How many of us teach the way we were taught? How many of us plan lessons relatively quickly because we lecture, or maybe because we teach the same courses year after year and it’s just gotten to be that easy? How many of us observe other teachers for the purpose of collaboration to improve what we do? How many of us believe that if we continue to teach the way we have been, student achievement will go up?
That last question is really what I’m looking at. I know that in my short six years of teaching the same courses I’ve found myself answering positively to the first two questions, but yet negatively to the last two. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of teachers out there who are not honest with themselves and may believe that what they’re doing is fine and will continue to be satisfactory with the CCSS. This is an issue. I think we can all agree that with the adoption of the Common Core students are going to be expected to do more than they have in the past. Independent thought and critical thinking are going to need to be included in our curricula so they can rise to these challenges. We need to implement strategies and practices into our daily lessons so that we can build up these skills not only in students, but teachers as well. The other day I had the pleasure of listening to Steve Leinwand give a presentation to our IU where he addressed these issues and some actions we can take.
I wish that I could adequately summarize all that he said, but I’m sure I will not do him justice. He started by showing what math used to (and in some cases, still) look like: drill and kill, no context, variables, variables, variables! (He also used this as an opportunity to share his distaste for Algebra 2, but that’s a different discussion) All of this, among other factors, has created little growth, little real-world preparation, and absolutely little preparation for the CCSS math practices. We know this from the math anxiety, illiteracy, poor test scores, tons of remediation, and large amounts of criticism. So… what do we do? The same thing of course (NOPE!). “If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten. If, however, what we’ve accepted is no longer acceptable, then we have no choice but to change some of what we do and some of how we do it” (from Steve himself).
He went on and showed all kinds of examples of how we can change, which were all very Dan Meyer-esque: introduce problems with pictures and video, introduce data sets by only giving a few numbers, show pictures, numbers, or representations and ask “What do you see? How do you know? Convince me? Prove it.” All of these tasks followed a similar pattern: show the students just a little bit and let them hypothesize as to what was coming next. The data set he provided was particularly impressive to me because I wish I would’ve thought of it. He showed us a few numbers and had us talk about what patterns we saw, what numbers we thought will fill the rest of the set, and what it represents. Then he showed us a little more and we found a new pattern and took new guesses. Then she showed us a little more and so on and so on. Throughout this process, whenever a new pattern arose, we’d talk about it at length. It wasn’t just, “Nope that’s not right, let’s move on,” it was taking our responses and running with them. It was focusing on the students’ responses, giving them some ownership, and letting them run the class. He did this with every example. He never knew what our responses would be, he didn’t know where we would lead the conversation, but he was always prepared to facilitate a meaningful discussion based on our answers.
As I watched and listened to him, I couldn’t help but think, ‘This is not for everyone.’ I know that I could do that for geometry because I’ve taught it for 6 years, but I probably couldn’t do this for algebra 2 and definitely not for calculus; I’m just not that comfortable with the material. I have a feeling that many teachers would agree with this. So the question is, if the goal is to implement strategies similar to these build the quality of our lessons, how do we build up our teachers so that they can do this? I experienced one option, go to training sessions and presentations like Mr. Leinwand’s. Would another possibility be to allow teachers to teach the same course year after year so that they become comfortable with the material so they can focus more on the teaching strategies and less on the concepts themselves? And obviously, throughout this entire process, there needs to be plenty of follow-up.
That last part is what concerns me the most. Even in my short career I’ve sat through plenty of programs and initiatives in my district that started strong and then fell through within weeks. I know all kinds of strategies that our district bought into, but no one has ever checked to see that I’ve implemented them or that they’ve made a difference among our students. Sure, research shows that certain processes are more effective than others, but if they don’t get implemented what’s the point? This is actually how Mr. Leinwand closed his presentation. He said to the hundreds of teachers that all of this was pointless to 80% of them because they will go back to their classes and continue to do the same thing after being jazzed for a few hours. He called everyone out and no one argued with him because we all knew that he was speaking the truth. We need to be held accountable. The items he discussed would greatly improve the classrooms in my building, in my district, in the state, and in the country. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and keep in mind that we need to do what is best for these kids. We need to prove Mr. Leinwand wrong by sharing, supporting, and most of all, taking risks. Even though we’re spread out geographically, with the common core more than ever, we’re all in this together. We’re all teaching the same thing, let’s make sure we’re all teaching it to the same high standard. Let’s collaborate, communicate, and inspire each other to go out on a limb and try something new.
“But… that’s scary. And a lot of work.”
Yes, yes it is. We will need to change, which is never easy. Some of us are stuck in our ways and fear that which is different or refuse to believe any changes will be effective. This also creates a fear of failure – that’s what our colleagues are for. Fear of failure creates lack of confidence. Lack of confidence lends itself to excuses: there’s not enough time, these kids don’t want to learn, they don’t care so why should I, Yeah but… etc. Without proper leadership, there will not be proper accountability or proper support in place. We can overcome these potential setbacks with the proper items in place. We need to envision the possibilities and work towards them rather than work against them. Great things can happen in the right place with the right people.
Mr. Leinwand provided plenty of specific examples of how math instruction can be taken to the next level, and if you’re interested I can try to provide you with some of that information. However, what I summarized above, in my opinion, was the most important part of his presentation. Simply increasing the rigor and relevance of our instruction is easier said than done. In order for it to happen, many other items have to be in place in order to create a supportive network of educators that share a common goal. If anyone believes that they can do it isolated in their own room, they are mistaken. We need to exercise our creativity, take risks, and collaborate for the purpose of increasing the quality of education we provide. Let’s get our students informed, engaged, stimulated, and most of all, challenged. After all, which class would you rather be in?
Special thanks to Steve Leinwand for sharing his insights.