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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Teach Us Something

I continue to be frustrated with kids afraid to try something because they're afraid of being wrong or admitting they are confused - you know, the nodders, the silent ones... They hate taking a risk in front of peers like a terrorist hates freedom. I know it's totally normal and human. I'm just frustrated by my "What do you think? What ideas do you have?" being met with "Can you check if it's right first? What if I'm wrong?" I often give a friendly "So what if you're wrong?" and then some crack about how I won't let M.I.A. take them away on a prison bus even though they have red hair.

Does anyone else do something like this in the first few days of school? Get in a group of 2-4 and tomorrow, your group is going to teach the rest of us something that you are good at. It just has to be something that we can do here in school, that we will be able to try a few times within about 10 minutes. If you need any special equipment, you'll need to bring it.

There are plenty of things that these kids like to do that I'm sure I would be comically awful at. And maybe it will show that it's safe to take a risk and/or admit that you're clueless - that it's really sort of essential if you want to learn from another person. But I also wonder if this is a terrible idea, because I want them to feel safe with me, and throwing them in front of the class within the first few days of school will freak them out.

Has anyone tried something like this? Did it work? Was it a waste of time? Was it awesome or horrible in unexpected ways? Please let me know.

11 comments:

  1. I usually tell something like where would you rather fail- in class where your friends will help or on a test. Eventually they will try.

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  2. I like thinking about ways to establish a sense of supportive community in class - I think it's as important as any of our brilliant math ideas. You're right to think that a friendly comment to decrease pressure here and there won't make shy kids into engaged kids. I also think you're right to be wary of putting kids at the front of the class as a way of making them feel more comfortable.

    This year I've been using small groups (3-4 students) a lot (almost every day for at least 20 minutes), and one of the benefits has been an increased sense of responsibility for answering questions. I assign each student in a group a specific role: you will be the facilitator, you will be the resource manager, etc. While each role is different and important, they all give kids a hook - some specific way to interact with peers and the lesson. They answer the questions for themselves, not for me, and the success rate for bringing more kids into conversation is high.

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  3. I like the topic.

    And I agree that leaving them feeling safe is a concern.

    Here's something I try, with mixed results (I do it year after year because it really does work with about half the kids who won't talk)

    I pull the non-talker aside, or catch them outside of class, tell them that they are not participating sufficiently (this is not where I want a discussion) and tell them that there could be serious consequences for their grade... but... I can make a deal. Put your hand up, it can be just the times you are sure of the answer, and I'll use those times to call on you.

    And I do. And they get used to talking, a little. Sometimes I trick them, and after they've given the right answer (17, for example) sneak in a follow-up: and how did you get 17? or Were you surprised by your answer? or What might have made this tricky for someone else?

    I figure once I have them feeling ok about talking, I can move on to explaining something they are sure they are right about, and eventually, maybe to the harder stuff.

    But for a bunch of kids, even my easy deal doesn't work.

    Jonathan

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  4. I like the topic.

    And I agree that leaving them feeling safe is a concern.

    Here's something I try, with mixed results (I do it year after year because it really does work with about half the kids who won't talk)

    I pull the non-talker aside, or catch them outside of class, tell them that they are not participating sufficiently (this is not where I want a discussion) and tell them that there could be serious consequences for their grade... but... I can make a deal. Put your hand up, it can be just the times you are sure of the answer, and I'll use those times to call on you.

    And I do. And they get used to talking, a little. Sometimes I trick them, and after they've given the right answer (17, for example) sneak in a follow-up: and how did you get 17? or Were you surprised by your answer? or What might have made this tricky for someone else?

    I figure once I have them feeling ok about talking, I can move on to explaining something they are sure they are right about, and eventually, maybe to the harder stuff.

    But for a bunch of kids, even my easy deal doesn't work.

    Jonathan

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  5. I think the behavior speaks to a larger cultural issue of valuing "correctness" rather than embracing the full range of opinions. Even for the "soft" disciplines, like history, there is a strong tendency to say X event caused Y event rather than exploring multiple explanations for why Y occurred.

    It's actually really sad, because teaching kids that being right is the most important thing turns them into adults with all kinds of negative behaviors. You can see this in politicians who will do anything to cover their asses and have completely illogical cognitive biases, because being viewed as "correct" is so much more important than being viewed as "different".

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  6. I like your idea! Good "ice breaker" to get the year started.

    I like Riley's idea, I do something like that in my class also with the groups.

    I've also been making a huge effort to move the class discussions to be amongst the class, not teacher-student-teacher-students, but more student-teacher (maybe) - student-student-student. If someone answers or asks a question, it is their responsibility to look around the class and call on someone who has a response to their idea, and then to listen to the other students' ideas and respond appropriately. It's hard, but it's worth it.

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  7. I have tried an idea very similar to this and I made sure that it was NOT related to math. Unfortunately, it was my experience that the kids did not connect the risk to taking risks in mathematics. Most of them felt comfortable teaching how to fold a crane or how to draw a comic character because they already believed that they were good at it. Consequently, they did not become any more brave within my class.

    Now that's not to say that its not a good idea, because it's more than possible that I didn't scaffold it the right way, but I felt like the exercise performed much better as a simple icebreaker rater than building security and confidence within the classroom.

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  8. I take lessons and tell them about them. A year of guitar lessons and bringing in my guitar worked pretty well, basically because I was terrible. Tennis lessons, Spanish lessons, etc... It's fun for me and it shows them that I have sympathy for people who are bad at things. And it reminds me of how hard it can be to learn something new.

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  9. I second Maestro. My experience is that not being shy of math-risk is independent of other kinds of not being shy.

    I think one of the most critical things for developing a culture of mathematical risk-taking is jumping on it and highlighting it for the class whenever anyone does take a risk, especially if you can point out how this risk advanced the conversation or contributed to somebody's learning. You know, "warrior for your understanding" and all that. Or, if a kid ventures a partial idea that leads to a productive conversation with the class, "what's awesome is that X put forward this idea when it wasn't fully formed yet so all of us had a chance to contribute to it." Or whatever. But I think it's key to have this attitude be a regular part of the class.

    A tangent: I used to think that if you're confused but don't ask a question, this is because you are afraid to look dumb. I have recently learned that there is a whole different reason, even if you are not the slightest bit worried about looking dumb. Which is just that it can feel awkward to hold everything up with a question, even if you are totally certain that other people in the room have the same question.

    I learned this by taking some graduate classes. In my complex analysis class in the fall, the teacher was impatient and unsympathetic to questions and made you feel stupid for asking them. In that room, of course nobody asked a question. But in my topology class, the professor a) welcomes questions at any time even if they interrupt him, b) always treats them as interesting, and c) generally has a good attitude about them. Still, nobody asks any questions. Now I occasionally do, since I am the person in the universe most likely to: having spent years on the teacher side of it, I know the benefit to the class of folks asking something when they're confused, so I'm committed to that. Also, I'm there to learn so I'm not trying to waste my time or money. Also, I have no issues about looking dumb. Also, I am aware that there are other folks in the class who are somewhat confused at any given time and will benefit from my stopping us for a minute and hashing something out. (Again from teaching experience I know what pretending-to-understand looks like; grad students are better at it than middle schoolers but they still can't get one past me, at least when I'm not in the front of the room so can watch them in a relaxed way.)

    And yet I still find it very difficult to ask questions in that class. It's just awkward. The teacher was obviously planning on going on with something; everybody is expecting it to just go on, whether or not they understand; so who am I to insist everybody pay me all this attention? This is especially true if I get my question out the first time but don't find the answer satisfying. It's clearly gonna take some doing to get my question properly understood and I just can't bring myself to insist everybody join me in that.

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  10. I know what you mean, Ben. I've felt the same apprehension, of not wanting to hold everyone up. Especially in a roomful of adults, especially in the late afternoon/evening, when you're making it take longer for them to be able to go home.

    I was thinking about this today as I was re-teaching a few lessons to two students who had to miss a couple classes from the unit for field trips etc. They kept stopping me, and it was awesome. They made me explain things three or four different ways, until they got it. One of them is generally more willing to speak up in class, but the other is not, but when it was just the three of us, they felt no qualms about expressing their understanding and holding out for clarifications.

    I don't know if there's a good way to get that with a bigger group. I do some things that I think help - minimize lecturing, small group/partner practice, get on my rolling chair and scoot around. Those are all really just ways of fracturing the big group into more intimate discussions, though.

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  11. Hmm, if you can get a few who are wiling to speak up, maybe you could do a fishbowl thing, where the inner circle works together to solve a problem, and the outer circle's job is to watch for what sorts of strategies are helpful.

    This video shows a math class using the fishbowl technique, with the outside people looking for evidence of a good discussion. Start at 3:50 for the fishbowl part, but what comes before is good too.

    I imagine after doing something like this a few times, the kids would be more willing to ask questions during lecture.

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