Dan Meyer’s making Maths fun again!

Dan Meyer has got me excited about teaching Maths. As I am Health and PE teacher, that will probably seem odd. Today, I had the pleasure of attending one of Dan Meyer’s Sydney Seminars hosted by 3P Learning (the makers of Mathletics). Although I’m a PE techer, deep down, I do love Maths. It was my favourite subject at school and I even voluntarily took a first year Maths course in first year university.
What was it that I liked so much about today’s seminar that got me excited? Dan has simply tried to make it interesting for students to do Maths. He’s trying to get students out of textbooks and into the real world to see the application of maths. In his words, ‘There are limitations to the medium of paper to convey the likability and usefulness of Maths’. Instead of opening the textbook in the first instance, Dan’s trying to get the students developing their own critical thinking skills, developing the problem solving skills by trying to get them to work out how to ask questions to solve problems and he is also advocating for the collaboration between students to get to the point of solving the problem. To do it, he’s using images or videos that he’s found or created to engage the students in the topic.
His process isn’t too dis-similar to that of Project Based Learning. Use a ‘hook’ to engage the students, get them record the questions they have and then work out how to solve the questions. He’s not telling them to do the math, but he’s asking them to solve their own questions – questions that you’d probably have found in a textbook anyway – but because a student asks the questions, they’ve bought in to solving them. That’s the kicker really. The student wants to see their questions answered and they can’t just look it up in the back of the book.
As Dan took us through the process, one thing stood out, there was no judgment on our individual  performances. We worked together using the ‘Think-pair-share’ method not just to formulate our questions but also as we worked out how we’d solve those questions. As Dan said, by using this method, it gives all the students a chance to think of questions before becoming distracted by the question that the student with the first hand up provides. By getting us to review our guesses from early in the process, he was giving those that didn’t have the refined maths skills the chance to succeed.
The reality is, this doesn’t happen enough. Allow the students to fail or succeed in safe environments that aren’t high stakes. It provides a terrific opportunity to build their confidence and enjoyment in what ever subject you teach. Students in this environment are willing to take risks with their questioning and problem solving and get to experience how others would tackle the question too.
We’re all passionate about our subject areas and want to see our students share the enthusiasm that we have, but sometimes we get bogged down in teaching methods that don’t inspire the students. Again today, I was reminded that I need to keep focused on how I engage my students in my subject so that they too may become passionate about health and physical activity.
For those Math’s teachers playing along at home:
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Assessment – the real start to your child’s academic growth!?

My wife picked up a parenting magazine today as we entered our local swimming pool as we took our son to his regular swimming lesson. As she flicked through it, the advertisement in the picture above, caught my eye. As a PE teacher, it was the picture that initially drew my attention and so I looked closely to see that it was an advertisement for an externally administered, standardised testing program. The tests typically take the form of a ‘bubble’ test that requires student’s to circle the bubble that corresponds to the correct answer. After they’re marked, students get a certificate that tells them whether they got a credit, distinction or high distinction. (I’m not sure whether the students who get in the bottom 10 percent get certificates, but maybe they’ve decided that that would be detrimental to a student’s well-being?).

The claim on the advertisement is “Assessment: The real start to your child’s academic growth”. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What’s it saying exactly? That until students’ are properly assessed they can’t achieve substantial academic growth until they are assessed. And, that that assessment is best done by a once per year multiple choice bubble test that is marked by computer?
It also claims that their tests help you (the parent) identify strengths, weaknesses and progress to support academic success. For this to occur, parents need to be given feedback saying what the student got correct, what they got wrong, where they can improve on. However, in a subject that requires particular skills to answer the question, how can a test that doesn’t require a student to show how they solved the problem give accurate feedback?
It makes me think, if parents need to rely on the information gathered from a once per year, standardised (mostly) multiple choice test to find out what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are then our school’s information gathering about student understanding and reporting on it is not doing it’s job.
On the other hand, are we (teachers) using these because it’s ‘good’ for the students to see how they compare to other students, then we need to consider whether learning is a competition in which we need to compare ourselves to one another and whether that is good for the well being of the students.
In his article “The case against grading“, Alfie Kohn sets out clearly how research has shown how detrimental grading is to learning – that it decrease the learners interest in whatever they’re learning, that they create a preference for the easiest possible task, that they reduce the quality of student’s thinking.
More and more I feel our number one priority must be to encourage students to become individuals with a desire to learn more, who enjoy learning and have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get rid of grades or marks completely from our schools because we often have to collect information or prepare our students for their final leaving exams. Here in New South Wales, where I teach, that is the Higher School Certificate. However, we can take steps to minimise the number of grades that our students get and endeavour to give more helpful feedback to students that doesn’t provide judgement on their work but shows them what they’ve done well and what they can improve and what direction they can move in next.
In my classes, I’ve started using feedback forms that outline the areas of their work that they’ve shown they’ve shown they understand what they are doing and a section that sets out areas that they can still develop. Maybe this isn’t perfect but I’m trying to keep my feedback free from judgment. I also give students opportunities to re-submit (even on tests when we still have them) so that they have the opportunity to show what they actually know rather than using it to test their performance at that one moment in time.
Does anyone else keep portfolios of learning and give feedback rather than grades? I’d love to hear how you do it and what format you use, and what the advantages and disadvantages are as I seek to do it better.
Also, if you haven’t read any of Alfie Kohn’s work on grading, motivation and extrinsic rewards I strongly recommed you take a look. You can find a lot of his articles here.
Reference: Alfie Kohn (2011) “The Case Against Grading” http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm