Many thanks to Ben Spencer and his fifth-grade students at Beach Elementary for letting me learn with them on Friday.
In most of my classroom visits lately, I am trying to identify moments where the class and I are drafting our thinking, where we aren’t looking to reach an answer but to grow more sophisticated and more precise in our thinking. Your classmates are an asset rather than an impediment to you in those moments because the questions they ask you and the observations they make about your work can elevate your thinking into its next draft. (Amanda Jansen’s descriptions of Rough-Draft Thinking are extremely helpful here.)
From my limited experience, the preconditions for those moments are a) a productive set of teacher beliefs, b) a productive set of teacher moves, and c) a productive mathematical task – in that order of importance. For example, I’d rather give a dreary task to a teacher who believes one can never master mathematical understanding, only develop it, than give a richer task to a teacher who believes that a successful mathematical experience is one in which the number on the student’s paper matches the number in the answer key.
A productive task certainly helps though. So today, we worked with Bucky the Badger, a task I’d never taught with students before.
We learned that Bucky the Badger has to do push-ups every time his football team scores. His push-ups are always the same as the number of points on the board after the score. That’s unfortunate because push-ups are the worst and we should hope to do fewer of them rather than more.
Maybe you have a strong understanding of the relationship between points and push-ups right now but the class and I needed to draft our own understanding of that relationship several times.
I asked students to predict how many push-ups Bucky had to perform in total. Some students decided he performed 83, the total score of Bucky’s team at the end of the game. Several other students were mortified at that suggestion. It conflicted intensely with their own understanding of the situation.
I wanted to ask a question here that was interpretive rather than evaluative in order to help us draft our understanding. So I asked, “What would need to be true about Bucky’s world if he performed 83 push-ups in total?” The conversation that followed helped different students draft and redraft their understanding of the context.
They knew from the video that the final score was 83-20. I told them, “If you have everything you need to know about the situation, get to work, otherwise call me over and let me know what you need.”
Not every pair of students wondered these next two questions, but enough students wondered them that I brought them to the entire class’s attention as Very Important Thoughts We Should All Think About:
- Does the kind of scores matter?
- Does the order of those scores matter?
I told the students that if the answer to either question was “yes,” that I could definitely get them that information. But I am very lazy, I said, and would very much rather not. So I asked them to help me understand why they needed it.
Do not misunderstand what we’re up to here. The point of the Bucky Badger activity is not calculating the number of push-ups Bucky performed, rather it’s devising experiments to test our hypotheses for both of those two questions above, drafting and re-drafting our understanding of the relationship between points and push-ups. Those two questions both seemed to emerge by chance during the activity, but they contain the activity’s entire point and were planned for in advance.
To test whether or not the kind of scores mattered, we found the total push-ups for a score of 21 points made up of seven 3-point scores versus three 7-point scores. The push-ups were different, so the kind of scores mattered! I acted disappointed here and made a big show of rummaging through my backpack for that information. (For the sake of this lesson, I am still very lazy.) I told them Bucky’s 83 points were composed of 11 touchdowns and 2 field goals.
Again, I said, “If you have everything you need to know about the situation to figure out how many push-ups Bucky did in the game, get on it, otherwise call me over and let me know what you need.” The matter was still not settled for many students.
To test whether or not the order of the scores mattered, one student wanted to find out the number of push-ups for 2 field goals followed by 11 touchdowns and then for 11 touchdowns followed by 2 field goals. Amazing! “That will definitely help us understand if order matters,” I said. “But what is the one fact you know about me?” (Lazy.) “So is there a quicker experiment we could try?” We tried a field goal followed by a touchdown and then a touchdown followed by a field goal. The push-ups were different, so now we knew the order of the scores mattered.
I passed out the listing of the kinds of scores in order and students worked on the least interesting part of the problem: turning given numbers into another number.
I looked at the clock and realized we were quickly running out of time. We discussed final answers. I asked students what they had learned about mathematics today. That’s when a student volunteered this comment, which has etched itself permanently in my brain:
A problem can change while we’re figuring it out. Our ideas changed and they changed the question we were asking.
We had worked on the same problem for ninety minutes. Rather, we worked on three different drafts of the same problem for ninety minutes. As students’ ideas changed about the relationship between push-ups and points, the problem changed, gaining new life and becoming interesting all over again.
Many math problems don’t change while we’re figuring them out. The goal of their authors, though maybe not stated explicitly, is to prevent the problem from changing. The problem establishes all of its constraints, all of its given information, comprehensively and in advance. It tries to account for all possible interpretations, doing its best not to allow any room for any misinterpretation.
But that room for interpretation is exactly the room students need to ask each other questions, make conjectures, and generate hypotheses – actions that will help them create the next draft of their understanding about mathematics.
We need more tasks that include that room, more teacher moves that help students step into it, and more teacher beliefs that prepare us to learn from whatever students do there.
2018 May 23. Amanda Jansen contributes to category of “productive teacher beliefs”:
Doing mathematics is more than answer-getting.
Everyone’s mathematical thinking can constantly evolve and shift. Continually. There is no end to this.
Everyone’s current mathematical thinking has value and can be built upon.
An important role of teachers is to interpret students’ thinking before evaluating it. Holding off on evaluating and instead engaging in negotiating meaning with students supports their learning. And teacher’s learning.
Everyone learns in the classroom. Teachers are learning about students’ thinking and their thinking about mathematics evolves as they make sense of kids’ thinking.
The list goes on, but I’m reflecting on some of the beliefs that are underlying the ideas in this post.