There are certain books, blogs, ideas and methodologies that I have come across in the last few years (in one case it was almost 10 years ago) that I can’t seem to get out of my head. For one reason or another they have resonated with me and made me question my assumptions about why I teach, what I teach and how I teach. Over the years I have made small changes to my teaching practice as a result of these influences but recently I find myself really wanting to make substantial and thoughtful changes, ones that entail a certain element of risk and hopefully some reward. I plan to start down this road of making changes by describing what I believe and how I have come to this belief. In later posts I will (maybe) try and nail down what changes I plan to make in, specifically, my grade 7 math classroom.
I believe that instruction must be differentiated.
In many ways I think I started down this path when I read Disrupting Class by Clayton Christiensen. There were a lot of provocative ideas in this book but the one that stuck with me was the idea of using technology to differentiate instruction. I was intrigued and as it happens had just gotten my hands on a free subscription to Mathletics.ca through my student’s participation in World Math Day. Mathletics has a number of features that have helped me to differentiate my instruction: it lets me easily customise the kinds of questions my students work on (easy, general or advanced); it gives them instant feedback on whether they are doing the work correctly (rather than doing 10 questions the wrong way); and it is backed by a great database that lets me easily track how my students are doing. Along with using Mathletics I also started using a Blog as a place to post weekly assignments, powerpoint lessons, voicethread tutorials etc. Anything that I thought might be useful to the students as they tried to learn new concepts.
In a good week I manage to provide my students on Monday with a schedule for the week. This includes the work that they are responsible for on Mathletics and in the textbook, as well as extension work and some problem solving practice. My thinking is that by providing them with this information up front they can start to develop their planning and time management skills. It also gives them some choice as to how they used class time.
I believe in giving my students choice and control
My current bio contains a few sentences I wrote when applying for my current job at Aspengrove School:
I believe strongly in giving my students choices and empowering them
to take control of their own education. My job is to carefully craft a
framework that gives them the support, structure and skills they need
to make informed decisions.
In coming to this belief I have been very influenced by the work of Kathy Nunley on her Layered Curriculum Model. Her explanation of how information has to travel through the hypothalamus or primitive brain in order to reach the cortex, and how when a student feels threatened it triggers a fight or flight instinct that blocks the information at the hypothalamus made a lot of sense to me. Her Layered Curriculum Model is designed to allow students choice and control over how they learn the material and how they get their grade. I tried it for a few years in my Science Classes and was really amazed at how motivated my students became, especially the lower achieving ones. I’m not sure I would go back to using the Layered Curriculum model in my classes but I am hoping to borrow from it as I work to give my students more choice in how they learn mathematics and more control over the assessment piece (lots more to say on this later).
I believe that my job is to help my students help themselves
Using Mathletics has really removed me from the front of the classroom and allowed me to spend much more time one on one with students. Being able to focus on individual student needs more has made me very aware of the difference in helping a student by giving them a “nudge” in the right direction and helping them by providing the tools and knowledge to find the right direction without a “nudge”. In this I have been very influenced by Dan Meyer’s mantra “Be Less Helpful“. Dan’s blog posts and talks on this topic have really helped me understand why some students have an almost compulsive need to ask me if their answer is correct, and why they can be so reluctant to get started on solving difficult math problems when really, these were the only ones worth trying to solve.
My thinking on this particular topic has also been profoundly impacted by becoming a parent and the opportunity to experience everyday the impact my words and actions have on the way my daughter is growing up. Alfie Kohn has written a very compelling piece called Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” that I think should be required reading for all parents and teachers. His argument is that praise is:
a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do.
I have a suspicion that teachers in particular have difficulty standing back and allowing students to truly wrestle with difficult problems because it is our nature to want our students to succeed and to be able to measure this success. The easiest way to do this is for students to complete a task we set for them, even with a bit of help. We can easily fool ourselves into feeling like we are helping, when in fact what we are helping them with is arbitrary and artificial.
So, this is what I believe. The next step is to turn these beliefs into concrete actions in my classroom.
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