Sunday, December 7, 2008

Notes from the Saturday at Asilomar

“Oh, I get it,” the students say, and I tell them that that's great, and that it is not enough. I tell them that learning math is a lot like learning to play a musical instrument or like learning to dance or to play a sport. Having once successfully played through a piece of music, or having once correctly executed a move, is all very well as a starting point - and only practice and repetition with feedback will ensure that they perform reliably and smoothly. “Getting it” goes only so far, and learning involves something more and other than that.

This is what I tell my students, so I do “get” that insight is not enough, that learning requires changing behaviors and habits, and yet it seems I have not learned this lesson at a behavioral level myself. And so it was that one of the most useful experiences of the Math conference at Asilomar yesterday was cutting the last class to stare at the ocean and think about what I had wanted to do and not do this semester, and about what is actually happening in my classroom. It’s been an unexpectedly difficult semester for private reasons (conditions at school would have predicted the best teaching year ever), with limited occasion for reflection on my work, and the Math conference provided a chance to take stock and regroup.

I “get” that assigning a large number of practice problems has little or no advantage over assigning fewer problems and is likely to even be counterproductive, I see that assigning homework problems that a large number of students won’t be able to do correctly on their own is silly, I know that having the students do more work than I have time to check is a waste of their time as well as mine, and I believe that there is much value in spending some minutes of class time every now and again on activities whose purpose is building relations rather than practicing math skills. Yet, judging from what I’m doing it would seem I disagreed with all of the above. Somehow, all kinds of resolutions made late last year got lost in the flurry of starting up again this year, and I’ve found myself teaching in ways I had made definite decisions not to.

So, what to do? Since it’s not a matter of “getting it,” not a matter of knowledge or conviction about what to do, I’m thinking about what kinds of feedback mechanisms to set up toward changing my behaviors. I could write down what I want to do and keep rewriting it daily to remind myself. I could talk to colleagues about what I want to do and ask them to do random five minute observations and let me know what things are looking like – and I am fortunate enough to have several fantastic colleagues who would be willing to do this. I could tell the students that there’s a cap of a certain number of homework problems and ask them to remind me if I forget my own policy. I’m sure they’d be delighted to oblige.

On another note, it’s been nice to rediscover the online math ed community recently after having neglected these readings for lengthy periods at a time this fall. New ideas and debate are like food and sleep in that they’re easily given lower priority during hectic times, and yet these things are all necessary for teaching and learning well in the long run. Glad for all of you who are still around and writing...

9 comments:

Ben Chun said...

Glad you're back! There is a saying: Knowing the path is not the same as walking the path. The longer I work at doing a good job as a teacher, and the more I master the basics so that I can see the bigger picture, the harder I realize it is to walk the walk every minute of every day. Let's just keep trying.

Mr. K said...

(a) Nice to see you round again.

(b) Something I learned in my first year of teaching: Change one thing at a time. Figure out what you want to change first, find the triggers for why you're not doing it (or doing the opposite), and then flag yourself with reminders, and allow yourself time to let it feel automatic. When you're halfway there, you get to add a second thing to work on, so at any one time you have one thing that you're developing, and one that you're polishing.

Now, I need to go follow my own advice.

Sarah Cannon said...

H. Repeating the welcome back to blogging wishes.

Mr. K The strategy to change one thing at a time makes sense. It's what I do in other arenas of life, but have trouble picking just one at a time in my teaching. Then I try to do too much and don't progress on anything....

Jackie Ballarini said...

Yet another "Welcome Back" H!! And I too have so many things in my daily practice that I want to refine. I love Mr. K's advice of changing one thing at a time. Now to just pick the one thing...

Oh yeah, I heard you met Dan. :-)

H. said...

Thanks for this friendliness, all of you, and for your advice, Mr. K - it's always good.

And Jackie, yeah, I saw the tweet, and - I don't know, I guess that will do.

Souly Catholic said...

Great post. Your students are luck to have a teacher who is so reflective about best practice. All the best.

educatorblog said...

Hey - I'm back! My silence was due to a crazy student-teaching and full grad coursework schedule. I hope to make a few posts per week and I've started using twitter (www.twitter.com/teacherc).

H. said...

You're back! OK, another reason to get back to reading and writing again, for me too... I'll show up on the net a bit next weekend. There, I've said it.

Catherine said...

I really like your comparison of learning math to playing a musical instrument. That really speaks to me because both are things that I'm casually interested in but have let fall by the wayside. I hope that your attempt at change in the classroom is going well...