Monty in Math Ed

Before you continue reading, This is not a post about the Monty Hall problem. Not because I don’t love the problem, it just isn’t. That ship has sailed 

This post was born from a conversation I had with a teaching friend after a games night. Along the way, we were reminiscing some past experiences and he mentioned the famous clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Sir Bedevere handles a crowd’s plea to burn a woman suspected of witchcraft. When I got home that evening, I searched the clip and watched it for the first time in years. My lens has obviously changed, because I found myself not interested solely in the logic and hilarity of the piece, but on Sir Bedevere’s teaching methods. As you refresh your memory below, I want you to do so with your “educator lens”. Does Sir Bedevere run an effective lesson?

It is remarkable how much information can be garnered with a trained eye. There are several observations that can be pulled from the clip:

  • The clip opens with a very enthusiastic group of ‘students’ coming to ‘class’. I tried to remember the last time my students came triumphantly into my room as the bell rang. Those experiences are few and far between, but the Red Card, Blue Card problem did get that response.
  • Notice that the teacher is physically raised and is very obviously the source of knowledge in the ‘class’. Students are looking for the correct answer from the authority.
  • Teacher opens the class with a broad question (“How do you know she is a witch?”), and gets a shallow answer (“Because she looks like one”).
  • Teacher asks for verifying criteria, and further specifies the opening question.
  • Teacher then informs the class that there is a specific set of criteria that they need to know to diagnose their problem. (“There are ways of telling whether she is a witch”)
  • Teacher leads the class along a problem solving trail with multiple pauses for student thought and involvement. Unfortunately, questions are always focused on a select few students. (The three keeners that sit front-and-center)
  • Students begin to critique each other’s responses. (“More witches!” ; “Shhhh”)
  • Teacher takes a student response and forces them to think deeper. (“Build a bridge out of her.”; “Can you not also make bridges out of stone?”)
  • When the class becomes stumped, the teacher asks a semi-rhetorical question to re-spark thinking. (Does wood sink in water?”)
  • The entire class is a struggle between two wills: The class wants to arrive at an answer, while the teacher is moving toward a foreseen objective. (Medieval curriculum…possibly?)
  • Teacher encourages a brainstorming session, but quickly disapproves when students go off track. (“What also floats in water?”; “Bread”, “apples”, “very small rocks”…)
  • The teacher reviews the problem solving with the class before deciding how to test their new-found hypothesis.

Obviously, there are advantages to this setting as a classroom. Math teachers will complain that there is a high level of inherent motivation involved in the class so it is easy to loosen the control a little. Students would much rather burn witches than factor polynomials. Also, the teacher was equipped with the necessary resources and was not being pushed with curriculum or testing restraints. How did Sir Bedevere go about assessing the students? Did he contact parents about those students who seem disengaged in the witch craze?

I think there are good and bad things to draw from the “lesson”. It demonstrates that a teacher can lead students through discovery while still standing at the front of the room. It also demonstrates how poor feedback can quickly derail a great lesson. I am not nominating ‘The Flying Circus’ for teacher of the year, but do think there is plenty of food for thought contained in the clip.

I think it would be a very interesting activity to get teachers to assess the learning of the three “students” or take the lens of Intern Supervisor and evaluate the lesson.

If this demonstrates nothing else, it proves that my class is a lot like a flying circus in more ways than one.NatBanting

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