One of my major goals this year is to stop talking so much. Even in my tenth year, I still spend far too much time explaining, questioning, and presenting in front of the class.
The nature of this talking has changed a lot though. When I first started teaching, it was almost all explaining. That’s what I thought good teaching was all about – if you could just explain it the right way, then everyone would get the concept you are teaching, right? A perfect lesson consisting of a perfect development, a perfect explanation of all concepts, perfect example problems, and perfect students. This is how I looked at it during my summer training, and before I got into my classroom.
That changed pretty quickly once I actually got started. Explanations were important, but more important was getting students to be somehow involved. My coaching from administration was focused on good questioning over talking and explaining as a way to do this, so I put a lot of energy into this during my first couple years, and it has since stuck.
The problem is that I am often addicted to asking questions when it’s really time for students to get working and thinking on their own. I can ask questions like crazy, which might have really impressed administrators in my room at one time, but it probably infuriated (and still infuriates) my students to no end. As good of a question I could have asked, they were still just sitting there thinking and not doing any active learning on their own. Furthermore, when the one or two students do answer a question I ask, it isn’t necessarily a real indication of what thinking is going on in the heads of the other students in the room. Students who self select to participate make for a bad sample for the level of understanding in the rest of the room.
The technique to address poor participation (as pushed by my administration in my first couple years) was to cold call students. This is a bad sample in the other direction – pushing a student to go from full listening mode to full participation mode with the rest of students is not an effective way to make dialogue an important part of what goes on in your classroom every day. This is especially the case for students that have poor self esteem about math in the first place. Good conversation is rarely one or two to many. When was the last time you saw twenty people actively involved in a discussion? Why would you really try to get that going in a classroom when it doesn’t work for a room full of adults at a faculty meeting?
In reality, real learning doesn’t look like a kid staring into space pondering a good question. It involves experimenting, testing a theory, writing down an idea and trying it out. It involves taking what you have produced out of your own thinking and getting active and reliable feedback.
Back to my main point – I am attempting this year to put any direct instruction for a particular day’s lesson in two minute video chunks, and limiting the number of these to no more than four per day. A few really nice things have happened since doing this:
- I’m putting a lot of thought into exactly which ideas are best left to video or direct instruction, and which ideas will come out through conversation and the activities. Some things are better taught in a big group, I’m not going to deny this to be the case. Some things are better learned one-on-one, and thinking about the difference has really changed the way I organize the activities for the day.
- My students are spending a lot less time listening to me, and more time engaged in the videos and what I ask them to do. The videos sometimes include straight example problems, but I try to include a couple things for students to actually do, write down, or talk about with the person next to them as they watch. The conversations that students have during the videos are really rich (and remarkably on-topic), and are so much more useful than having me tell them things while they stare at me.
- I can do other things while they are working on the activities I give them. I can see how they are watching the video and make suggestions on things they should be writing down. I can test their knowledge by asking one-on-one questions and get a really good sense for the level of understanding for each student. I can look at quizzes I gave at the beginning of the period, make comments on them, and have a conversation with the students about their work before the end of the period! The quality of my interaction with students has been much higher than before, which has resulted in larger amounts of quality feedback. That is really the goal here.
- My ESOL students are loving it. They can take time with vocabulary, which is the hard part for them, and make note of the mathematics concepts at the same time. Some students are using the videos to create their own glossaries in other languages. I’ve always suggested that students do this, but until now, I haven’t seen them do it so well, let alone of their own volition.
- The learning in my room is messier than ever before – everyone is at different points and is having different conversations. There are papers all over the place. Students are crowded around tables working and are facing all different directions. Seeing this sort of thing happen my first year would have meant that this was a spent lesson, that I had lost them. Here, it just looks like (and is so far proving to me) good learning experiences for students.
This post is partly in response to one of the new blogger prompts about what I want my students to remember ten years down the road. I really don’t care if they remember how to factor quadratics. Moving to a more student-centered learning model though has made the students in charge of making sure they understand what they are learning. I would love if students tell me in ten years that they learned how to learn something new in my class. Real learning is messy, and actually doing math (not watching), making mistakes and growing from feedback is part of the game. There’s not as much room for that in the more traditional math structure of “I-Do,We-do,You-do” model because the last part is where the real learning happens. Maximizing that part (and simultaneously providing ways for that feedback to happen) is the real meat of teaching, and it’s where I am focusing my energy this year.
Here’s to keeping it going as long as possible!