I just finished a 2-day workshop on Mathematics and Inquiry and am re-inspired about teaching Math. We had a Math inquiry specialist come in and teach our kids and then us about how to teach. So much makes sense, and I think, hope, I’m on the right path.
In the PYP, we know that kids learn best through making their own understandings and connections. Of course. It’s seems simple. But what does that really mean in teaching, and are teachers doing it? It takes effort, a hell of a lot of effort. It means we don’t slap a textbook in front of kids and have them rotely do pages from it. It means we don’t hand out worksheets, give an example and send them off to do their work. It means we think about the standards and where the kids need to reach and then we figure out activities on how to move them along toward those standards.
What I love about teaching is the creativity, and I feel especially lucky to be in a school that prizes that. In general, PYP schools give teachers and students the freedom to explore. We don’t have a set math textbook, which was scary when I first jumped into a PYP school. Now, after 5 years and various math workshops, I realize how glad I am that we don’t.
My daughter followed a textbook in 3rd grade for the first time, and she rebelled. Textbooks (even Everyday Math workbooks) are made for one level of student, and if you’re not there, well too bad. The activities in the textbook give you all the words you need, and you fill in the spaces. You might problem solve, based on their data, but what are you learning? How to follow?
In Math, just like in language, students are at different ability levels. Any teacher knows that. My first experience in the public school classroom left me questioning this quickly. How could I possibly teach 29 students all the same thing? I taught to the middle and felt sorry for those at the top and the bottom. It’s tough in a class of 29 kids.
Teaching is hard work. Today, our workshop facilitator presented us with a typical textbook problem and then we changed it to make it relevant to the kids (or us) and then thought about how to differentiate it. It was a simple pizza problem. You want to order pizza for a class. How much do you need? In our inquiry, we had to figure out the number of people, how many pieces they want and what type. Who sold the pizzas? Prices? Delivery? How much would we charge each person. Of course, through a long process, our group also began to talk about the ethics of the pizza company (Dominos) and whether we should even be buying such expensive, American pizza in Japan. Our inquiry took on a life of its own.
When kids are given a chance to explore and create their own learning, it sticks. The other day, my students played a game with rules that I made up, which were deliberately unfair. They tried out the game, not realizing its inequality. They collected data, created a graph, and realized how unfair it was. Then, they had to design their own game that was fair. It was great to hear their conversations and their rules. One group, whose rules didn’t work and led to bias, created another rule to fix the previous one and so on, until they had a long list of rules. They were engaged trying to figure it out, completely, because they love games and fairness.
As our workshop facilitator said at different times, we need to allow students to collect their own data to use to solve problems. They need to create their own learning, and to do that, it’s going to take some work. We can’t hand out the worksheets and then sit back at our desk. When students are done, we can’t just give them another page to do or allow them to read or play Mathletics. We need to differentiate and engage, and if we aren’t doing that, then we’re doing the students a disservice.
I’m going to keep working on using inquiry and differentiation in my own classroom. I’m energized again. I’m also more irritated by the trend in schools, at least in the US, to use standardized tests to judge teachers and students. A culture of teaching to a one-size fits all test is ridiculous. Teaching, in its best form, is really hard work. Allow teachers to have the freedom to breathe and to engage their students in inquiry. Respect teachers for differentiating and promote an atmosphere where this can happen.