Starting where our students are….. with THEIR thoughts

A common trend in education is to give students a diagnostic in order for us to know where to start. While I agree we should be starting where our students are, I think this can look very different in each classroom.  Does starting where our students are mean we give a test to determine ability levels, then program based on these differences?  Personally, I don’t think so.

Giving out a test or quiz at the beginning of instruction isn’t the ideal way of learning about our students.  Seeing the product of someone’s thinking often isn’t helpful in seeing HOW that child thinks (Read, What does “assessment drive instruction mean to you” for more on this). Instead, I offer an alternative- starting with a diagnostic task!  Here is an example of a diagnostic task given this week:

Taken from Van de Walle’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics

This lesson is broken down into 4 parts.  Below are summaries of each:


Part 1 – Tell 1 or 2 interesting things about your shape

Start off in groups of 4.  One student picks up a shape and says something (or 2) interesting about that shape.


Here you will notice how students think about shapes. Will they describe the shape as “looking like a mountain” or “it’s an hourglass” (visualization is level 1 on Van Hiele’s levels of Geometric thought)… or will they describe attributes of that shape (this is level 2 according to Van Hiele)?

As the teacher, we listen to the things our students talk about so we will know how to organize the conversation later.


Part 2 – Pick 2 shapes.  Tell something similar or different about the 2 shapes.

Students randomly pick 2 shapes and either tell the group one thing similar or different about the two shapes. Each person offers their thoughts before 2 new shapes are picked.

Students who might have offered level 1 comments a minute ago will now need to consider thinking about attributes. Again, as the teacher, we listen for the attributes our students understand (i.e., number of sides, right angles, symmetry, number of vertices, number of pairs of parallel sides, angles….), and which attributes our students might be informally describing (i.e., using phrases like “corners”, or using gestures when attempting to describe something they haven’t learned yet).  See chart below for a better description of Van Hiele’s levels:

Van Hiele’s chart shared by NCTM

At this time, it is ideal to hold conversations with the whole group about any disagreements that might exist.  For example, the pairs of shapes above created disagreements about number of sides and number of vertices.  When we have disagreements, we need to bring these forward to the group so we can learn together.


Part 3 – Sorting using a “Target Shape”

Pick a “Target Shape”. Think about one of its attributes.  Sort the rest of the shapes based on the target shape.


The 2 groups above sorted their shapes based on different attributes. Can you figure out what their thinking is?  Were there any shapes that they might have disagreed upon?


Part 4 – Secret sort

Here, we want students to be able to think about shapes that share similar attributes (this can potentially lead our students into level 2 type thinking depending on our sort).  I suggest we provide shapes already sorted for our students, but sorted in a way that no group had just sorted the shapes. Ideally, this sort is something both in your standards and something you believe your students are ready to think about (based on the observations so far in this lesson).


In this lesson, we have noticed how our students think.  We could assess the level of Geometric thought they are currently using, or the attributes they are comfortable describing, or misconceptions that need to be addressed.  But, this lesson isn’t just about us gathering information, it is also about our students being actively engaged in the learning process!  We are intentionally helping our students make connections, reason and prove, learn/ revisit vocabulary, think deeper about specific attributes…


I’ve shared my thoughts about what I think day 1 should look like before for any given topic, and how we can use assessment to drive instruction, however, I wanted to write this blog about the specific topic of diagnostics.

In the above example, we listened to our students and used our understanding of our standards and developmental research to know where to start our conversations. As Van de Walle explains the purpose of formative assessment, we need to make our formative more like a streaming video, not just a test at the beginning!van-de-walle-streaming-video

If its formative, it needs to be ongoing… part of instruction… based on our observations, conversations, and the things students create…  This requires us to start with rich tasks that are open enough to allow everyone an entry point and for us to have a plan to move forward!

I’m reminded of Phil Daro’s quote:

daro-starting-point

For us to make these shifts, we need to consider our mindsets that also need to shift.  Statements like the following stand in the way of allowing our students to be actively engaged in the learning process starting with where they currently are:

  • My students aren’t ready for…
  • I need to start with the basics…
  • My students have gaps in their…
  • They don’t know the vocabulary yet…

These thoughts are counterproductive and lead to the Pygmalion effect (teacher beliefs about ability become students’ self-fulfilling prophecies).  When WE decide which students are ready for what tasks, I worry that we might be holding many of our students back!

If we want to know where to start our instruction, start where your students are in their understanding…with their own thoughts!!!!!  When we listen and observe our students first, we will know how to push their thinking!

An Unsolved Problem your Students Should Attempt

There are several great unsolved math problems that are perfect for elementary students to explore.  One of my favourites is the palindrome sums problem.
In case you aren’t familiar, a palindrome is a word, phrase, sentence or number that reads the same forward and backward.


The problem itself comes out of this conjecture:

If you take any number and add it to its inverse (numbers reversed), it will eventually become a palindrome.

Let’s take a look at the numbers 12, 46 and 95:

Palindrome adding1


Palindrome adding2


Palindrome adding3


As you can see with the above examples, some numbers can become palindromes with 1 simple addition, like the number 12.  12 + 21 = 33.  Can you think of others that should take 1 step?  How did you know?

Other numbers when added to their inverse will not immediately become a palindrome, but by continuing the process, will eventually, like the numbers 46 and 95.  Which numbers do you think will take more than 1 step?


After going through a few examples with students about the process of creating palindromes, ask your students to attempt to see if the conjecture is true (If you take any number and add it to its inverse (numbers reversed), it will eventually become a palindrome).  Have them find out if each number from 0-99 will eventually become a palindrome. Ask students if they need to find the answer for each number?  Encourage them to make their own conjectures so they don’t need to do all of the calculations for each number.


Mathematically proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure. They notice if calculations are repeated, and look both for general methods and for shortcuts. (SMP 7)

Some students will notice:

  • Some numbers will already be a palindrome
  • If they have figured out 12 + 21… they will know 21 + 12.  So they don’t have to do all of the calculations.  Nearly half of the work will have already been completed.
  • A pattern emerging in their answers … 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, 99, 121… and see this pattern regularly (well, almost)
  • A pattern about when numbers will have 99 as a palindrome, or 121… 18+81 = 27+72 = 36+63…

Thinking about our decisions:
  • What is the goal of this lesson?  (Practice with addition?  Looking for patterns?  Perseverance?  Making conjectures? …)
  • Do we share some of the conjectures students are making during the time when students are working, or later in the closing of the lesson?  
  • How will my students record their work?  Keep track of their answers?  Do I provide a 0-99 chart or ask them to keep track somehow?
  • Will students work independently / in pairs / in small groups?  Why?
  • Do I allow calculators?  Why or why not?  (think back to your goal)
  • How will I share the conjectures or patterns noticed with the class?
  • Are my students gaining practice DOING (calculations) or THINKING (noticing patterns and making conjectures)?  Which do you value?

The smallest of decisions can make the biggest of impacts for our students!  


So, at the beginning of this post I shared with you that this problem is currently unsolved.  While it is true that the vast majority of numbers have been proven to easily become palindromes, there are some numbers that require many steps (89 and 98 require 24 steps), and others that have never been proven to either work or not work (198 is the smallest number never proven either way).


Some final thoughts about this problem…

After using this problem with many different students I have noticed that many start to see that mathematics can be a much more intellectually interesting subject than they had previously experienced.  This problem asks students to notice things, make conjectures, try to prove their conjectures and be able to communicate their conjectures with others…  The problem provides students with the opportunity to both think and do.  It offers students from various ability levels access to the problem (low floor), and many different avenues to challenge those ready for it (high ceiling).  It tells students that math is still a living, growing subject… that all of the problems have not yet been figured out!  And probably the most important for me, it sends students messages about what it means to really do mathematics!

 

palindrome2
Taken from Marilyn Burns’ 50 Problem Solving Lessons resource

 

Focus on Relational Understanding

Forty years ago, Richard Skemp wrote one of the most important articles, in my opinion, about mathematics, and the teaching and learning of mathematics called Relational Understanding and Instrumental Understanding.  If you haven’t already read the article, I think you need to add this to your summer reading (It’s linked above).

Skemp quite nicely illustrates the fact that many of us have completely different, even contradictory definitions, of the term “understanding”.   Here are the 2 opposing definitions of the word “understanding”:

“Instrumental understanding” can be thought of as knowing the rules and procedures without understanding why those rules or procedures work. Students who have been taught instrumentally can perform calculations, apply procedures… but do not necessarily understand the mathematics behind the rules or procedures.

Instrumental2.png

“Relational understanding”, on the other hand, can be thought of as understanding how and why the rules and procedures work.  Students who are taught relationally are more likely to remember the procedures because they have truly understood why they work, they are more likely to retain their understanding longer, more likely to connect new learning with previous learning, and they are less likely to make careless mistakes.

Relational2.png

Think of the two types of understanding like this:

 

Shared by David Wees

Students who are taught instrumentally come to see mathematics as isolated pieces of knowledge. They are expected to remember procedures for each and every concept/skill.  Each new skill requires a new set of procedures.  However, those who are taught relationally make connections between and within concepts and skills.  Those with a relational understanding can learn new concepts easier, retain previous concepts, and are able to deviate from formulas/rules given different problems easier because of the connections they have made.

 

While it might seem obvious that relational understanding is best, it requires us to understand the mathematics in ways that we were never taught in order for us to provide the best experiences for our students. It also means that we need to start with our students’ current understandings instead of starting with the rules and procedures.

Skemp articulates how much of an issue this really is in our educational system when he explains the different types of mismatches that can occur between how students are taught, and how students learn.  Take a look:

Instrumental vs Relational

Notice the top right quadrant for a second.  If a child wants to learn instrumentally (they only want to know the steps/rules to solve today’s problem) and the teacher instead offers tasks/problems that asks the child to think or reason mathematically, the student will likely be frustrated for the short term.  You might see students that lack perseverance, or are eager for assistance because they are not used to thinking for themselves.  However, as their learning progresses, they will come to make sense of their mathematics and their initial frustration will fade.

On the other hand, if a teacher teaches instrumentally but a child wants to learn relationally (they want/need to understand why procedures work) a more serious mismatch will exist.  Students who want to make sense of the concepts they are learning, but are not given the time and conditions to experience mathematics in this way will come to believe that they are not good at mathematics.  These students soon disassociate with mathematics and will stop taking math classes as soon as they can.  These students view themselves as “not a math person” because their experiences have not helped them make sense of the mathematics they were learning.

While the first mismatch might seem frustrating for us as teachers, the frustration is short lived. On the other hand, the second mismatch has life-long consequences!


I’ve been thinking about the various initiatives/ professional development opportunities… that I have been part of, or have been available online or through print that might help us think about how to move from an instrumental understanding to a relational understanding of mathematics.  Here are a few I want to share with you:

Phil Daro’s Against Answer Getting video highlights a few instrumental practices that might be common in some schools.  Below is the “Butterfly” method of adding fractions he shares as an “answer getting” strategy.  While following these simple steps might help our students get the answer to this question, Phil points out that these students will be unable to solve an addition problem with 3 fractions.  These students “understand” how to get the answer, but in no way understand how the answer relates to addends.

Daro - Butterfly.jpg

On the other hand, teachers who teach relationally provide their students with contexts, models (i.e, number lines, arrays…), manipulatives (i.e., cuisenaire rods, pattern blocks…) and visuals to help their students develop a relational understanding.  If you are interested in learning more about helping your students develop a relational understanding of fractions, take a look at a few resources that will help:


Tina Cardone and a group of math teachers across Twitter (part of the #MTBoS) created a document called Nix The Tricks that points out several instrumental “tricks” that do not lead to relational understanding.  For example, “turtle multiplication” is an instrumental strategy that will not help our students understand the mathematics that is happening.  Students can draw a collar and place an egg below, but in no way will this help with future concepts!Turtle mult.jpg

Teachers focused on relational understanding again use representations that allow their students to visualize what is happening.  Connections between representations, strategies and the big ideas behind multiplication are developed over time.

Take a look at some wonderful resources that promote a relational understanding of multiplication:

Each of the above are developmental in nature, they focus on representations and connections.


So how do we make these shifts?  Here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. Notice instrumental teaching practices.
  2. Learn more about how to move from instrumental to relational teaching.
  3. Align assessment practices to expect relational understanding.

Goal 1 – Notice instrumental teaching practices.

Many of these are easy to spot.  Here is a small sample from Pinterest:

 

The rules/procedures shared here ask students to DO without understanding.  The issue is that there are actually countless instrumental practices out there, so my goal is actually much harder than it seems.  Think about something you teach that involves rules or procedures.  How can you help your students develop a relational understanding of this concept?


Goal 2 – Learn more about how to move from instrumental to relational teaching.

I don’t think this is something we can do on our own.  We need the help of professional resources (Marian Small, Van de Walle, Fosnot, and countless others have helped produce resources that are classroom ready, yet help us to see mathematics in ways that we probably didn’t experience as students), mathematics coaches, and the insights of teachers across the world (there is a wonderful community on Twitter waiting to share and learn with you).

I strongly encourage you to look at chapter 1 of Van de Walle’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics where it will give a clearer view of relational understanding and how to teach so our students can learn relationally.

However we are learning, we need to be able to make new connections, see the concepts in different ways in order for us to know how to provide relational teaching for our students.


Goal 3 – Align assessment practices to expect relational understanding.

This is something I hope to continue to blog about.  If we want our students to have a relational understanding, we need to be clear about what we expect our students to be able to do and understand.  Looking at developmental landscapes, continuums and trajectories will help here.  Below is Cathy Fosnot’s landscape of learning for multiplication and division.  While this might look complicated, there are many different representations, strategies and big ideas that our students need to experience to gain a relational understanding.

Fosnot landscape2
Investigating Multiplication and Division Grades 3-5

Asking questions or problems that expect relational understanding is key as well.  Take a look at one of Marian Small’s slideshows below.  Toward the end of each she shares the difference between questions that focus on knowledge and questions that focus on understanding.


I hope whatever your professional learning looks like this year (at school, on Twitter, professional reading…) there is a focus on helping build your relational understanding of the concepts you teach, and a better understanding of how to build a relational understanding for your students.  This will continue to be my priority this year!