A Math Teacher’s Day at Ed Camp

education

My Day at Ed Camp
By Barry Garelick

I attended an “Ed Camp” recently. This is one of many types of non-professional development and informal gatherings where teachers talk about various education-related topics. The camp I attended was free of charge and took place at a charter school that prided itself on a student-centered approach to learning. In keeping with the school’s focus, the camp also took a student-centered approach which it boasted about in its announcement, calling the event an “unconference”. It stated that the Ed Camp “is not your traditional educational conference; sessions will be created by attendees.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Participants wrote ideas for sessions on Post-It notes which were placed on a whiteboard. The conference organizers then put the Post-It notes in categories that formed various sessions which were then led by whomever wanted to lead them.

The topic suggestions were placed into nine separate categories/sessions. For each of three one-hour periods, there were three sessions that participants could choose from.  I chose “Motivation,” “Feedback in lieu of grades” and “The balance between student-centered and teacher-centered in a classroom.”

By way of background, I went to school in the 50’s and 60’s and am on a second career of teaching math in high school and secondary school after retiring several years ago. I am considered by most to use “traditional” practices rather than the progressive techniques one sees today. A few decades ago there was a mix of opinions on what are considered “best practices” in teaching—some of which included traditional methods. The older generation of teachers, however, has been almost entirely replaced by the new guard.

This has resulted in a prevalent new group-think which holds that traditional teaching is outmoded and ineffective. The participants at Ed Camp were of the new guard; mostly people ranging in age between 20’s and 40’s. A few people were in their 50’s or early 60’s, but were subscribed to the same group-think. From what I could tell, I was the only traditionalist present.

Motivation Session

All participants at this session generally agreed that motivation was important and that if classrooms do not have focus, there is loss of attention. They also agreed that students did well in a structured environment and that set routines and clear expectations were motivators. These two consensus items were uttered with the same somnambulant automaticity with which many say grace before chowing down a meal.

Participants then went to town describing various motivating/engaging activities including having students spell out words using their bodies to shape the letters (though I have forgotten what this had to do with whatever was being taught).  After a few more suggestions, someone pointed out that no matter how engaging the activity, the novelty of it wears off, so you can only do it a few times before students are bored — which, I suppose, leaves teachers with the option of more traditional approaches like a warm-up question and then teaching the class.

The issue of group work came up. Group work ranks high on the group-think spectrum as something worthwhile for all students.  So when a teacher said that group work may be difficult for students who are introverts, the feeling of cognitive dissonance was distinctly present in the room.  But the dissonance was quickly dispelled by the same teacher who brought it up. “Well, think of it this way,” he said. “How many times have you gone to professional development sessions and the leader says ‘Now turn to your neighbor and discuss such and such’ and you go ‘Oh, no! Do I have to?’” General agreement ensued.

“But,” he went on, “You kind of think to yourself, ‘Well, OK, let’s get this over with’ and pretty soon you’re doing it and it isn’t that bad. So I think maybe we just have to get kids to think beyond themselves and just go with it, and they’ll see it isn’t that bad.”

I’m fairly certain most of the attendees had been through—and probably hated—professional development sessions that were group-work oriented.  But if there was any disagreement with what he said, it was not voiced.

There was consensus that students responded well to competition.  Teachers noted that students like to see high scores posted or go for extra credit assignments or questions on tests. Such agreement was surprising given that it goes against the trend of the “everyone is special” movement in which all students win awards or graduating classes have multiple valedictorians. Unless one includes competition as being an integral part of collaboration and working in teams and groups, competition would seem to be its antithesis.

Another unexpected result was related by a second grade teacher who taught at the school where the Ed Camp was held. She had assigned her students to groups and arranged her class in clusters of desks as many classrooms are these days. One day her students asked her, “Can we be in rows facing the front of the classroom?”  She tried to reason with them, explaining that when she had been in school she always had to sit in rows and would have loved the opportunity to sit in groups. They told her that it was easier to be in rows because they wouldn’t have to twist around to see what the teacher was doing at the board.  The students assigned themselves numbers randomly so the teacher could put them in straight rows according to their numbers. Since this was a student-centered decision at a school that valued student-centered activities, the teacher reluctantly went along with what they wanted.

Think Pair Share: Harbinger of Things to Come?

The initial premise of the next session I attended—feedback–was that students should be given guidance rather than interim or even final grades. This is not a new concept, as evidenced by a recent comment I saw on a popular education blog: “When numerical/letter grades are king, real learning is kicked to the curb, along with meaningful assessment.”

Like many educational ideas, this one sounds like it ought to be superior to a system of grading that many have accused of being unfair for years, until you get into the details—things like subjectivity and how students will be assessed. The moderator—who did most of the talking in this particular session—said that in guidance-based regimes, students should be told whether they are doing a task correctly or incorrectly and that the key to completing a task was to ensure that students had an appropriate process. I couldn’t be absolutely sure, but it sounded like process trumped content.

He brought up math as an example and said, “I like to give kids problems they don’t know how to do.” This is not the first time I’ve heard this. While I agree that students should be given challenging problems, I also believe that they need to start from a place that they know and advance bit by bit to variants on a basic problem structure to be able to take on non-routine problems.

Such process is known as scaffolding, but modern purveyors of education theory hold that scaffolding should not be used and that flexible thinking –applying prior knowledge to a new and unfamiliar problems or situations—comes with repeated exposure to such problems. Supposedly this develops a “problem solving schema” and “habit of mind” that is independent of acquired procedural skills or facts. But to pull off what this teacher wanted—having them solve something totally different than what they’ve seen—students are given feedback. The feedback is in the form of questions to motivate them to learn what they need to know and ultimately to solve the problem in a “just in time” basis.

The notion of supplying feedback in the form of guidance seemed to this moderator to be a new and cutting edge thing, and in fact announced that the activity of “Think-Pair-Share” was antiquated and should be abandoned. “Think-Pair-Share” has been around for at least 10 years.  The first time I heard about “Think, Pair, Share” was in a course I took in ed school. Briefly, students work together to solve a problem or answer a question, discuss the question with their partner(s) and share their ideas and/or contrasting opinions with the rest of the class.

But now it was considered passé, the main problem with it being that students didn’t know what to say to each other about whatever it was they were to discuss. And that was likely because they had little or no knowledge of the subject that they were supposed to talk about, and which was supposed to give them the insights and knowledge that they previously lacked.

Did this mean that perhaps there was now some evidence that direct and explicit instruction could have beneficial educational outcomes? No. Feedback and guidance was the new “Think Pair Share.” Student-centered and inquiry-based approaches are still alive and well. And in closing, the moderator added that students need good solid relationships with one another and with the teacher. To this end, the moderator said, putting students in straight rows will NOT build such relationships.

I was tempted to bring up the story of the second grade class that insisted they wanted to be in rows but we were out of time. In fact, we ran over and I was late to the last session on the balance between teacher and student in a student-centered classroom.

Defining Balance—or Not

The conversation in the third and last session of the day was already underway with some talk going on about how effective student-centered communication is fostered using something called “Sentence frames” or “word moves”. These are a set of certain phrases students are encouraged to use when engaging in dialogue, such as, “One point that was not clear to me was ___”, “I see your point but what about ___”, “I’m still not convinced that ___”.

The discussion was in the context of procedures used in conducting student-centered classes. I didn’t know how much about balance they had discussed, and although it is not my habit to interrupt a discussion, I did inject myself using the following sentence frame: “So what do you think is the balance between teacher-centered and student-centered instruction?”

The responses I received were immediate:

“Oh, I just talk at the students forever and go on and on,” said a youngish woman. Another teacher chimed in, “Yes, I tell them that it would be so much easier for them if they just listened…”  This went on for another few seconds, and though I was tempted to use a sentence frame like, “I see your point but what about___?” the one I chose was a bit more aggressive.  “Is that your answer to my question?” I asked. “You think a teacher-centered classroom is all about lecturing with no room for questions or dialogue?”

The woman who first answered me said, “No, I was just being funny.” The conversation turned serious once again with the answer to my question being that the teacher-centered portion of a student-centered classroom is, “teaching the students to be student-centered successfully.” That, roughly translated, means giving them instructions and guidance to do their student-centered inquiry-based assignment.

Example: “In ten minutes, you will complete an outline of what you are going to investigate. Go.”  Ten minutes pass, teacher spot checks various outlines. “Now one person will be the lead investigator, another will be the note-taker, the third person will write the conclusion and the fourth person will do the presentation.”  And so on.

The conversation turned to “student outcomes” and “growth-mindset.” This last phrase, a concept made popular by Carol Dweck, is the theory that students can develop their abilities by believing that they can do so. The term has taken hold as its own motivational poster in classrooms, professional development seminars and Ed Camps across America.  Someone remarked that the idea of growth mindset itself is a student-centered concept. I suppose it is, if you combine belief in yourself with hard work, instruction, and practice—things I don’t hear much about when I hear about growth-mindset.

“Growth-mindset” led into students’ beliefs in themselves, which led to how grades are bad and rubrics were better. A middle school social studies teacher lamented that he was stuck giving students grades because the school district required them, though most of the teachers in his schools used rubrics not to grade, but to provide feedback to students.  (The charter school at which this Ed Camp was held did not give grades, but rather student reports. After the social studies teacher’s lamentation about grades, one teacher who taught at this school cackled “I’m so glad I don’t have to keep grade books anymore!”)

The social studies teacher said that what used to be an A under the old grading system was now a C in his class using his rubric. He didn’t go into details about his rubric except to say that he bases grades on it, and “meets expectations” would be a C.  “I tell parents that I have no problem with a student who gets a C in my class, because that means he or she was meeting expectations. If a student wants better than a C, they can go over the rubric with me to see what is required.”

This struck me as strange. If you give tests and assignments that cover the material and take some effort to do well on them, then maintaining an average of a 90% or more would assure some mastery of the material.  Or does he consider that to be “middle school stuff” and to get an A under his rubric now requires—what?  I never found out. Classes I’ve seen that use rubrics have several: rubrics for group work, presentations, collaboration, essay analysis, presentations and so forth, and there are many categories – like this one for a project presentation in a middle school social studies class . How does one differentiate between “strong student creativity” and “exceptional degree of student creativity” under the “Originality” category? I suspect it’s a matter of “I’ll know it when I see it”.

As time grew shorter, discussions cascaded onto each other, culminating in a discussion about homework. The social studies teacher said he didn’t assign homework, and this turned out to be the practice of most of the teachers in the room. Some of the teachers did report that they received pressure from parents about lack of homework. Parents who ask their kids what they do in school and get the usual “Not much” often follow with “Well, what’s your homework?” and were dismayed to find that the student had none. Parents confronted various teachers, arguing that not assigning homework will not prepare students for the real world. The social studies teacher who was emerging as de facto opinion leader for the session said that in the real world you didn’t have homework, so why should we expect it of our students? This was a bit confusing given that teachers do a lot of work at home. In fact, in many professions it is not unusual to have to do work at home.

But he went on. “And if the real world is high school and college, first of all, not all students go to college. And show me the evidence that homework in high school prepares them for college.” This is the type of argument that seems beguiling if you practice saying it in front of a mirror with an audience applause track playing in your mind. Or alternatively, saying it at Ed Camp sessions like these.

“It is not preparation for the real world,” he repeated, and then clarified that he viewed homework as largely drill and practice activities which in his view held absolutely no value, and certainly, in his opinion, is not something done in the real world. (I should note that I was the only math teacher in this session, but I decided to keep quiet given the reaction when I asked my question at the beginning of the session.)

With parents spotlighted as detractors from how teachers conducted their student-centered classrooms, the session ended with one teacher lamenting how one parent complained that, “This education of my child is becoming my job.”  The teachers all identified with having heard that before. “Gee, sorry to hear that being a parent is so tough” was the general response in the room.

Having been in the position of a parent raising a daughter subjected to student-centered classrooms, I think what that parent meant was not so much, “Why should I be involved in my child’s education?” but rather: “I’m doing a lot of teaching at home that should be going on in the school.” Many parents have complained that students are not being taught grammar, math facts, and other necessities of education, but which teachers of student-centered classrooms consider “drill and kill” and “drudge work.”  That may account for the popularity of learning centers like Sylvan, Huntington and Kumon, which all focus on these things.

The Group-Think of Teaching

Driving home from the Ed Camp, I was reminded of a movie I saw long ago called “The Wicker Man,” in which a deeply Christian, Scottish police officer investigates a missing child on an island in Scotland that practices paganism—and in the end is burnt to death as a human sacrifice to the islanders’ gods. A key point of the film was that the officer’s religion counted for nothing in the midst of different and prevailing beliefs. The winners in such conflicts are those who by virtue of numbers have the means to enforce their beliefs.

I wondered whether in ten years’ time  more parents would accept the inquiry-based and student-centered approach more readily as a result of having been subjected to such techniques themselves? Or would there now be a permanent split: parents who came through the system who are happy with their kids being taught as they had been, and parents who had benefitted from the more traditional techniques used in learning centers or from the dwindling number of schools who practiced them?  Would the ideas and techniques discussed at Ed Camp be viewed as outmoded, just as “Think-Pair-Share,” so popular a few years ago, had fallen out of favor? Or would they be replaced by a slight variation of the same thing?

Whatever the outcome, it was fairly clear to me that any new educational techniques would be portrayed as a measured and informed decision, a step in the right direction and, of course, progress.

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Barry Garelick has written extensively about math education in various publications including The Atlantic, Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News. He recently retired from the U.S. EPA and is teaching middle and high school math in California. He has written a book about his experiences as a long- term substitute in a high school and middle school in California: “Teaching Math in the 21st Century”.