“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:

The Types of Questions we Ask: which categories of questions should we focus on?

I think we can all agree that there are many different ways for our students to show what they know or understand, and that some problems ask for deeper understanding than others. In fact, many standardized math assessments, like PISA, aim to ask students questions at varying difficult levels (PISA uses 6 difficulty levels) to assess the same concept/skill. If we can learn one thing from assessments like these hopefully it is how to expect more of our students by going deeper… and in math class, this means asking better questions.

Robert Kaplinsky is a great example of an educator who has helped us better understand how to ask better questions. His work on Depth of Knowledge (DOK) has helped many teachers reflect on the questions they ask and has offered teachers examples of what higher DOK questions/problems look like.

In Ontario though we actually have an achievement chart that is aimed to help us think more about the types of questions/problems we expect our students be able to do. Basically, it is a rubric showing 4 levels of achievement across 4 categories. In Ontario it is expected that every teacher evaluate their students based on each the these categories. Many teachers, however, struggle to see the differences between these categories. Marian Small recently was the keynote speaker at OAME where she helped us think more about the categories by showing us how to delineate between the different categories of questions/problems:

  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Application
  • Thinking

Knowledge vs. Understanding

Below are a few of Marian Small’s examples of questions that are designed to help us see the difference between questions aimed at knowledge and questions aimed at understanding:

As you can see from the above examples, each of the knowledge questions ask students to provide a correct answer. However, each of the understanding questions require students to both get a correct answer AND be able to show that they understand some of the key relationships involved. Marian’s point in showing us these comparisons was to tell us that we need to spend much more time and attention making sure our students understand the math they are learning.

Each of the questions that asks students to show their understanding also help us see what knowledge our students have, but the other way around is not true!

Hopefully you can see the potential benefits of striving for understanding, but I do believe these shifts need to be deliberate. My recommendation to help us aim for understanding is to ask more questions that ask students to:

  • Draw a visual representation to show why something works
  • Provide an example that fits given criteria
  • Explain when examples will or won’t work
  • Make choices (i.e., which numbers, visual representations… will be best to show proof)
  • show their understanding of key “Big Ideas” and relationships

Application vs. Thinking

Below are a few examples that can help us delineate the differences between application and thinking:

These examples might be particularly important for us to think about. To begin with, application questions often use some or all of the following:

  • use a context
  • require students to use things they already should know
  • provide a picture(s) or example(s) for students to see
  • provide almost all of the information and ask the student to find what is missing

Thinking questions, on the other hand, are the basis for what Stein et. al called “Doing Mathematics“. In Marian’s presentation, she discussed with us that these types of questions are why those who enjoy mathematics like doing mathematics. Thinking and reasoning are at the heart of what mathematics is all about! Thinking questions typically require the student to:

  • use non-algorithmic thinking
  • make sense of the problem
  • use relevant knowledge
  • notice important features of the problem
  • choose a possible solution path and possibly adjust if needed
  • persevere to monitor their own progress

Let’s take a minute to compare questions aimed at application and questions aimed at thinking. Application questions, while quite helpful in learning mathematics concepts (contexts should be used AS students learn), they typically offer less depth than thinking questions. In each of the above application questions, a student could easily ignore the context and fall back on learned procedures. On the other hand, each of the thinking questions might require the student to make and test conjectures, using the same procedures repeatedly to find a possible solution.

Ideally, we need to spend more time where our students are thinking… more time discussing thinking questions… and focus more on the important relationships/connections that will arise through working on these problems.

Final Thoughts

Somehow we need to find the right balance between using the 4 types of questions above, however, we need to recognize that most textbooks, most teacher-made assessments, and most online resources focus heavily (if not exclusively) on knowledge and occasionally application. The balance is way off!

Focusing on being able to monitor our own types of questions isn’t enough though. We need to recognize that relationships/connections between concepts/representations are at the heart of expecting more from our students. We need to know that thinking and reasoning are HOW our students should be learning. We need to confront practices that stand in the way of us moving toward understanding and thinking, and set aside resources that focus mainly on knowledge or application. If we want to make strides forward, we need to find resources that will help US understand the material deeper and provide us with good examples.

Questions to Reflect on:

  • What did your last quiz or test or exit card look like? What is your current balance of question types?
  • What resources do you use? What balance do they have?
  • Where do you go to find better Understanding or Thinking questions?
  • What was the last problem you did that made you interested in solving it? What was it about that problem that made you interested? Likely it was a Thinking question. What was it about that problem that made it interesting?
  • Much of the work related to filling gaps, intervention, assessment driving learning… points teachers toward students’ missing knowledge. How can we focus our attention more toward understanding and thinking given this reality?
  • How can we better define “mastery” given the 4 categories above? Mastery must be seen as more than getting a bunch of simple knowledge questions correct!
  • Who do you turn to to help you think more about the questions you ask? What professional relationships might be helpful for you?

If you haven’t already, please take a look at Marian Small’s entire presentation where she labels understanding and thinking as the “fundamentals of mathematics”

I’d love to continue the conversation about the questions we ask of our students.  Leave a comment here or on Twitter @MarkChubb3

Reasoning & Proving

This week I had the pleasure to see Dan Meyer, Cathy Fosnot and Graham Fletcher at OAME’s Leadership conference.

leadership oame

Each of the sessions were inspiring and informative… but halfway through the conference I noticed a common message that the first 2 keynote speakers were suggesting:

Capture

Dan Meyer showed us several examples of what mathematical surprise looks like in mathematics class (so students will be interested in making sense of what they are learning, and to get our students really thinking), while Cathy Fosnot shared with us how important it is for students to be puzzled in the process of developing as young mathematicians.  Both messages revolved around what I would consider the most important Process Expectation in the Ontario curriculum – Reasoning and Proving.


Reasoning and Proving

While some see Reasoning and Proving as being about how well an answer is constructed for a given problem – how well communicated/justified a solution is – this is not at all how I see it.  Reasoning is about sense-making… it’s about generalizing why things work… it’s about knowing if something will always, sometimes or never be true…it is about the “that’s why it works” kinds of experiences we want our students engaged in.  Reasoning is really what mathematics is all about.  It’s the pursuit of trying to help our students think mathematically (hence the name of my blog site).


A Non-Example of Reasoning and Proving

In the Ontario curriculum, students in grade 7 are expected to be able to:

  • identify, through investigation, the minimum side and angle information (i.e.,side-side-side; side-angle-side; angle-side-angle) needed to describe a unique triangle

Many textbooks take an expectation like this and remove the need for reasoning.  Take a look:

triangle congruency

As you can see, the textbook here shares that there are 3 “conditions for congruence”.  It shares the objective at the top of the page.  Really there is nothing left to figure out, just a few questions to complete.  You might also notice, that the phrase “explain your reasoning” is used here… but isn’t used in the sense-making way suggested earlier… it is used as a synonym for “show your work”.  This isn’t reasoning!  And there is no “identifying through investigation” here at all – as the verbs in our expectation indicate!


A Example of Reasoning and Proving

Instead of starting with a description of which sets of information are possible minimal information for triangle congruence, we started with this prompt:

Triangles 2

Given a few minutes, each student created their own triangles, measured the side lengths and angles, then thought of which 3 pieces of information (out of the 6 measurements they measured) they would share.  We noticed that each successful student either shared 2 angles, with a side length in between the angles (ASA), or 2 side lengths with the angle in between the sides (SAS).  We could have let the lesson end there, but we decided to ask if any of the other possible sets of 3 pieces of information could work:

triangles 3

While most textbooks share that there are 3 possible sets of minimal information, 2 of which our students easily figured out, we wondered if any of the other sets listed above will be enough information to create a unique triangle.  Asking the original question didn’t offer puzzlement or surprise because everyone answered the problem without much struggle.  As math teachers we might be sure about ASA, SAS and SSS, but I want you to try the other possible pieces of information yourself:

Create triangle ABC where AB=8cm, BC=6cm, ∠BCA=60°

Create triangle FGH where ∠FGH=45°, ∠GHF=100°, HF=12cm

Create triangle JKL where ∠JKL=30°, ∠KLJ=70°, ∠LJK=80°

If you were given the information above, could you guarantee that everyone would create the exact same triangles?  What if I suggested that if you were to provide ANY 4 pieces of information, you would definitely be able to create a unique triangle… would that be true?  Is it possible to supply only 2 pieces of information and have someone create a unique triangle?  You might be surprised here… but that requires you to do the math yourself:)


Final Thoughts

Graham Fletcher in his closing remarks asked us a few important questions:

Graham Fletcher
  • Are you the kind or teacher who teaches the content, then offers problems (like the textbook page in the beginning)?  Or are you the kind of teacher who uses a problem to help your students learn?
  • How are you using surprise or puzzlement in your classroom?  Where do you look for ideas?
  • If you find yourself covering information, instead of helping your students learn to think mathematically, you might want to take a look at resources that aim to help you teach THROUGH problem solving (I got the problem used here in Marian Small’s new Open Questions resource).  Where else might you look?
  • What does Day 1 look like when learning a new concept?
  • Do you see Reasoning and Proving as a way to have students to show their work (like the textbook might suggest) or do you see Reasoning and Proving as a process of sense-making (as Marian Small shares)?
  • Do your students experience moments of cognitive disequilibrium… followed by time for them to struggle independently or with a partner?  Are they regularly engaged in sense-making opportunities, sharing their thinking, debating…?
  • The example I shared here isn’t the most flashy example of surprise, but I used it purposefully because I wanted to illustrate that any topic can be turned into an opportunity for students to do the thinking.  I would love to discuss a topic that you feel students can’t reason through… Let’s think together about if it’s possible to create an experience where students can experience mathematical surprise… or puzzlement… or be engaged in sense-making…  Let’s think together about how we can make Reasoning and Proving a focus for you and your students!

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

Reasoning and Proving

This week I had the pleasure to see Dan Meyer, Cathy Fosnot and Graham Fletcher at OAME’s Leadership conference.

leadership oame

Each of the sessions were inspiring and informative… but halfway through the conference I noticed a common message that the first 2 keynote speakers were suggesting:

Capture

Dan Meyer showed us several examples of what mathematical surprise looks like in mathematics class (so students will be interested in making sense of what they are learning), while Cathy Fosnot shared with us how important it is for students to be puzzled in the process of developing as young mathematicians.  Both messages revolved around what I would consider the most important Process Expectation in the Ontario curriculum – Reasoning and Proving.


Reasoning and Proving

While some see Reasoning and Proving as being about how well an answer is constructed for a given problem – how well communicated/justified a solution is – this is not at all how I see it.  Reasoning is about sense-making… it’s about generalizing why things work… it’s about knowing if something will always, sometimes or never be true…it is about the “that’s why it works” kinds of experiences we want our students engaged in.  Reasoning is really what mathematics is all about.  It’s the pursuit of trying to help our students think mathematically (hence the name of my blog site).


A Non-Example of Reasoning and Proving

In the Ontario curriculum, students in grade 7 are expected to be able to:

  • identify, through investigation, the minimum side and angle information (i.e.,side-side-side; side-angle-side; angle-side-angle) needed to describe a unique triangle

Many textbooks take an expectation like this and remove the need for reasoning.  Take a look:

triangle congruency

As you can see, the textbook here shares that there are 3 “conditions for congruence”.  It shares the objective at the top of the page.  Really there is nothing left to figure out, just a few questions to complete.  You might also notice, that the phrase “explain your reasoning” is used here… but isn’t used in the sense-making way suggested earlier… it is used as a synonym for “show your work”.  This isn’t reasoning!  And there is no “identifying through investigation” here at all – as the verbs in our expectation indicate!


A Example of Reasoning and Proving

Instead of starting with a description of which sets of information are possible minimal information for triangle congruence, we started with this prompt:

Triangles 2

Given a few minutes, each student created their own triangles, measured the side lengths and angles, then thought of which 3 pieces of information (out of the 6 measurements they measured) they would share.  We noticed that each successful student either shared 2 angles, with a side length in between the angles (ASA), or 2 side lengths with the angle in between the sides (SAS).  We could have let the lesson end there, but we decided to ask if any of the other possible sets of 3 pieces of information could work:

triangles 3

While most textbooks share that there are 3 possible sets of minimal information, 2 of which our students easily figured out, we wondered if any of the other sets listed above will be enough information to create a unique triangle.  Asking the original question didn’t offer puzzlement or surprise because everyone answered the problem without much struggle.  As math teachers we might be sure about ASA, SAS and SSS, but I want you to try the other possible pieces of information yourself:

Create triangle ABC where AB=8cm, BC=6cm, ∠BCA=60°

Create triangle FGH where ∠FGH=45°, ∠GHF=100°, HF=12cm

Create triangle JKL where ∠JKL=30°, ∠KLJ=70°, ∠LJK=80°

If you were given the information above, could you guarantee that everyone would create the exact same triangles?  What if I suggested that if you were to provide ANY 4 pieces of information, you would definitely be able to create a unique triangle… would that be true?  Is it possible to supply only 2 pieces of information and have someone create a unique triangle?  You might be surprised here… but that requires you to do the math yourself:)


Final Thoughts

Graham Fletcher in his closing remarks asked us a few important questions:

Graham Fletcher

  • Are you the kind or teacher who teaches the content, then offers problems (like the textbook page in the beginning)?  Or are you the kind of teacher who uses a problem to help your students learn?
  • How are you using surprise or puzzlement in your classroom?  Where do you look for ideas?
  • If you find yourself covering information, instead of helping your students learn to think mathematically, you might want to take a look at resources that aim to help you teach THROUGH problem solving (I got the problem used here in Marian Small’s new Open Questions resource).  Where else might you look?
  • What does Day 1 look like when learning a new concept?
  • Do you see Reasoning and Proving as a way to have students to show their work (like the textbook might suggest) or do you see Reasoning and Proving as a process of sense-making (as Marian Small shares)?
  • Do your students experience moments of cognitive disequilibrium… followed by time for them to struggle independently or with a partner?  Are they regularly engaged in sense-making opportunities, sharing their thinking, debating…?
  • The example I shared here isn’t the most flashy example of surprise, but I used it purposefully because I wanted to illustrate that any topic can be turned into an opportunity for students to do the thinking.  I would love to discuss a topic that you feel students can’t reason through… Let’s think together about if it’s possible to create an experience where students can experience mathematical surprise… or puzzlement… or be engaged in sense-making…  Let’s think together about how we can make Reasoning and Proving a focus for you and your students!

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