Monday, June 16, 2014

The Most Influential Blog Post I Read This Year

The most influential blog post I read this year comes from Geoff Krall at emergentmath.com. He wrote it in 2012. It just took me 2 years to discover it. His post titled Seven (Sneaky) Activities To Get Your Students Talking Mathematically not only gave me valuable tools for teaching math, but also made me reflect on my practice and think deeply about the relationship between content and pedagogy.

A little history...

In 2006, fresh out of teacher college, I got my first job at Frank Hurt Secondary. This is the same job I hold today. I started with the brash confidence that comes from the newly graduated, convinced I was about to upend the educational world with my brilliance and creativity.

About halfway through the first semester, a student got out of her seat and took the chalk out of my hand to show me (in front of the whole class) how to correctly do a homework problem that had stumped me. This experience quickly humbled me. I floundered on with a typical first year of teaching, barely keeping my head above water.

In my second year, I took on Physics 11. I borrowed a colleague's course binder and proceeded to use every page of notes and assignments without any alteration. Over the next two years, I adapted and honed the material to make it my own. But my teaching still consisted of 30-40 minute lectures and lots of problem solving practice through worksheets.

It was around this time that two major forces altered my career... Standards-Based Grading and Modelling Instruction. In both physics and math, I made a move towards inquiry learning. I also implemented a learning cycle using SBG where students practiced, assessed, made mistakes and remediated until they mastered concepts. My classroom changed dramatically.

But I still found myself using a lot of the old worksheets for problem solving practice. After an inquiry lab or investigation, students still plowed through problem sets and textbook assignments. Although they used whiteboards, it was little different from 5 years ago.

This is where Geoff's Seven Sneaky Activities changed everything.

One of my personal teaching philosophies is "The more I talk, the less they learn." Whenever I am a part of a conversation in my classroom, it hinders learning. Students are less likely to share their thinking in fear of being wrong. And I am more likely to interrupt the learning with my incessant need to explain everything. Sneaky Activities puts the talking back where it belongs... between students.

But even beyond that, this post got me reflecting about the importance of pedagogical structure in every task. It is far too easy to throw a worksheet at kids and give them whiteboards and call it progressive. How is the whiteboard any different than paper at that point? But a structure like Speed Dating from Kelly O'Shea changes it into a Sneaky Activity and enhances learning.

I am resolved to never just give worksheets or textbook problems again. Every in-class assignment must have a pedagogically sound structure that gets students talking about math and science, sharing their ideas, their reasoning, their misconceptions. Otherwise it's just busy work. And we are missing an amazing opportunity for student learning.

So thanks Geoff for sharing these brilliant ideas. Posts like this change a teacher's career. And impact student learning in an powerful way. 

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