Saturday, May 2, 2015

Letting Math Students Drive the Car

One of the most amazing experiences I had, once I started driving, was getting lost on routes that were very familiar to me. I quickly realized that sitting in a passenger seat and observing whether the route was correct, or not, was not the same skill as driving the car, myself, in the correct sequence.

When I began to have the opportunity to teach regularly, it occurred to me that the same was true of the difference in comprehension behind analyzing questions--and constructing them. I began to ask middle school students to construct test questions, in lieu of answering them, or to create the questions for a unit quiz. I often ask students to work in teams because they teach each other as they demonstrate their individual approaches to completing a task. It's always better to have more tools in the toolbox.

Currently, I'm providing remedial support and enrichment in an after school program funded by the state. During their regular daytime classes, my elementary students are working on learning how to do two part math problems, problems that require two different operational steps. This is what happened this last week.

I teamed students up in threes. We wrote down all the possible pairs of the four operations on the board and I asked them to choose a pair and work together to write their own two part math problem.

Each small group presented their problem to the class for solving, and I wrote the equations on the board, as the class articulated them. We got done, I thought it was enough, especially for the first time and the time of day. It was nearly 5pm! "Nooo!," they yelled out, "This is FUN!" "We want to do MORE!"

So, they wrote more and better. I said that one of the operations had to be multiplication, this time, and this time the team also took over writing the equation, as they presented to the class. They learned quite a bit when the equation would reveal an error in their writing, or a lack of clarity.* They were very creative, including their own names and interests in the problems. I shared with their daytime teachers and their faces lit up--let's try that!

I felt that constructing their own problems would help them to more easily distinguish the separate steps and the necessary vs. unnecessary information in the problems they must solve. It's the difference between sitting in the back seat, and finally driving the car.

*This is also a language arts assignment that naturally supports the development of detailed and accurate writing, something they are also currently working on.