In class this past week we were lucky enough to have Dave Cormier join us to discuss learning and challenge us to think about the way we teach in our own classrooms. I felt that everything he had to say had a lot of merit and really got me thinking. And by thinking, I mean questioning. During a lot of the discussion I kept thinking “Well that sounds great and all, but how is this possible in my classroom? Especially my math classroom?” So I was challenged to think and after class, I started my search for some answers.
Before I get into my findings, I want to mention something that really stuck with me from his talk. Dave mentioned that in life there are very complex things. Things that don’t have one distinct answer and things that we cannot and do not measure in percentages or grades. For example, I don’t say that today I was a 87% mom, or I scored 53% for eating healthy. We don’t measure life in terms of percentages, so why do we measure something like learning in percentages? Learning is a very complex thing so does it make sense to try measure it in terms of percentages? In recent years we have seen some schools moving towards the elimination of percentages and towards a number system or letter system describing the level of mastery achieved by the student. I do think there is a place in schools for this, but I also think there is a place for numbers and percentages. A concern that we often have is how eliminating grades will affect college or university applications.
I think that universities will have to evolve in order to accommodate students who are learning differently and move away from the traditional type of schooling into a 21st century type of schooling. In The Paradigm Shift in Higher Education, Lucy Stonewall claims that
“higher education will change more in the next ten years than it has in the previous one hundred and fifty.”
Technology is changing education and will continue to do so. Online education has made way for MOOC’s to provide students with their own personal learning experience in which they can collaborate, share and learn from others. These courses have the ability to change higher education making it better suited for differing student needs.
Dave discussed MOOC’s and their ability to provide content and a learning path for students to follow according to their own interests. He also discussed textbooks and questioned why we use them? Aren’t teachers the experts? Shouldn’t we be able to do our jobs without making use of a textbook? This question really got me thinking. In my search to find answers to my questions I came across this article by Shelly Blake-Plock: Increase Student Engagement By Getting Rid of Textbooks. In it he explains why teachers like textbooks: they make our lives easier. However,
“the students do not learn better because my life as a teacher is easier.”
I found this to be a really powerful statement. It is way easier for us to use the textbook to assign students questions or provide them with information. But why don’t we have the students come up with the questions and find the answers. We know students will be more engaged when they are actively involved in their learning.
Another issue that is presented when we think about inquiry based learning or rhizomatic learning is the curriculum. A few other teachers expressed concerns with the curriculum in class the other night and I have the same concerns. I understand that some curricula has changed and is making way for more opportunities for students to become active learners who are able to make choices in their learning process. I have always struggled with letting students lead the way in math because I want to make sure they end up at the outcome they are supposed to. With so much content to cover I worry that they won’t learn the intended outcome and I will have to spend more time teaching them the outcome than originally planned. It is part of my responsibility to make sure they are prepared for the courses that follow them each year in math.
Having this concern I started looking into inquiry based learning and math a little closer. I found the PRIMAS project: Promoting Inquiry Based Learning in Mathematics and Science Education across Europe. Although the document is based out of Europe there is an abundance of useful information. The most interesting part was the description of different inquiry based lessons including open, guided, structured and confirmation exercises. Each of these types of inquiry look different and can be used in different situations (some more fitting than others). I had always thought of (and been taught) that inquiry based learning should be a process in which students decide from start to finish how and what they learn. Usually you give a topic such as the Jurassic Period and students come up with their own learning experience using that topic. I have always had a hard time understanding where and how inquiry like that would find a place in a math classroom. Until I read this document.
After reading the PRIMAS project document I understand that it is possible to have varying degrees of inquiry and it is possible to integrate it into my math class. I also found this website that has a lot of inquiry based activities for math classes. You can select the topics and prompts and give your students the opportunity to think inductively about the question. I will be making use of this when I get back into the classroom.
I sometimes feel things like inquiry, no textbooks and unstructured learning are easier said than done. Between the adaptations, lesson planning, marking, supervising and extracurriculars it can all seem overwhelming so we tend to go with what works. At least it’s what we think works. I think the trick is to start small. Try some smaller activities and work with students to be comfortable with taking control of their own learning. Most of our students just want the answer and are driven by grades so they need to be taught a different way of learning. I think we also need to support other teachers in their journey to change learning. If we all help each other out we will become more comfortable with it and before you know it we will have changed the way we teach. When we change the way we teach we change the way students learn and will be doing a better job of preparing them for the future.