Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Design Thinkers: Engaging Kids in Math

As part of my district job in finding interesting practices going on in classrooms, I came across some your designers in Pam’s class.

Pam is working on her PhD in engaging elementary students in Math.  She believes that by activating the affective parts of students’ learning personality, we can engage students’ cognition of Math. 

When I went to visit Pam’s class one morning, the students were working on a Math project in Shape and Space that was addressing all the regular curriculum goals.   Their task was to think of a possible building and a problem that building solved.  Here are some of the ideas students had:ph 007


  • A boy came up with an igloo design (right) for a restaurant franchise he created.  The top part of the dome was glass to let in natural daylight, and at night it was augmented by rainbow lights.



  • One girl offered a house on a bridge because it gave privacy.  The house was situated on a cliff and bridge could be reeled in.  The house was octagonal so that each room had its own section.


  • Another girl offered a spiral staircase design (below) that went through the centre of an art gallery.  There were branches that extended off the staircase to access each floor which housed a different artist.     
  • ph 003  ph 004


  • One boy’s idea was to have a gas station with a series of ramps (below).  The ramps would maximize the amount of pumps you could have in a small area.  Some of the overhead ramps could be used for a quick oil change. 
  • ph 010

In their write-ups, students talked about use of shape, symmetry, function, and design.


I asked the students, if they did not have any ideas of their own, to design me an projector cart that did not move until I wanted it to (because my Smartboard frustratingly goes out of alignment too often).  In a matter of minutes, Pam’s students had a number of options: velcro and duct tape fasteners, wheel covers, retractable wheels, arms that came out to stabilize the cart when not in motion, and wheels that flipped onto their sides so they didn’t roll but fastened to the floor.  We talked about wheels that weren’t round.  One girl had in idea to put only two wheels near the bottom, but off to the side so that the cart could be moved like a wheelbarrow (I actually might try this one). 

I was blown away!  (Did I mention that these students were in grade 4 and 5?) The more they talked, the more they fed off each other’s ideas.  Their ideas became more refined but somehow still expansive.  One of the reasons these students had so many great ideas was that Pam had inspired them with the work of Thomas Heatherwick.  He is a contemporary English designer who design things from hand bags to cafes and hospitals.  His buildings look like sculptures.  Pam showed her students pictures and videos of Heatherwick’s work to engage that affective and imaginative parts of her students’ brains.  They saw the need for the bridges or the buildings, but they were also moved by the beauty and cleverness of his design work. 

It is this connection to the affective and imagination that is a large part of Pam’s work with her PhD studies and her investigation of Kieran Egan’s Imaginative Education.  She deftly uses Heatherwick’s work to construct a narrative, and the students create personal connections with that story. In turn, their personal connections help them to engage with, for example, Shape and Space concepts in Math.  The students see the need for such concepts, and then can apply their imagination to these concepts by using rich tasks, like Pam’s design challenge.   

ph 017 ph 005 ph 008 ph 009 ph 011 ph 012  ph 014 ph 015

(This post will eventually be part of the district’s public site, but we wanted to share the designs with the families in Pam’s class now).  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tennis Anyone? Lessons from Tennis Lessons

I remember watching a tennis instructor giving a lesson and being impressed with the way he was able to get kids progressing very quickly. And then I thought of my daughter's dance, skating or swimming instructors and it was similar. So I started to observe and try to figure out why they were so successful, so I could get the same results in my classroom (because it was humbling to see the kind of progress kids in tennis, dance, skating, and swimming were making compared to the modest gains I was making in my elementary classes).

Here were some of the differences:
  • The instructors were all really young, like under 30. Hey, wait a second! Shouldn't my years of experience count for something? Apparently not.
  • The classes were all on the small side. Dance was the largest at 15, and swimming was the smallest, 3-8 (which is comforting because smaller groups descreased the chances of pupils drowning).
  • Students attended once or twice per week in half hour to hour lessons. Maybe having large breaks is a good idea for freshness. Mind you, if I count the number of subjects I teach then maybe this is not going to work or the students will be about 40 when they graduate.
  • Students were grouped by ability, not age. 
  • The instruction all seemed to be the same pattern. 1. Get everyone together at the beginning for an overview. 2. Do only two or three things per lesson, but with a tremendous variety of ways so it doesn't get stale. The teacher gives a brief demonstration of each variant. 3. Students go off and try each variation while the teacher goes around and gives BRIEF feedback or fine-tuning to each student. 4. The lesson ends with something fun like a game.
  • Almost the whole time the students were DOING following brief instruction.
It is the last two that I keyed in on in my own classroom as the rest were out of my control (barring a change in policy and a time machine).  I try to run my some of my classes this way, but I've come to realize that the tennis lesson approach does not work well across the board.  It is great for anything physical or that uses discrete skills such as long division, hand writing, learning phonics, art skills, memorization, etc.  Anything that is progressive that can be broken down into a series of advancing skills works with the tennis model.  However, it does not work well with anything conceptual, such as problem solving, critical thinking, creative writing, debating, why we use long division, etc. 

Extrapolating further, I think I could probably teach in a class of 40 kids if all I had to do was teach them to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of facts, or have them do math calculations (but not know why or how to apply them).  I could teach a big class if they only copied what I did.  I could teach a class like that if they didn't move or didn't talk to me or each other.  I could teach 40 kids if they only learned skills instead of concepts.  I could teach a class in this way if I didn't want to treat students as individuals.

Actually, I couldn't.  I probably wouldn't teach if this is what schools were like.

I use the tennis approach in appropriate circumstances, but not as the overall model for my teaching.  I am trying to create an atmosphere where we go deeper than the lockstep series of discrete lessons.  Learning should be more holistic, applicable, imaginative, and conceptual.  Lecture halls and desks in rows facing the front is a perfect venue for factory-driven lockstep teaching.  Maybe that's why my classroom looks like an odd circus at times: lots of action, wonder, interaction, and fun.  We need our students to go beyond individual skills and work collaboratively, cooperatively, and creatively.

Using the tennis approach is indeed useful.  But not for everything.