Halfway through my curriculum design workshops, I ask teachers to share their “secret skepticisms.” These are the sort of objections to new ideas that often take the form, “That would never work in my class because …. ” They share them anonymously in a Google Form before lunch.
The secret skepticisms came back in Phoenix two weeks ago and these four were easy to group together:
This process assumes every student wants to learn or has the motivation to learn.
How do I get students to buy-in when they struggle with any problem solving skills at all?
What if my kids don’t know enough math to be engaged?
This approach is very compelling but this lesson will have additional challenges with students who could care less about getting involved. It is difficult getting any engagement by students who have little interest.
These responses were troubling. They seemed to emerge simultaneously from a deficit model of student thinking (ie. students lack engagement in the things we think they should be engaged in) and a fixed model of student intelligence (ie. these students are unengageable and that’s just the way it is).
Neither idea is true, of course.
What is true is that after years and years of being asked questions every day, students may find it odd to be asked to pose their own. After years and years of associating “math class” with a narrow range of skills like computation, memorization, solution, they may find it odd when you try to expand that range to include estimation, abstraction, argumentation, criticism, formulation, or modeling. After years and years of acclimating themselves to their math teacher’s low expectations for their learning, they may find your high expectations odd.
They may even resist you. They signed their “didactic contract” years and years ago. They signed it. Their math teachers signed it. The agreement says that the teacher comes into class, tells them what they’re going to learn, and shows them three examples of it. In return, the students take what their teacher showed them and reproduce it twenty times before leaving class. Then they go home with an assignment to reproduce it twenty more times.
Then here you come, Ms. I-Just-Got-Back-From-A-Workshop, and you want to change the agreement? Yeah, you’ll hear from their attorney.
“But it’s tough to start something this new in April,” a participant said.
That’s true. For similar reasons, it’s tough to start something new in a student’s ninth year of school. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. Thousands of teachers successfully change their practice mid-year and mid-career. Luckily, there are also steps we can take to acclimate our students gradually to new ways of learning math.
Here are three of them:
- Model curiosity. I asked some kind of miscellaneous question on every opener. The questions weren’t mathematical. (eg. How much does an average American wedding cost? What’s the highest recorded temperature in Alaska?) I pulled them from different published books of miscellaneous facts and figures. This cost me very little classroom time and bought me quite a lot. It benefited my classroom management but it also built general, all-purpose curiosity into our classroom routine. That helps enormously when it comes to mathematical modeling where we’re telling students that we welcome their curiosity.
- Ask the question, “What questions do you have?” Show any image or video from the top ten of 101questions. At the longest, this will take you one minute. Then ask them to write down the first question that comes to their mind. Take another minute to poll the crowd for their responses. (I model one polling procedure in this video.) This will also help your students to become more inquisitive and it will demonstrate that you prize their inquisitiveness.
- Make estimation part of your daily routine. Modeling takes place on a cycle that runs from the very concrete to the very abstract and back again. Typically, we drop students halfway into the cycle with all kinds of abstract representations (formulas, line drawings, graphs) already given. Give your students more experience with concrete aspects of modeling like estimation by taking an image or video from Andrew Stadel’s Estimation 180 project and showing it to your students at the end of class. Ask them to write down a guess. Poll their guesses. Find out who has the highest guess and the lowest guess. Then show the answer.
Your students will come to understand you prize curiosity in general and their curiosity in particular. They’ll understand that mathematics comprises more than the intellectual hard tack and gruel they’ve been served for years. At that point, you can help walk them through activities involving estimation, abstraction, argumentation, criticism, formulation, modeling, and more, aware that each of your students can be engaged in challenging mathematics, that none of them is unengageable.
Corny as it sounds, don’t give up. The first and second and tenth attempt at -whatever it is that’s a very different approach in your class – a 3Act, a project, a whatever it is — is probably going to either fall flat or fail spectacularly. The kids might get mad and weirdly uncooperative. Things might happen that you didn’t anticipate and don’t have the skills to handle. You aren’t going to get good at planning them until you get some experience planning them. You’re going to suck at this for a while. [..] You need to keep stretching the rubber band over and over until it loosens up and doesn’t snap back all the way.