Inspired by the latest installment from Steven Dubner and Steve Levitt, Think Like a Freak, in this series I consider what it might mean to Teach Like a Freak. In part 1, I took up the idea of experimentation and how I am currently experimenting with my teaching. In part 2, I examine two other ideas from Think Like a Freak, targeting small problems and thinking like a child.
Dubner and Levitt make the point that it often makes sense to target small problems, even if your goal is to solve a large problem. Thinking as a teacher, I think there are times when we can be overwhelmed by the obstacles our students face, both inside and outside the classroom. I think targeting small problems can help a teacher focus and make manageable, lasting changes. As I described in part 1, I am experimenting with regular use of Interactive Engagement questions in my Transition to Proof class. The reason I am doing this is that I felt that it was often difficult to get discussions of student presentations going, and I have been seeking ways to get more lively discussion and broader participation from students.
Another problem I have targeted is attendance. Students in my classes are absent or late at much higher rates than I would like. Over time, I have tried a number of tactics to solve this problem. I have had maximum allowable absences, which did not work for me, since I did not want to further deduct from students’ grades when (because they missed classes!) they were already in a position where their chances of passing the class were low. Another tactic that I have used with some success is contacting students (via email) when they miss class. Generally, I tell absentees, “We missed you in class,” I may let them know what the next assignment is, and I encourage them to contact me if they wish. My sense is that students get the message that their attendance matters. Of course, I have not experimented (!) to see if I can document the impact of this practice. This semester, I have students submitting responses to IE questions online, and am counting that as part of their grade. Some of the points for those questions are just for submitting a response, so I have effectively made attendance a small part of the grade. I am tracking daily attendance to see if there is an impact. Right now, I still feel like a lot of people are late, but absences seem under control.
Again stepping back to the larger picture, the main idea of this discussion is to look at teaching not as one monolithic challenge, but as a set of smaller problems, and then to tackle them, either separately or together.
The authors also present the idea that one should think like a child, meaning that a child is not afraid of wild ideas. A child is not bound by the conventional wisdom. As an example of this idea, there is a current movement called Statway, developed by Carnegie (http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/statway) and the Dana Center, that aims to serve students who would otherwise be in a yearlong sequence of developmental mathematics, and instead give them a semester of developmental mathematics plus an additional course tackling issues not directly about mathematics content (for instance, developing students with the mindset that they can get smarter), and then putting them into a college level statistics course. This certainly seems unconventional on the face of it. The most common response to students struggling in mathematics is to blame their prior knowledge. The Statway approach is to treat students within the larger framework of their approach to learning, and to address those issues. Although I have not seen a lot of data, from what I know, Statway is showing promise.
In education, especially higher education, we can be victims of our own success. We are the ones who succeeded in education, so it can be especially hard to challenge the norms that, very often, with which we are enculturated. It takes effort to get outside our own perspective, but it can be done. As a recent post from Grant Wiggins (http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/a-veteran-teacher-turned-coach-shadows-2-students-for-2-days-a-sobering-lesson-learned/) demonstrates, one way is to shadow a student. If this is not practical, even carrying on a casual conversation with a student outside of class can offer insights into ways we could be better at helping students learn. Statway is an example of finding a way to make a difference by thinking unconventionally. We in academia are proud of our intelligence, innovativeness, and originality, but we need to widen our focus to those areas that have become accepted, and thus, not questioned, if we are to make strides in helping students.
So, to my fellow educators, get your freak on! Try new ideas, and tackle those small problems.