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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Things It Took Me Way Too Long to Learn

When you start in this profession you get plenty of advice... Some of it doesn't make sense at the time, some of it is crap, and some of it sounds good but you don't really get it. These are things that even if I heard them early on, they didn't mean anything until I realized them for myself. The nutty thing is, I will probably have another list that will be obvious after another four years of this.

1. Keep questioning. In the course of one lesson, Year 1 Me would do ten different examples. Year 4 Me asks ten questions about the same example.

2. Sit down. In one scenario, I sit behind them while we all look at, observe, and discuss an image. In another, the kids work while I scoot around in a rolling chair. Most times, anything is preferable to standing in front of them.

3. The best way to have a conversation with a teenager is to stand next to him, as you both stare off into the middle distance.

4. Take the few minutes out of class a few times a week for something fun, interesting, or entertaining, whether or not it's related to your content. It's worth it.

5. It works better if they say it. My best teaching colleagues are 15 years old.

6. If you really want her to do something, give her a choice of 2 things that are acceptable to you. I hear this works with toddlers, too.

7. They care if I like them. I should care if they like me. Not because I want to make a bunch of friends, but because they will work harder and learn more, and my work day is nicer when I get to hang out with people I like.

8. Concrete first, abstract later.

9. Except for summative assessments, always publicize answers. I don't like to answer "Is this right?", ever, if possible.

10. Students practicing a new skill need time for: arguing, comparing conflicting methods, explaining why right methods are right, explaining why wrong methods are wrong, checking, troubleshooting and finding errors, and summarizing their learning. This is why they should have a way to check the answers on their own. This means they might only get through three problems on my sheet of twelve. That's ok.

Ten seems like a nice arbitrary place to stop. I'm sure I'm not telling any of you seasoned vets anything you don't know. This was just on my mind today and I wanted to get it all down.


  1. #5 Never say something a student can say....

    Your list reads like a "best practices in mathematics" text. Nice job!

  2. These are all very good things to learn. I wish they had been emphasized more in "teacher school".

    (and there is a very nice past article in NCTM titled "Never Say Anything A Kid Can Say". Published in 2000, I think).

  3. awesome list - not the totally obvious stuff. the "concrete first, abstract second" thing was my biggest mistake last year.


  4. Going off topic... Sometimes the kids think they are getting over on me. But some of them start to realize... I need a break, every period... they need a break, not because math is bad, but just to refocus. So there we are, every day, off topic at some point, and they think they've distracted me...


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