, I believe we need to understand what is actually going on.  To do this, visuals are a necessity!  A few examples of visual representations could include:

A number line:

three quarters NL

A volume model:

GlassMeasuringCup32oz117022_x

An area model:


Starting with a Context

Starting with a context is about allowing our students to access a concept using what they already know (it is not about trying to make the math practical or show students when a concept might be used someday).  Starting with a context should be about inviting sense-making and thinking into the conversation before any algorithm or set of procedures are introduced.  I’ve already shared an example of a context (preparing soup) that could be used to launch a discussion about division of fractions, but now it’s your turn:

Design your own problem that others could use to launch a discussion of division of fractions.  Share your problem!  


A few things to reflect on:

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a reply here on Twitter (@MarkChubb3)

How Many Do You See (Part 2 of 2)

A few weeks ago I shared with you a quick blog post showing a simple worksheet at the grade 2 level – the kind of  simple worksheet that is common to many classrooms.  If you haven’t seen the image, here it is again:

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As you can see, the task asks students to correctly count the number of each shape they notice.  In my first post (Part 1) I asked us a few questions to start a conversation:

  1. Pick one shape (or more if you’re adventurous)
  2. Think about what you believe the teacher’s edition would say
  3. Count how many you see
  4. Share the 3 points above as a comment here or on Twitter

I was quite happy with where some of the conversations led…

Some of the conversations revolved around the issue many have with resources perpetuating stereotypical definitions of shapes:

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If we look, there are exactly 4 shapes that resemble the diagram at the top of the page labelled as “rectangle”, however, there are several different sized squares as well (a square are a special case of a rectangle).


Other conversations revolved around actually counting the number of each item:

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trapezoids 21

What interests me here is that we, as a group of math teachers, have answered this grade 2 worksheet with various answers.  Which brings about 2 important conversations:

  1. What are we looking for when students complete a worksheet or textbook questions?
  2. Are we aiming for convergent or divergent thinking?  Which of these is more helpful for our students?

What are we looking for?

Given the conversations I have had with math teachers about the worksheet being shared here, it seems like there are a few different beliefs.  Some teachers believe the activity is aimed at helping students recognize traditional shapes and identify them on the page.  Other teachers believe that this activity could potentially lead to discussions about definitions of shapes (i.e., What is a rectangle?  What is a hexagon?…) if we listen to and notice our students’ thinking about each of the shapes, then bring students together to have rich discussions.

It’s probably worth noting that the Teacher’s Edition for this worksheet includes precise answers.  If a typical teacher were to collect the students’ work and begin marking the assignment using the “answers” from the teacher’s guide, some of the students would have the “correct” answer of 8 trapezoids, but many others would likely have noticed several of the other trapezoids on the page.  If we are looking / listening for students to find the correct answer, we are likely missing out on any opportunity to learn about our students, or offer any opportunity for our students to learn themselves!

I would hope that an activity like this would provide us opportunities for our students to show what they understand, and move beyond getting answers into the territory of developing mathematical reasoning.


Convergent vs Divergent Thinking

Again, many of the teachers I have discussed this activity with have shared their interest in finding the other possible versions of each shape.  However, what we would actually do with this activity seems to be quite different for each educator.  It seems like the decisions different teachers might be making here relate to their interest in students either having convergent thinking, or divergent thinking.  Let’s take a look at a few possible scenarios:

Teacher 1:

Before students start working on the activity, the teacher explains that their job is to find shapes that look exactly like the image in the picture at the top of the page.

Teacher 2:

Before students start working on the activity, the teacher tells the students exactly how many of each shape they found, then asks students to find them.

Teacher 3:

Before students start working on the activity, the teacher explains that their job is to find as many shapes as possible.  Then further explains that there might be ones that are not traditional looking.  Then, together with students, defines criteria for each shape they are about to look for.

Teacher 4:

Before students start working on the activity, the teacher explains that their job is to find as many shapes as possible.  As students are working, they challenge students to continue to think about other possibilities.


In the above scenarios, the teachers’ goals are quite different.  Teacher 1 expects their students to spend time looking at common versions of each shape, then spot them on the page.  Teacher 2’s aim is for students to be able to think deeper about what each shape really means, hoping that they are curious about where the rest of the shapes could possibly be leading their students to challenge themselves.  Teacher 3 believes that in order for students to be successful here, that they need to provide all of the potential pieces before their students get started.  Their goal in the end is for students to use the definitions they create together in the activity.  Finally, teacher 4’s goal is for students to access the mathematics before any terms or definitions are shared.  They believe that they can continue to push students to think by using effective questioning.  The development of reasoning is this teacher’s goal.

Looking back at these 4 teachers’ goals, I notice that 2 basic things differ:

  1. How much scaffolding is provided; and
  2. When scaffolding is provided

Teachers that provide lots of scaffolding prior to a problem typically aim for students to have convergent thinking.  They provide definitions and prompts, they model and tell, they hope that everyone will be able to get the same answers.

Teachers that withhold scaffolding and expect students to do more of the thinking along the way typically aim for divergent thinking.  That is, they hope that students will have different ideas in the hopes for students to share their thinking to create more thinking in others.

Whether you believe that convergent thinking or divergent thinking is best in math, I would really like you to consider how tasks that promote divergent thinking can actually help the group come to a consensus in the end.  If I were to provide this lesson to grade 2s, I would be aiming for students to be thinking as much as possible, to push students to continue to think outside-the-box as much as possible, then make sure that in my lesson close, that we ALL understood what makes a shape a shape.


I want to leave you with a few reflective questions:

  • I provided you with a specific worksheet from a specific grade, however, I want you to now think about what you teach.  How much scaffolding do you provide?  Are you providing too much too soon?
  • Do your lessons start off with convergent thinking or divergent thinking?  Why do you do this?  Is this because you believe it is best?
  • How can you delay scaffolding and convergent thinking so that we are actually promoting our students to be actively thinking?  How can you make this a priority?
  • What lesson or warm-ups or problems have you given that are examples of what we are talking about here?
  • If we do remove some of the scaffolding will some of your students sit there not learning?  Is this a sign of them not understanding the math, or a sign of them used to being spoon-fed thinking?  What do WE need to get better at if we are to delay some of this scaffolding?

I encourage you to continue to think about what it means to help set up situations for your students to actively construct understanding:

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).

P.S.  I’m still not confident how many of each shape are actually here!

Targeted Instruction

The other day I was asked about my opinion about something called entrance slips. Curious about their thoughts first, I asked a few question that helped me understand what they meant by entrance slips, what they would be used for, and how they might believe they would be helpful. The response made me a little worried. Basically, the idea was to give something to students at the beginning of class to determine gaps, then place students into groups based on student “needs”.  I’ll share my issues with this in a moment…  Once I had figured out how they planned on using them, I asked what the different groups would look like.  Specifically, I asked what students in each group would be learning. They explained that the plan was to give an entrance slip at the beginning of a Geometry unit. The first few questions on this entrance slip would involve naming shapes and the next few about identifying isolated properties of shapes. Those who couldn’t name shapes were to be placed into a group that learns about naming shapes, those who could name shapes but didn’t know all of the properties were to go into a second group, and those who did well on both sections would be ready to do activities involving sorting shapes.  In our discussion I continually heard the phrase “Differentiated Instruction”, however, their description of Differentiated Instruction definitely did not match my understanding (I’ve written about that here). What was being discussed here with regards to using entrance slips I would call “Individualized Instruction”.  The difference between the two terms is more than a semantic issue, it gets to the heart of how we believe learning happens, what our roles are in planning and assessing, and ultimately who will be successful.  To be clear, Differentiated Instruction involves students achieving the same expectations/standards via different processes, content and/or product, while individualized or targeted instruction is about expecting different things from different students.


Issues with Individualized / Targeted Instruction

Individualized or targeted instruction makes sense in a lot of ways.  The idea is to figure out what a student’s needs are, then provide opportunities for them to get better in this area.  In practice, however, what often happens is that we end up setting different learning paths for different students which actually creates more inequities than it helps close gaps.  In my experience, having different students learning different things might be helpful to those who are being challenged, but does a significant disservice to those who are deemed “not ready” to learn what others are learning.  For example, in the 3 pathways shared above, it was suggested that the class be split into 3 groups; one working on defining terms, one learning about properties of shapes and the last group would spend time sorting shapes in various ways.  If we thought of this in terms of development, each group of students would be set on a completely different path.  Those working on developing “recognition” tasks (See Van Hiele’s Model below) would be working on low-level tasks.  Instead of providing experiences that might help them make sense of Geometric relationships, they would be stuck working on tasks that focus on memory without meaning.

Figure-1-Examples-of-interview-items-aligned-with-van-Hiele-levels

When we aim to find specific tasks for specific students, we assume that students are not capable of learning things others are learning.  This creates low expectations for our students!  Van de Walle says it best in his book Teaching Student Centered Mathematics:

Determining how to place students in groups is an important decision.  Avoid continually grouping by ability.  This kind of grouping, although well-intentioned, perpetuates low levels of learning and actually increases the gap between more and less dependent students.  

Targeted instruction might make sense on paper, but there are several potential flaws:

  • Students enter into tracks that do not actually reflect their ability.  There is plenty of research showing that significant percentages of students are placed in the wrong grouping by their teachers.  Whether they have used some kind of test or not, groupings are regularly flawed in predicting what students are potentially ready for.
  • Pre-determining who is ready for what learning typically results in ability grouping, which is probably the strongest fixed mindset message a school can send students.  Giving an entrance ticket that determines certain students can’t engage in the learning others are doing tells students who is good at math, and who isn’t.  Our students are exquisitely keen at noticing who we believe can be successful, which shapes their own beliefs about themselves.
  • The work given to those in lower groups is typically less cognitively demanding and results in minimal learning.  The intent to “fill gaps” or “catch kids up” ironically increases the gap between struggling students and more independent learners.  Numerous studies have confirmed what Hoffer (1992) found: “Comparing the achievement growth of non-grouped students and high- and low-group students shows that high-group placement generally has a weak positive effect while low-group placement has a stronger negative effect. Ability grouping thus appears to benefit advanced students, to harm slower students.

 

The original conversation I had about Entrance Tickets illustrated a common issue we have.  We notice that there are students in our rooms who come into class in very different places in their understanding of a given topic.  We want to make sure that we provide things that our students will be successful with… However, this individualization of instruction does the exact opposite of what differentiated instruction intends to do.  Differentiated instruction in a mathematics class is realized when we provide experiences for our students where everyone is learning what they need to learn and can demonstrate this learning in different ways.  The assumption, however, is that WE are the ones that should be determining who is learning what and how much.  This just doesn’t make sense to me!  Instead of using entrance tickets, we ended up deciding to use this problem from Van de Walle so we could reach students no matter where they were in their understanding.  Instead of a test to determine who is allowed to learn what, we allowed every student to learn!  This needs to be a focus!

If we are ever going to help all of our students learn mathematics and believe that they are capable of thinking mathematically, then we need to provide learning experiences that ALL of our students can participate in.  These experiences need to:

  • Have multiple entry points for students to access the mathematics
  • Provide challenge for all students (be Problem-Based)
  • Allow students to actively make sense of the mathematics through mathematical reasoning
  • Allow students opportunities to students to express their understanding in different ways or reach an understanding via different strategies

Let’s avoid doing things that narrow our students’ learning like using entrance tickets to target instruction!  Let’s commit to a view of differentiated instruction where our students are the ones who are differentiating themselves (because the tasks allowed for opportunities to do things differently)!  Let’s continue to get better at leveraging students’ thinking in our classrooms to help those who are struggling!  Let’s believe that all of our students can learn!  


I want to leave you with a few reflective questions:

  • Why might conversations about entrance tickets and other ways to determine students ability be more common today?  We need to use our students’ thinking to guide our instruction, but other than entrance cards, how can we do this in ways that actually help those who are struggling?
  • Is a push for data-driven instruction fueling this type of decision making?  If so, who is asking for the data?  Are there other sources of data that you can be gathering that are healthier for you and your students?
  • If you’ve ever used entrance tickets or diagnostics, followed by ability groups, how did those on the bottom group feel?  Do you see the same students regularly in the bottom group?  Do you see a widening gap between those dependent on you and those who are more independent?
  • Where do you look for learning experiences that offer this kind of differentiated instruction?  Is it working for the students in your class that are struggling?

I encourage you to continue to think about what it means to Differentiate your Instruction.  Here are a few pieces that might help:

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).

Pick a Quote

Seems to me that many schools and districts are asking questions about assessment in mathematics.  So, I thought I would share a few quotes that might get you to think and reflect on your views about what it means to assess, why there might be a focus on assessment, and what our goals and ideals might look like.  I want you to take a look at the following quotes.  Pick 1 or 2 that stands out to you:

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A few things to reflect on as you think about the quotes above:

  • Which quotes caught your eye?  Did you pick one(s) that confirm things you already believe or perhaps ones that you hadn’t spent much time thinking about before?
  • Some of the above quotes speak to “assessment” while others speak to evaluation practices.  Do you know the difference?
  • Take a look again at the list of quotes and find one that challenges your thinking.  I’ve probably written about the topic somewhere.  Take a look in the Links to read more about that topic.
  • Why do you think so many discuss assessment as a focus in mathematics?  Maybe Linda Gojak’s article Are We Obsessed with Assessment? might provide some ideas.
  • Instead of talking in generalities about topics like assessment, maybe we need to start thinking about better questions to ask, or thinking deeper about what is mathematically important, or understanding how mathematics develops!

Please pick a quote that stands out for you and share your thoughts about it.

Leave a reply here or on Twitter (@MarkChubb3)

 

Unintended Messages

I read an interesting article by Yong Zhao the other day entitled What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education where he discussed a simple reality that exists in schools and districts all over. Basically, he gives the analogy of education being like the field of medicine (yes, I know this is an overused comparison, but let’s go with it for a minute).  Yong paints the picture of how careful drug and medicine companies have become in warning “customers” of both the benefits of using a specific drug and the potential side-effects that might result because of its use.

However, Yong continues to explain that the general public has not been given the same cautionary messages for any educational decision or program:

“This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” No such information is given to teachers or school principals.
“This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative.” No parent has been given information about effects and side effects of practices in schools.

Simply put, in education, we tend to discuss the benefits of any program or practice without thinking through how this might affect our students’ well-being in other areas.  The issue here might come as a direct result of teachers, schools and systems narrowing their focus to measure results without considering what is being measured and why, what is not being measured and why, and what the short and long term effects might be of this focus!


Let’s explore a few possible scenarios:

Practice:

In order to help students see the developmental nature of mathematical ideas, some teachers organize their discussions about their problems by starting to share the simplest ideas first then move toward more and more complicated samples.  The idea here is that students with simple or less efficient ideas can make connections with other ideas that will follow.

Unintended Side Effects:

Some students in this class might come to notice that their ideas or thinking is always called upon first, or always used as the model for others to learn from.  Either situation might cause this child to realize that they are or are not a “math person”.  Patterns in our decisions can lead students into the false belief that we value some students’ ideas over the rest.  We need to tailor our decisions and feedback based on what is important mathematically, and based on the students’ peronal needs.


Practice:

In order to meet the needs of a variety of students, teachers / schools / districts organize students by ability.  This can look like streaming (tracking), setting (regrouping of students for a specific subject), or within class ability grouping.

Unintended Side Effects:

A focus on sorting students by their potential moves the focus from helping our students learn, to determining if they are in the right group.  It can become easy as an educator to notice a student who is struggling and assume the issue is that they are not in the right group instead of focusing on a variety of learning opportunities that will help all students be successful.  If the focus remains on making sure students are grouped properly, it can become much more difficult for us to learn and develop new techniques!  To our students, being sorted can either help motivate, or dissuade students from believing they are capable!  Basically, sorting students leads both educators and students to develop fixed mindsets.  Instead of sorting students, understanding what differentiated instruction can look like in a mixed-ability class can help us move all of our students forward, while helping everyone develop a healthy relationship with mathematics.


Practice:

A common practice for some teachers involves working with small groups of students at a time with targeted needs.  Many see that this practice can help their students gain more confidence in specific areas of need.

Unintended Side Effects:

Sitting, working with students in small groups as a regular practice means that the teacher is not present during the learning that happens with the rest of the students.  Some students can become over reliant on the teacher in this scenario and tend to not work as diligently during times when not directly supervised.  If we want patient problem solvers, we need to provide our students with more opportunities for them to figure things out for themselves.


Practice:

Some teachers teach through direct instruction (standing in front of the class, or via slideshow notes, or videos) as their regular means of helping students learn new material.  Many realize it is quicker and easier for a teacher to just tell their students something.

Unintended Side Effects:

Students come to see mathematics as subject where memory and rules are what is valued and what is needed.  When confronted with novel problems, students are far less likely to find an entry point or to make sense of the problem because their teacher hadn’t told them how to do it yet.  These students are also far more likely to rely on memory instead of using mathematical reasoning or sense making strategies.  While direct instruction might be easier and quicker for students to learn things, it is also more likely these students will forget.  If we want our students to develop deep understanding of the material, we need them to help provide experiences where they will make sense of the material.  They need to construct their understanding through thinking and reasoning and by making mistakes followed by more thinking and reasoning.


Practice:

Many “diagnostic” assessments resources help us understand why students who are really struggling to access the mathematics are having issues.  They are designed to help us know specifically where a student is struggling and hopefully they offer next steps for teachers to use.  However, many teachers use these resources with their whole group – even with those who might not be struggling.  The belief here is that we should attempt  to find needs for everyone.

Unintended Side Effects:

When the intention of teachers is to find students’ weaknesses, we start to look at our students from a deficit model.  We start to see “Gaps” in understanding instead of partial understandings.  Teachers start to see themselves as the person helping to “fix” students, instead of providing experiences that will help build students’ understandings.  Students also come to see the subject as one where “mastering” a concept is a short-term goal, instead of the goal being mathematical reasoning and deep understanding of the concepts.  Instead of starting with what our students CAN’T do and DON’T know, we might want to start by providing our students with experiences where they can reason and think and learn through problem solving situations.  Here we can create situations where students learn WITH and FROM each other through rich tasks and problems.


Our Decisions:

Yong Zhao’s article – What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education – is titled really well.  The problem is that some of the practices and programs that can prove to have great results in specific areas, might actually be harmful in other ways.  Because of this, I believe we need to consider the benefits, limitations and unintended messages of any product and of any practice… especially if this is a school or system focus.

As a school or a system, this means that we need to be really thoughtful about what we are measuring and why.  Whatever we measure, we need to understand how much weight it has in telling us and our students what we are focused on, and what we value.  Like the saying goes, we measure what we value, and we value what we measure.  For instance:

  • If we measure fact retrieval, what are the unintended side effects?  What does this tell our students math is all about?  Who does this tell us math is for?
  • If we measure via multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions as a common practice, what are the unintended side effects?  What does this tell our students math is all about?  How reliable is this information?
  • If we measure items from last year’s standards (expectations), what are the unintended side effects?  Will we spend our classroom time giving experiences from prior grades, help build our students’ understanding of current topics?
  • If we only value standardized measurements, what are the unintended side effects?  Will we see classrooms where development of mathematics is the focus, or “answer getting” strategies?  What will our students think we value?

Some things to reflect on
  • Think about what it is like to be a student in your class for a moment.  What is it like to learn mathematics every day?  Would you want to learn mathematics in your class every day?  What would your students say you value?
  • Think about the students in front of you for a minute.  Who is good at math?  What makes you believe they are good at math?  How are we building up those that don’t see themselves as mathematicians?
  • Consider what your school and your district ask you to measure.  Which of the 5 strands of mathematics proficiency do these measurements focus on?  Which ones have been given less attention?  How can we help make sure we are not narrowing our focus and excluding some of the things that really matter?

baba

As always, I encourage you to leave a message here or on Twitter (@markchubb3)!

Which one has a bigger area?

Many grade 3 teachers in my district, after taking part in some professional development recently (provided by @teatherboard), have tried the same task relating to area.  I’d like to share the task with you and discuss some generalities we can consider for any topic in any grade.


The task:

As an introductory activity to area, students were provided with two images and asked which of the two shapes had the largest area.

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A variety of tools and manipulatives were handy, as always, for students to use to help them make sense of the problem.


Student ideas

Given very little direction and lots of time to think about how to solve this problem, we saw a wide range of student thinking.  Take a look at a few:

Some students used circles to help them find area.  What does this say about what they understand?  What issues do you see with this approach though?

Some students used shapes to cover the outline of each shape (perimeter).  Will they be able to find the shape with the greater area?  Is this strategy always / sometimes / never going to work?  What does this strategy say about what they understand?

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Example 3

Some students used identical shapes to cover the inside of each figure.

And some students used different shapes to cover the figures.

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Example 7

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Example 8

C-rods, difference
Example 9

Notice that example 9 here includes different units in both figures, but has reorganized them underneath to show the difference (can you tell which line represents which figure?).


Building Meaningful Conversations

Each of the samples above show the thinking, reasoning and understanding that the students brought to our math class.  They were given a very difficult task and were asked to use their reasoning skills to find an answer and prove it.  In the end, students were split between which figure had the greater area (some believing they were equal, many believing that one of the two was larger).  In the end, students had very different numerical answers as to how much larger or smaller the figures were from each other.  These discrepancies set the stage for a powerful learning opportunity!

For example, asking questions that get at the big ideas of measurement are now possible because of this problem:

“How is it possible some of us believe the left figure has a larger area and some of us believe that the right figure is larger?”

“Has example 8 (scroll up to take a closer look) proven that they both have the same area?”

“Why did example 9 use two pictures?  It looks like many of the cuisenaire rods are missing in the second picture?  What did you think they did here?”

In the end, the conversations should bring about important information for us to understand:

  • We need comparable units if we are to compare 2 or more figures together.  This could mean using same-sized units (like examples 1, 4, 5 & 6 above), or corresponding units (like example 8 above), or units that can be reorganized and appropriately compared (like example 9).
  • If we want to determine the area numerically, we need to use the same-sized piece exclusively.
  • The smaller the unit we use, the more of them we will need to use.
  • It is difficult to find the exact area of figures with rounded parts using the tools we have.  So, our measurements are not precise.

Some generalizations we can make here to help us with any topic in any grade

When our students are being introduced to a new topic, it is always beneficial to start with their ideas first.  This way we can see the ideas they come to us with and engage in rich discussions during the lesson close that helps our students build understanding together.  It is here in the discussions that we can bridge the thinking our students currently have with the thinking needed to understand the concepts you want them to leave with.  In the example above, the students entered this year with many experiences using non-standard measurements, and this year, most of their experiences will be using standard measurements.  However, instead of starting to teach this year’s standards, we need to help our students make some connections, and see the need to learn something new.  Considering what the first few days look like in any unit is essential to make sure our students are adequately prepared to learn something new!  (More on this here: What does day one look like?)

To me, this is what formative assessment should look like in mathematics!  Setting up experiences that will challenge our students, listening and observing our students as they work and think… all to build conversations that will help our students make sense of the “big ideas” or key understandings we will need to learn in the upcoming lessons.  When we view formative assessment as a way to learn more about our students’ thinking, and as a way to bridge their thinking with where we are going, we tend to see our students through an asset lens (what they DO understand) instead of their through the deficit lens (i.e., gaps in understanding… “they can’t”…, “didn’t they learn this last year…?).  When we see our students through an asset lens, we tend to believe they are capable, and our students see themselves and the subject in a much more positive light!

Let’s take a closer look at the features of this lesson:

  • Little to no instruction was given – we wanted to learn about our students’ thinking, not see if they can follow directions
  • The problem was open enough to have multiple possible strategies and offer multiple possible entry points (low floor – high ceiling)
  • Asking students to prove something opens up many possibilities for rich discussions
  • Students needed to begin by using their reasoning skills, not procedural knowledge…
  • Coming up with a response involved students doing and thinking… but the real learning happened afterward – during the consolidation phase

A belief I have is that the deeper we understand the big ideas behind the math our students are learning, the more likely we will know what experiences our students need first!


A few things to reflect on:

  • How often do you give tasks hoping students will solve it a specific way?  And how often you give tasks that allow your students to show you their current thinking?  Which of these approaches do you value?
  • What do your students expect math class to be like on the first few days of a new topic/concept?  Do they expect marks and quizzes?  Or explanations, notes and lessons?  Or problems where students think and share, and eventually come to understand the mathematics deeply through rich discussions?  Is there a disconnect between what you believe is best, and what your students expect?
  • I’ve painted the picture here of formative assessment as a way to help us learn about how our students think – and not about gathering marks, grouping students, filling gaps.  What does formative assessment look like in your classroom?  Are there expectations put on you from others as to what formative assessment should look like?  How might the ideas here agree with or challenge your beliefs or the expectations put upon you?
  • Time is always a concern.  Is there value in building/constructing the learning together as a class, or is covering the curriculum standards good enough?  How might these two differ?  How would you like your students to experience mathematics?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave a reply here on Twitter (@MarkChubb3)