Monday, April 7, 2014

Students Dislike Independent Learning

When Young Children Hate School by wecometolearn
One of the biggest complaints that I get from students who come back from university to visit is that I don't force them to learn on their own enough. So today I tried to get my grade 12 Data Management class to learn on their own from the textbook. In doing so, I was reminded why I don't do it very often. Students hate it!

I started today by letting my class know about the feedback I have received from former students. We talked about how being able to learn on your own is a valuable skill. I provided a few pointers on how to pull out important information and then let them work.

I saw varied levels of participation. Some students were blindly copying definitions, others skipped right to the assigned work without reading and some didn't do much of anything.

Some of the comments I heard were:

"Can't you just teach us?"
"Why do I need to do this. I'm not taking math in university?"
"As I read this I don't remember anything."

I should point out that the content being covered wasn't difficult, which is why I chose to make this section independent. The barrier wasn't the content. It was the reading. Not that they can't read but that they'd rather not read.

I feel like reading to gather information is a valuable skill, in all aspects of life. I'd like to help my students become better at it, but today was very painful (for them and for me). What strategies do you use to help students get better at learning from a book?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Group Test

Last semester I taught the Grade 12 Advanced Functions course. It seemed that every time a test approached a student would ask if they could write the test as a class. We all had a good laugh then inevitably someone would ask if they could write in groups instead. Needless to say the entire class thought this would be a good idea. I dismissed the idea on a number of occasions explaining how it would be difficult to have a good sense of who knew what in a group. My students, however, were very persistent and would ask every time a test was nearing. 

On the second last test of the year (just before the Christmas holidays) a student asked if they could write their test as a group. I jokingly said "Sure" and a student immediately replied "Really?". When I told my students I was just kidding they provided a lot of reasons why such a test would be a good idea, in the hopes of getting me to change my mind. I let them know that I would think about it for a bit and get back to them; possibly a strategy for delivering a delayed "No".

As I thought about it I had a lot of questions about logistics for this possible test. They included:

1. What would such a test look like? Surely it couldn't be a regular test that students worked on in a group.

2. How will the groups be determined? Self-assigned? Teacher assigned?

3. How many students should be in a group?

4. What happens if some group members aren't pulling their weight?

5. Do students hand in one test each or one test as a group? Do they get the same mark or different marks?

6. Is this a bad way to prepare students for University?

Some of these questions and their possible solutions occupied my thoughts for several days before I had the courage to go ahead with it. I figured that if things didn't work out I could always call it a test review and give a traditional test afterwards.

Here are the answers that I came up with to the above questions.

1. The test should be less knowledge based (although there were still some knowledge questions) and should be more heavily focused on thinking and problem solving. The knowledge would show up as part of the problem solving.

2. I decided to let students choose their own groups and as it turns out students tended to group themselves by ability level, which is probably how I would have grouped them.

3. I went with three students in a group. I felt that this would allow for some good discussions while not allowing anyone to sit back and do nothing.

4. This is not that different from any other type of group work (assignment, presentation, etc.). The difference is that here I was able to watch to see who contributed what. It would have been possible for me to assign different marks based on the participation, which I didn't do.

5. Students handed in one test and received the same mark.

6. Perhaps, but it was only one test. Besides, is my goal to prepare students for university or for life beyond university? I would guess that once out of school most of these students will do far more collaborative work than they will test writing. Shouldn't I be preparing them for that as well?

Here are some things that I observed:
  • There was no anxiety as students entered the class.
  • There were some great discussions happening the entire time
  • There was some learning going on during the test. Students who didn't understand didn't just let their group do the work, they were trying to understand it.
  • There were no questions that were left blank.
  • Students seemed to be enjoying the test.
  • Students reported that the time just flew by.
  • We had a modified schedule the day of the test. Our class was shorter than normal but I told the class that they were welcome to stay into lunch if they wanted to. Most stayed for the period and most of lunch. I was amazed that nobody just wanted to leave.
Here are a few comments that I heard during the test:
  • After some discussion with the group..."I think I understand this now"
  • S1:"That works!" S2: "Yeah it does." S3: "We've got it!"
  • "YES! That's it."
  • "I love this test. It's great to communicate."
  • A student to me: "Can you tell me...?" Me: S:"Maybe I'll ask my group."
The test was a big hit among students. They said afterwards that they felt less stressed, they really enjoyed bouncing ideas off one another and wished that all tests could be done in the same way. From my point of view it was a great experience as well. Students were totally immersed in the work, there were lots of great discussions and the atmosphere in the class was very pleasant. It almost felt like a coffee shop, a productive coffee shop.

How did the students do? I would say that they performed at about the same level they normally would despite the test being more challenging than a typical test I would give. My hope is that by the end of the test they came away knowing more than had they written a regular test. I didn't measure this but I suppose a regular test after the fact might have provided some insight.

This is certainly something that I will try again. 


Friday, February 28, 2014

Student Voice

I'm a Sunflower by Mo Costandi
One of the big ideas in education now seems to be "student voice". My understanding is (and trust me I'm no expert) that if we allow students to voice their interest and allow them to follow those interests that they will be more engaged in their learning. I guess the thinking is that students have had a hand in deciding what to do and as a result are more likely to take ownership of their learning. I don't disagree with this idea in theory but I witnessed two incidents this week that make me think that the execution is often flawed.

Earlier in the week I attended a meeting of teachers and administrators. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss student engagement. As the meeting went on it seemed to focus on students voice. The thinking was if we let students learn about things that interest them they will be more engaged. As I said earlier, I don't disagree with the statement but I do think there are constraints in place that don't allow this idea to work. The two biggest constraints are likely time and a prescribed curriculum. On a smaller scale, one member of the group mentioned the fact that teachers are supposed to be posting learning goals for the day. How can a teacher post a learning goal if the students are deciding what they are learning about? The response from another member of the group was that the teacher could ask for ideas then steer the students toward the intended goal for the day. I'm certainly not an expert in student voice but it seems to me that by giving students a pseudo-voice the absolute best we can hope for is pseudo-engagement. This is a far cry from true engagement.

The second instance of student voice that came to my attention this week was in at my son's school. My son, who is in grade one, came home one day this week and told us they were going to learn about the sun. He said that the class shared all kinds of ideas they wanted to learn about with respect to the sun. I was pretty excited to hear this since he loves space and science. He wasn't excited. When I asked him why his response was that the teacher decided they were going to do an experiment where grow plants in different light conditions. I thought perhaps this was more pseudo-voice, but perhaps my son was just upset that his idea wasn't chosen. When my wife was at the school this week she happened to talk to another grade 1 teacher and discovered they were doing the same experiment. When my wife expressed surprise about both classes using their voice to come up with the same experiment the teacher's response was something along the lines of "Well, we kind of guide them to it". Pseudo-voice.

Don't get me wrong, I think the experiment is a great idea and I think my son would have really enjoyed it had the teacher said "This is what we're going to do". But I think there was some other topic that he would have rather explored and now he's disappointed the teacher is "making us do an experiment". It's amazing to me that evan at the age of 6 students are able to see what is going on.

Please note that I mean no disrespect to the teachers mentioned above. They are simply doing what is being asked of them while still working within their constraints.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Student Generated Test Review

I had a bit of extra time in my grade 9 class as my students had mostly finished the review they were working on before the end of the period.  As I thought about how I could fill the time, it occurred to me that my students had little experience in trying to figure out what was going to be on a test.

I decided that I would have them work in groups of 4 to come up with good questions for a test. In addition to a question they needed to work out a solution to their problem. I expected to get a lot of knowledge type questions (calculate, graph, etc.). I did get some of those questions but I also had some great thinking questions. I was very excited that some groups came up with 'how' or 'why' questions. Some of the questions were so good I wished that I hadn't made up the test yet. They would have made good test questions. We shared the questions with the class so that everyone could work on them. Perhaps next time I will have to give this type of work a little earlier in the unit and give students class time to work on solutions.

As a bonus, the activity forced students to work on their vocabulary. The questions had to be clear enough so that everyone understood.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Great Start (So Far)



We have just completed the second day of the semester and I'm having a blast.
I've changed my routine a little(see my previous post) and I have managed to make some changes that are hopefully for the better.

My students are sitting in groups and we've started to develop a collaborative environment that will hopefully continue to grow. Students are not only sharing their work with their groups but with the entire class.

We've looked at some low floor/high ceiling problems and we've spent much longer on those problems than I had anticipated. Longer because students were generally interested in the work they were doing and I felt bad pressing one. My students seem to enjoy the work we've been doing and they seem curious about the problems we've looked at.

I haven't covered any curriculum yet but I'm hoping the time we've spent on developing a good classroom environment will pay dividends in the long run. I know that it has only been two days but I'm hoping for more great classes.

Here are some highlights from today:


  •  Had five student stay at lunch to share how they solved a problem I gave towards the end of the period
  • Heard "I feel so smart"
  • Heard "I love finding patterns"
  • Heard "Can't we just take notes and memorize them?"


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hoping to Suck a Little Less

Creative Commons Licensed photo by Flickr user benjamin_scott_florin
After five months off I'm getting ready to start teaching again. Over the course of the past five months I've thought, read and learned a lot about teaching math. I've read a lot of blog posts by amazing math teacher. I took Jo Boaler's How to Teach Math course. The one thing that I kept noticing is that there are a ton of great teachers doing amazing things in their classrooms. Which led me to the questions: why am I not doing these great things? Why is my teaching sub-par? Although I didn't have any answers for these questions I've decided to step it up a little this year. I don't claim that I'm going to be amazing this year but if I can suck a little less that's a move in the right direction.

What do I want for my students?

Comfort: I want my classroom to be a place where students are comfortable making conjectures, thinking outloud and sharing their ideas, even especially if they are wrong. Learning from our mistakes will be very important

Number Sense: I want students to develop better number sense so that they can make sense of the world around them and check to see if their solutions make sense. I'm hoping to working on number sense by using estimation180.com and visualpatterns.org on a regular, if not daily basis.

Collaboration: I want my students to share their thinking and reasoning. I want them to help one another and to learn from each other.

Enjoy Math: My hope is that by doing the above students will enjoy math a little more, be actively involved and hopefully seek out mathematics in the world around them.

To all the great math teachers out their doing great thing: thanks for the inspiration.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Financial Math and RESPs

Creative Commons Licensed photo by Flickr user Meddygarnet
One of my favourite areas of math to teach is financial math. I like teaching it for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that it's something that all students will be able to use at some point in their lives, hopefully in the near.  For most students it's the most useful math they will learn in high school. The other big reason that I enjoy it is that you're learning about money. Who doesn't get excited about making money.

Although I like teaching about money, I would say that my students tend to be for a day or two but they loose interest (no pun intended) once things get complicated, abstract or not so relevant. There are lots of calls for improving financial literacy in Ontario. The trouble is that every student in the province gets a taste of financial math (in grade 11) but somehow what they learn doesn't seem to translate to their own lives. This could be because for many students the idea of buying a home, leasing a car or having a credit card seems so far off and so far removed from their day to day lives that it's almost irrelevant.

When I teach the financial components of the courses I cover the curriculum, extend it a little and generally try to make it interesting. Some of my students seem very interested, some mildly amused and others seem to not be interested at all. To add a little excitement we talk a bit about their plans for post secondary education. We talk about how they will pay for it and we talk a little about Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). Still not much interest. Maybe financial planning for two years down the road may not be exciting for them.

I've decided to put a quick guide to RESPs here for any of my students who may be interested but also for ALL parents of school aged children (or younger) in Canada.


RESPs, RESPs, RESPs - take advantage of them early

The Canadian government wants to encourage Canadians to save for post secondary education. As such they offer Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). To begin an RESP go to the bank, setup an account and then start making contributions (go ahead, do it now, I'll wait). Once you have the account you can begin contributing and saving for your child's education. The best part is that the government provides a grant for money that you contribute. If you contribute up to $2500, the government will kick in 20%. That's an immediate, guaranteed 20% return on investment, leaps and bounds above any other guaranteed investment. Now invest the grant and your contribution to earn even more. You are allowed to invest more than $2500/year but you won't get grant money for contributions beyond the $2500 (unless you're 'catching up'). If you can't contribute the maximum amount some years, you can catch up later by contributing up to $5000/year (if you want to get the maximum grant). If you wait too long you won't be able to get caught up on missed grant money. When the money is withdrawn from the RESP the grant money and the growth is taxed at the child's rate. The principal contributed is not taxed since the contributions were made with after tax dollars.

So the best way to get the most out of an RESP is to contribute the maximum $2500 (per child)/ year. The government will contribute a guaranteed 20% (or $500). Invest your the money and repeat. I know that money is tight and making these contributions can be difficult but the long term gain is huge. It's too good not do. The worst case scenario is that you end up setting aside a little money for your child's future and you've received some grant money from the government to help out. The best case scenario is that the grant money plus the growth over time are enough to pay for school. Your child benefits and you get your contributions back. Hello retirement slush fund!!!!

What are you waiting for? Go open an account now and start contributing $2500/year, or whatever you can. Get caught up later if you need to. Go! Go! Go! Don't wait!