Those of you who follow me on twitter or read this blog regularly know I have been struggling to implement wide scale Project-based Learning (PBL) into my Workplace and Apprenticeship mathematics courses. This strand of classes is probably unfamiliar to those outside of Western Canada. I have included a link to our provincial curriculum below. You can skip to the outcomes and indicators to view which topics need to be addressed. (Page 33)
Last night I was preparing my list of things to do. This has become a typical Saturday night activity for myself. Almost every week, I am commissioned with the task of preparing a new unit for one of my classes. I am a new teacher working with new curriculum. These two realities, coupled with my desire to keep my classes fresh, force me to steadily plan and reflect on past preparations. As I sat down to prepare a pre-calculus unit on rational expressions, I quickly became bored. The weekly drone of preparing a unit plan got me thinking:
For years I have wanted to try a project-based math class. My inspiration ebbs and flows as I encounter excellent projects and rationale for executing them. Up to this point, I have left the dream as just that–a dream. There are several reasons for this:
- I felt I was too inexperienced to take it on.
- I felt the curriculum didn’t lend itself nicely to projects.
- I didn’t have the resources and infrastructure to execute it.
- I hadn’t heard of many who believed in it.
- Couldn’t elegantly explain why I felt it was necessary.
This past Monday I attended a professional development focused around technological infusion into our teaching. I will be the first to admit that this topic is not often tailored toward the math teachers in the building. In the morning, virtual classrooms and movie making dominated the discussions. I didn’t see the implications for my mathematics classroom, until the afternoon. A facilitator introduced me to the SMS text messaging technology of polling.
My province is in the midst of a major overhaul on its curriculum. This puts me in a very interesting situation. I am a new teacher in a large division filled with veteran teachers that all feel as overwhelmed as myself. I can’t decide if this is a curse or a blessing; I simply continue to roll with all the punches that curriculum renewal brings. On top of the nuts-and-bolts of each new course (5 of which I teach for the first time this year), the division heaps on division, school, department, and personal learning priorities. To make matters even more confusing, each initiative comes with about 35 acronyms. I can’t tell the difference between AFL, PLO, PLP, PPP, SLI, PBL… you get my drift. Amidst the chaos of red tape, I believe I have found something to hang my hat on.
I like to introduce each topic with a task or activity. These do not necessarily have to be long, but should activate mathematical thinking. The idea has slowly evolved for me throughout my short career. They are the amalgamation of the ideas of a “motivational set” and discovery learning. I felt that both components are positive things to include in a math class, but both had severe implementation problems.
The motivational set is far too passive. In my college, a picture, story, or conversation could serve as a motivational set. It was essentially a transition tool that was completely void of any mathematics. Every lesson begins with the same routine whether it be a national anthem, attendance, or a short time of homework recap, but each learning experience needs to begin with an active brain. I found that the purpose of the motivational set was important, but needed a stronger method to get brains engaged in the day’s learning.
I teach mathematics at the high school level, and know all about the various theories surrounding school mathematics. I can still remember the intrigue when the term “Math Wars” was introduced to me through some undergraduate reading. I immediately took to the history of my art, and found a very convoluted and bloody past. The constant pendulum between retention math, new math, back to basics, and now the new-new math is dizzying. Whenever I converse with a colleague about a new way of thinking in math education, I am sure to remind them that we are in a war. It is this idea that has appealed to the more militant teachers (myself included).
I consider reading an essential part of my professional development. I enjoy a morning glance through a chapter or two, and like to wind down a winter’s day with a book and a cup of coffee. Sometimes reading is the only way to relax my mind at the end of a day. (Naturally, some professional literature is better at putting me to sleep than others). To this point in my young career, no book has changed my perspective on the teaching and doing of mathematics more than The Art of Problem Posing: Third Edition by Stephen I. Brown and Marion I. Walter. The duo writes quite a bit for “Mathematics Teacher” (the high school journal for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) as well. The processes introduced in the book have been crucial to the penning of many posts on this blog. The book creates a framework from which creative mathematics flows.
There has been plenty of recent twitter talk about the process of moving the focus of mathematics education away from the “how” and toward the “why”. Traditionally, students have been trained to approach a question–usually given to them by an outside source like a teacher, textbook, or test–with the express intent to show the grader “how” it is answered. Such responses often include the use of algorithms, formulae, or memorized facts we know to be true. (These facts are in no way axiomatic, but constant repetition reduces them to that state. Students have answered them so often, the process loses meaning. Take 2×2 for example.)