What makes a good colleague

A new math teacher at my school is finishing up her study, and as part of it she sent the question to the math department “what makes a good colleague?”

I thought a lot about it and this is what I came up with:

I think a good colleague is someone who:

1.       Listens and sympathizes with you when you’re struggling so that you feel you’re not alone in your feelings or problems (since teaching can be a very lonely profession in some ways, as most of the day you’re the only adult in the room). While they critically listen, they don’t simply commiserate with you (because then you wallow in your troubles and things can start to fester). Rather, they offer understanding and friendly suggestions (without making you feel like you don’t measure up) that help improve your teaching or your mood.

2.       Brainstorms with you the best ways to present material, the best questions to ask (and what your goal is with each question you ask), the richest tasks you can set, the best ways to motivate students, etc. They think deeply about their subject material and how to connect it to the real world, other subjects, and students’ lives. They help make you enthusiastic for the subject you teach and excited by the possibilities of what can be done by a certain class.

3.       Is reliable, trustworthy, and always does what they say they will do. They pull their weight and expect you to pull yours, but will step in to lend a helping hand when you’re faltering. They expect the same from you, which means that they trust you in return.

Luckily I think I have many colleagues who meet at least one of my descriptors above.

What’s on your list of attributes of great colleagues?

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Discovery vs Investigation

Yesterday Michael Pershan tweeted the following:

He was pretty critical of this worksheet, which is definitely not as strong as Kate Nowak’s trigonometry investigation (or my own if saying that doesn’t sound too conceited). But what interested me was that he was also critical of the idea that anything that is worksheet-driven or teacher-led could be classified as “discovery learning.” He seems to suggest that it’s only discovery if the student comes up with it completely on their own.

I’ve already looked at discovery learning on this blog once before, and I think I can say that I’m really not for this narrow idea of discovery learning and think that it can actually be detrimental to a student’s mathematical development. I am, though, very much a fan of investigation.

Which brings me to the real reason for this post:

First, this is an investigation I did into Zero & Negative Exponents with MYP3 (US 8th grade age). The students did the first part (worksheet included on third page) under test conditions in class. Upon receiving their graded work back they wrote the essay (fourth page) where they not only used their understanding of a pattern to write a rule but verified that their rule was correct by using the rules of algebra.

A year later, in MYP4 (US 9th grade), I do the following investigation on Rational Exponents with the students, though it is more informal. They work in groups and are not graded on their work for this.

Scribd is doing some weird things with my document…there are no red question marks in the original. So here’s a picture of what it really looks like for me:

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 10.25.46 AM

These investigations are absolutely not “discovery learning,” because there are specific steps (suggested by me) that the students follow to ultimately “discover” the rule. But the steps ensure that the students have a focused approach, and it models for them what I think is an essential chain of mathematical inquiry:

  • 1. Use what you already know in simple examples to
  • 2. find a pattern so that you can
  • 3. generalize what’s happening/write a rule and finally
  • 4. verify your rule using algebra
  • Finally, not an investigation per se on exponents, but more of a hat-tip on the many wonderful ideas I steal from this community, here’s something we spent a class discussing and delving into, which I culled from various blogs and twitter feeds:


    Again with the red question marks, bah! (anyone know why it’s doing that?) Here:

    Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 10.27.45 AM

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    Improving Tests & Eenzaamheid

    Last night I went to my first-ever in-Dutch lecture (spannend!), by top Dutch history teacher Jelmer Evers. One of things he talked about was how eenzaam (literally translated “onesome” or solitary) teaching can be. It felt great to make some connections here in the Netherlands, maybe find a bit of a community.

    I’m grateful to the MTBoS for giving me an online community, but I also realize that we each only share a small snippet of what we do. And what we rarely share (for probably good reason) are our tests. But this has got to be one of the most difficult (and considering the weight placed on assessment, most important) things we do, actually, and it would probably be better if we weren’t so alone in that endeavor.

    I really had no idea what the heck I was doing when I started making tests–I’m embarrassed now to think of how rag-tag and unprofessional they looked, all cut and pasted and mismatched. And as a new teacher (or a veteran) I don’t recall anyone ever sitting with me and saying, “this is how you make a good test,” or asking me why I choose a particular question (or the particular numbers in the question), or suggesting a different question (or way to ask something) instead.

    These days I’m trying to look at my own tests critically — looking for the things I can turn into an open-ended or an open-middle question, for example. And I’m constantly bookmarking problems on Twitter or in other people’s blogs as “GREAT QUESTION ON ___.” I’m also trying to find questions that expose misconceptions, but I don’t know how good I am at that yet.

    But the point is, although I’m trying it, I’m doing it mostly alone, with the occasional assist from my wonderful coworker (who never blogs, for shame). And sometimes another coworker will hand me their test, like FYI, this is what I’m giving to the class, but I rarely say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this question,” or “Have you thought about asking this instead?” or even “Do you want to work on developing test questions together?” It’s sort of difficult to initiate that conversation.

    But I think maybe I’ll propose it to the department, because teaching–and testing–should be less eenzaam, I think. Do any of you do test study and have any tips?

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    Introducing Trigonometry

    When I first started teaching trigonometry, I just introduced it the way the textbook did, sort of matter-of-factly and heavily reliant on SOHCAHTOA. But students were always asking things like, “Ok, but what is sin?” and thinking they could divide by sin to solve for x. Algebra is already pretty abstract, but the whys and hows of trigonometry made about as much sense to the students as the plot of Interstellar.

    For the last few years, I’ve been introducing it differently and I feel like it sort of addresses the too abstractness and trick-oriented way I used to do it. Now I always first begin with an investigation into special right triangles. I do this with MYP4 (US 9th grade):

    In it, students use their knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem and simplifying radicals to discover patterns in the relationships between the sides of a 45-45-90 triangle and the more complicated 30-60-90 triangle, write and check algebraic rules, and apply those rules in contexts of varying difficulty.

    I do this as a summative assessment under test conditions, though if a student has gone totally off track (for example, by not correctly simplifying radicals), I sit with them to discuss their error and then give them a second go at it.

    The idea is that students will see that if we know the angles of a special right triangle and we know one side, we automatically know all the sides and vice versa. My hope is that this primes them to see where trigonometry comes from. My follow-up lesson involves another investigation, but this one done informally in groups.

    I ask the students to draw a few lines of varying steepness and investigate the gradient (slope) of the line and the size of the angle of elevation and find a pattern or rule. I’m doing this on Tuesday with my current group, but last year they were really clearly able to say that a gradient of less than 1 gave an angle of less than 45 (and the smaller the gradient, the smaller the angle) and a gradient of more than 1 gave an angle of more than 45 (and the bigger the gradient, the bigger the angle). I then tie it back to their discovery of the sides of a 45-45-90 triangle.

    It is only then that I introduce tangent as the rule relating the angle of elevation to the gradient. I have them use the calculator to find the tangent of the angles of elevation that they measured and check them against the gradients that they had. Only after they feel comfortable with using tangent do I introduce the other ratios, again referring to the findings from the investigation on special right triangles.

    I hope in this way that trigonometry is less of a black box and a procedure that the students do, but don’t know why they’re doing it. How do you introduce trigonometry? How do you mitigate its abstractness?

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    What’s the best teaching style?

    Yesterday Robin Matthews tweeted a link to an article in The Guardian that says there’s apparently no evidence to back “discovery learning.”

    I felt like that sort of went against the whole #mtbos ethos and Dan Meyer’s idea of being less helpful, so I was curious to delve in a bit more. Robin linked me to this scholarly article:

    Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching

    which has a sort of in-your-face title. Failure? Ok then. The article is certainly interesting. It advocates for direct instruction, specifically the use of worked examples, especially with lower-performing students, and suggests that inquiry-based learning is helpful for only top performers and is even harmful for lower performers, with students knowing much less in the end.

    One thing that stuck out to me was this phrase “unguided” or “minimally guided” instruction. Is that what we advocate or mean when we talk about investigations and inquiry-based learning?

    The way I see it is that our job as teachers designing the tasks is to have the end goal in mind (what we want the students to discover) and also imagine in advance all the things the students will struggle with. Therefore we’re always scaffolding the discovery learning with pointed questions and sometimes hints along the way to point the students in the right direction. But feedback during the task is also critically important. The article is clear that when students are going the wrong way we should step in, otherwise they may codify mistakes that are later hard to shake.

    I find myself constantly revising my worksheets and tasks to bring more clarity and help the students focus where I want them to. Is this minimally guided or is this guided instruction? I don’t think it’s direct instruction, per se. So am I doing something research-supported or not? Hard to say.

    Further:

    Tuovinen and Sweller (1999) showed that exploration practice (a discovery technique) caused a much larger cognitive load and led to poorer learning than worked-examples practice. The more knowledgeable learners did not experience a negative effect and benefited equally from both types of treatments.

    I agree that worked examples are really important! I think after investigating something, there should always be structured note-taking (which can clarify any misconceptions and make sure that all students have arrived at the same framework), worked examples, and then practice.

    But one thing I think is that the point of investigations is not necessarily the content at hand, but rather the flexible approach of taking knowledge one already has and building upon it in new ways. That is what we are committing to long-term memory; rather than *what* is investigated it is the process of investigation itself. How often have we seen students stymied by a slight change in the wording of a problem/how it’s presented/application?

    We constantly lament that they lack the tools for this — isn’t this what discovery learning attempts to remedy? Of course I, as the teacher, can explain the concept best — distilling its pitfalls and connections and intricacies into an outline format with examples — and that needs to happen as well. I can’t abdicate my role as the content expert in the room (both mathematically and the learning of math). But in my mind, the discovery process isn’t (just) about the content/concept, but about the journey that the student takes applying known knowledge to the just-out-of-reach knowledge.

    This little bit was the most fascinating to me:

    …the worked-example effect first disappears and then reverses as the learners’ expertise increases. Problem solving only becomes relatively effective when learners are sufficiently experienced so that studying a worked example is, for them, a redundant activity that increases working memory load compared to generating a known solution (Kalyuga, Chandler, Tuovinen, & Sweller, 2001). This phenomenon is an example of the expertise reversal effect (Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003). It emphasizes the importance of providing novices in an area with extensive guidance because they do not have sufficient knowledge in long-term memory to prevent unproductive problem-solving search. That guidance can be relaxed only with increased expertise as knowledge in long-term memory can take over from external guidance.

    Before I worked in The Netherlands, I worked in the South Bronx in District 7, a really struggling area. When I taught there, I had a really regimented approach. Every day began with a warm-up (I couldn’t bear to call it a “Do Now” as they were trying to get us to do–it was too imperative sounding) that would either review the work from yesterday or prep them for the day’s work with some sort of small discovery learning. Just a short example:

    1) 3(x-4) —> ________
    2) ______ —> 7x + 35

    Then we did notes in a really structured outline format (roman numerals and all), a worked example, and then the students got to work. I prided myself on my super clear explanations and step-by-step instructions. And you know what, I had great results (as measured by the NYS tests and Regents tests, of course, so grain of salt)! I felt really good about how I taught math.

    But when I came to The Netherlands, a lot of students chafed at this style (though they all said I explained well and had good results). They didn’t want to take notes. They felt like they already got it and I was forcing them to sit through an explanation that they didn’t need and making them write down things they were never going to look at. I also started to feel like maybe I was holding their hands too much, like I was doing all the mental heavy lifting. So I’ve drifted from this model.

    So here are my questions:
    Does the kind of instruction you provide depend on the level of the class you have (and I don’t just mean differentiating a bit but the whole approach)? It feels wrong somehow to deny a weaker group the experiential learning…but at the same time, providing them with direct instruction is what helps them grow, according to this research. And does all this point to the idea that tracking is better? Because you are able to provide direct instruction to lower performers, who will benefit most from it, and provide discovery learning to higher performers, who will benefit most from that?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I wish I had two parallel classes so I could try out the two different styles (but no, this year I have one class each of 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th, UGH) and see how it plays out. What are your experiences? Do you agree with the article? How do you reconcile the kind of teaching advocated by Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and this new study?

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    How Many Ancestors Do You Have?

    This whole fall has gotten completely away from me. So many great things have been going on and I’ve just been too swamped to write a thing. Forcing myself now, because I loved this project and must share!

    Our unit “What’s in a Number?” contained a substantial bit of work on exponents, specifically rational exponents. One of my assessment criterion is Applying Math in Real World Contexts, which specifically asks students to model and critique their models, which is something I’ve been interested in for a while (h/t Frank Nochese).

    So I came up with a modeling project based on this YouTube video from the always awesome Vsauce:

    In the first part the students had to investigate how many ancestors, A they had g generations ago, with themselves as g = 0 (and the number of ancestors being 1 — themselves). The ultimate goal was to write a rule to find the number of ancestors they had in any given generation.

    In part two the students had to decide how long a generation lasts (meaning, how long before a new generation starts) and use it to approximate the year of their great-great-great grandparents’ birth, writing a rule to find the birth year of any given generation. Here’s some interesting things that occurred here:

  • Some students misinterpreted this — one student said a generation was a 100 years because that’s how old people live to!
  • Most reasoned about 25-30 years per generation. Many of them said 30 years was a good amount of time because it’s how old their parents were when they had them.
  • Just under half of them made comment on the fact that this was not a very good/accurate assumption because in “the olden days” women had children much younger.”
  • About a third of the students took into their own age (the fact that g = 0 is in its 15th year) into account, but many of them had rules that said things like their parents were born only 25 years ago, oops.
  • In part three they were asked to approximate the number of ancestors they had in different time periods, such as the year of the founding of the Netherlands (where we are) and around 1200 (the time period in which 0 was introduced to Europe). They had to put together their two models/rules to calculate this, which most did with no problems.

    But then I gave them the estimated population of the world in 1200 and asked them to comment on their model with this in mind. I asked them what was good about the model, what was bad, how accurate was it, what could they conclude? Because if they’d done their calculations correctly, they should come up with the fact that they had more ancestors than people alive at that time period (or that more than half of the world was related to them).

    Their answers are the really interesting stuff:

  • Some students are just trained to justify themselves constantly so they say things like, “My answers are very accurate because I used a calculator.” As if that is what makes things accurate!
  • Some students who calculated that they had more ancestors than people alive did not appear to notice this fact. Do they really critically look at their answers? Or are they just concerned with getting to a “right” answer?
  • One student said his model didn’t take into account cultural norms like taking multiple wives (I thought this was interesting) or child brides or that a generational length can vary tremendously around times of war
  • About 2/3 of the students said it’s impossible to be accurate without knowing the exact length of a generation, even though they felt they had a good model.
  • A few people said that their model didn’t take into account incest — the fact that at some point people must’ve been having offspring with people related to them.
  • One student who had about a third of the world related to him said that if this model was true for him and the other 7 billion people alive today, we all had to be related, and that not only that, if you go back far enough you’d be related to every person. He even had a nice diagram to illustrate this point.
  • I liked this project because it takes something that’s a clear obvious rule A = 2^g and then muddies the water with estimating generation length. It gives the students a chance to actually create their own model and then hopefully analyze it. It’s clear they still need some work at this, but it’s a good start, I think.

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    Why I’m already discouraged for my Dutch math classes

    Edited to clarify: This post is not about the IB but about the Dutch national curriculum

    This year I teach almost all of my classes within the International Baccalaureate (IB), so I have only two classes within the regular Dutch curriculum, one 7th and one 8th grade. These are students who have decided to take their schooling bilingually (though the majority of them are fully Dutch and have never spoken [much] English before). They begin in 7th grade directly with half of their classes, including math, in English. That’s a pretty daunting feat and these kids are all very bright. Yet I feel discouraged and sometimes even dread these classes.

    Why? It starts with this tweet from David Wees:

    And this:
    Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 3.25.17 PM

    That’s an image of the “study planner” that I need to follow for this term. It was made by a colleague, and if I don’t follow it then we end up out of sync and it becomes unfair for the tests, not to mention I don’t get through the material that the students “need to know for the next year.”

    We have just two lessons (of 75 minutes each) per week with the students for an 8-week term, but are constantly losing days from our schedule by things like a day off from school, or a test planned during our lesson, etc. So you figure approximately 14 or 15 lessons per term. Times three terms plus one term where we have them only once a week (yes, that is as productive as it sounds), and that means I have to cram 8 chapters worth of material into about 52 lessons.

    And honestly sometimes the curriculum careens wildly around. In the first “real” lesson I was meant to do:

  • 1.1 Theory A: Using Letters (Writing Expressions)
  • 1.1 Theory B: Addition and Multiplication using Letters
  • 1.2 Theory A: Multiplying out brackets (Distributive Property)
  • Just to give a quick example of what sort of problems the students are expected to do in one lesson, it veers from:

    “Tessa earns b euros per month. Her sister Sandra earns three times as much. How much does Sandra earn?”

    to:

    -2p * 3q – 2p * -5 – 3q * -2p – 4p

    and finally to:

    2/3x(18a – 12b – 3c) – 1/4a(48x + 4b – 8c) – b(c – 8x – a)

    What an absolute SWEAT to get through that. My brain hurts thinking about it.

    So in the second lesson, a full quarter of my class had clean-up duty, which means that they have to sweep the school after lunch (YES THIS IS REAL, I AM NOT JOKING!!!) so they came 15 minutes late to my class. So I took that time to have the rest of the class work together on this worksheet I made for them on writing expressions and combining like terms:

    I’m not trying to act like this is the most brilliant worksheet ever, but I think it did serve a purpose, because I saw kids write abcd instead of a+b+c+d, kids who wrote a^2 + b^2 + c^2 + d^2 instead of 2a + 2b + 2c + 2d, kids who wrote a + b + c + d * 2 instead of 2(a + b + c + d), kids who couldn’t come up with 9 – (a + b + c + d) at all and more. So what that says to me is that kids cannot just steamroll through everything. They need recap, revision, and time to reflect. It is helpful for them if I bring in extra things for them to do and let them puzzle through it.

    But no matter because in lesson two I was supposed to do:

  • 1.2 Theory B: Multiplying Binomials
  • 1.3 Theory A: The Remarkable Product (a+b)(a-b)
  • 1.3 Theory B: The Remarkable Products (a+b)^2 and (a-b)^2
  • After “wasting” so much time on the variables on a map thing, I could hardly get through this and ended up assigning the majority of it for homework.

    Sure kids, I know you’re only 13 and you’ve just learned how to multiply binomials for the first time ten minutes ago, but do you think you could please now do this problem for me: (2a + 3b)^2 – (3a + 2b)^2? Because I really don’t have a lot of time to make sure you understand it and give you cool projects around this like Babylonian Multiplication, because in the next lesson I have to do:

  • 1.4 Theory A: Simplifying Algebraic Fractions
  • 1.4 Theory B: Adding Algebraic Fractions
  • 1.4 Theory C: Multiplying and Dividing Algebraic Fractions
  • 1.5 Theory A: Scientific Notation of large numbers (WOW, how is this related??)
  • 1.5 Theory B: Scientific Notation for small numbers
  • I felt so damn shitty after this lesson (and also my 7th grade lesson, which is even more intense, especially when you consider that these kids are in high school for the first time ever and don’t even speak the damn language of their textbook) and horrified looking at what I have to do in one lesson next week. Basically, what it comes down to for me in these classes is that if I do anything that’s not in the textbook or that takes any serious amount of time for thinking and discussion, I won’t be able to get through the curriculum. I always like to start Scientific Notation with a reading from Bill Bryson but it’s like, AHHH, that will take at least 10 minutes!

    I really don’t know what to do about this. I agree with David Wees. I feel like I have to teach in a manner that’s directly counter to what I think good teaching is. So that’s why I’m already discouraged for my Dutch math classes. Any advice?

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