Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Teach Like a Freak, Part 2

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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Teach Like a Freak, Part One

Inspired by the latest installment from Steven Dubner and Steve Levitt, Think Like a Freak, in this two-part series I consider what it might mean to Teach Like a Freak. In part 1, I take up the idea of experimentation and how I am currently experimenting with my teaching.

One of the central premises of Think Like a Freak is that one should be willing to experiment, and to make decisions based on the data gathered. For quite a long time, I have been teaching using inquiry-based learning (IBL), a mode of instruction in which students are the focus of classroom activity, deeply engaged in collaboratively making sense of the content. Evidence has been mounting that IBL specifically (http://www.nctm.org/publications/article.aspx?id=42527) and active learning more generally (http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.abstract) are more effective than lecture across multiple outcomes. At the same time, I have been reading research about Interactive Engagement (http://www.ams.org/notices/201308/rnoti-p1018.pdf), and have been experimenting with trying to blend IE with IBL. The question for me is how to structure my class to take maximum advantage of these approaches. To force myself to take this question seriously, I promised to speak about what I learned at the JMM 2015 in San Antonio. 

Last year, when I taught Transition to Proof, I had made a handful of IE questions, but class time was spent mostly on students presenting their work, and our discussions of those presentations, and a little bit of pair work. What I am doing this semester is using IE questions every week, which means about 15-25 minutes out of 150 minutes are spent on these short questions, with the rest of the time being spent the same way as last year. So, my goal is to compare the two classes in their understanding and skill in writing proof. The next step is to decide how to assess the impact of blending IBL with IE. This involves deciding what to measure. Another issue is that, once I decide on appropriate measures, it can be difficult to get good comparative data. For purposes of assessing impact, I do not have two classes running simultaneously with which to carefully set up a comparison. The best I can do is to use the data I still have from last year’s class. More specifically, in the previous year's course, I had tried a handful of IE questions, and so I have the results from those as well as exam scores for that class. The key component of my assessment, then, is to compare student exam performance last year to the performance this year, when I am using IE questions on a weekly basis. I do not claim that this will give me a definitive answer, but at least it will be a start. Another thing I have been doing is keeping track of participation in whole class discussions, so that I can compare the number of participants in discussions on IE days with discussions on non-IE days. Although counting the number of participants in whole-class discussion is a somewhat superficial measure, it gives me some quantification of how things run differently with the IE questions. If it seems that students are benefiting from more IE questions, I will keep making time for them in class.

Backing away from the specifics of this question, one thing that I have decided to do with courses that I teach regularly is to keep results of exams broken down by question. The reason for this is that I often modify exams from year to year, and so exam scores from year to year are not directly comparable, but there will be questions that are directly comparable. Another thing that I am learning to do is to keep a log of each class day’s activity. This way, in addition to evidence of student learning, I have a record of the kinds of interactions that occurred in class meetings. Together, these provide two kinds of data that help me to know whether what I am doing is working. Although I have always modified my teaching over time, by Teaching Like a Freak, I can hope to have evidence of whether the changes are making a positive impact.

In part 2, I will take up two other ideas from Think Like a Freak, targeting small problems and thinking like a child.