Wednesday, June 16, 2010

kids thinking

We had meetings all day yesterday. I got discouraged. Thinking about the past year has left me a bit deflated. I have grown more confident in my own thinking about teaching mathematics, but remain discouraged about my ability to teach it well.

In the math department meeting yesterday, I heard my colleagues describing how our students simply don't think when we give them mathematics to do. Even when they have all the necessary skills, they don't engage their minds. We were in agreement that this is not because they can't do it. We all believe they absolutely can. I believe that it's one of the things their brains are designed to do naturally. My new idea is that somehow they are not deeply thinking in math class because they haven't found it useful to do so.

I know that I have a tendency to go too hard on myself and my colleagues in moments like this. I asked myself, "Do I want a revolutionary miracle in every class?" If I do, I am probably setting myself up for failure. Is getting kids to use their naturally pattern-seeking powerful minds such a huge demand? What is the part that gets kids really deeply involved, not just taking a class for the sake of passing this adolescent rite of passage?

How do I get kids to value the power of their own thinking?

I remember this day a few weeks ago when I was at a loss of how to teach finding the slope of a line in a way that demanded this from them. Of course I could just show them, and they could do it, no problem. Maybe even some of them would think about what they were doing while they were doing it and notice some patterns and sense in the whole thing. Maybe even they would all be so successful that if I gave them a quiz they would all ace it and I could pat myself on the back feeling very successful because my kids were successful.

I talked with Ben about it and he reminded me: "But it wouldn't be math."

Right. So I'm trying to teach math.

This last year I feel like in many ways I've been doing math for the first time. Truly discovering, playing, exploring and sense-making about actual phenomena. Maybe I just need a little more practice to teach this way well.

I'm looking forward to next year. I will be better at classroom management, at cultivating positive open relationships with kids, at organizing and structuring transparent systems and routines in my classroom, and at unit planning. So I'm excited that having those ducks more in a row might mean that I have more time to think about inviting my kids to really think, figuring out what they are thinking and celebrating and honoring and valuing that so that they do it more.



  1. Hey Jesse - I hate to respond with a book suggestion, I hate when people do that, but you might try What's Math Got to Do with It? by Jo Boaler. It's not like The Ultimate Answer or anything, but it has me excited about the possibilities again for the first time in a while. And it might point you to some pertinent references about engaging kids in effective group work and dialog etc.

    I'm also interested to hear your response to it, because I feel sometimes that she is kind of making stuff up. Like "We gave them some problem-based lessons, and bippity boppity boo, everybody loved math!" That's not a direct quote but that's what it feels like sometimes.

  2. I agree "What's Math Got to Do with It?" is an excellent book. In fact, I recommend it to my parents every year at curriculum night. In the book, Boaler presents the results of her research in very accessible terms for the general public. Complex Instruction, the teaching methodology that her research focuses on, is very difficult to do well. I agree that when reading through case studies and papers, it often seems like magic. What we don't get a good sense for is all of the set-up and training that makes that work possible. Problem-based lessons alone aren't going to do the trick.

    If you are interested in the more detailed ed journal articles that discuss the research methodology, I could provide pointers to those (or I'm sure someone else out here can). Some other articles of interest might be "Fast kids, slow kids, lazy kids: Framing the mismatch problem in mathematics teachers' converstations", "Lessons learned from detracked mathematics departments", and "Why do students drop advanced mathematics?" here.