Making Math Education Inquiry-based, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful

A long-time member of my professional learning network, Alanna King, posted today about “wrestling with math.” Alanna’s son has found his way into the meat grinder that is math education in most schools, and she is thinking about his struggles in light of her reading of Building School 2.0 (recommended).

We all know the story of the kids who struggle in math. Long nights of homework, tutoring, and some of them never quite become the computational experts their personal computers are. This week I was in a parent-teacher conference with a really top student who excels in all of her classes but is struggling in Calculus class. All that anxiety and stress because she believes (and with good reason, unfortunately) that Calculus is a mountain she must climb in order to get into the college of her choice. The student disclosed in her conference that she wouldn’t be taking the course if she didn’t think it was necessary in the college rat race.

College is a real world goal for students, certainly, but if it is the only reason to take math, it seems like a poor one. Students should understand that math education has a more meaningful purpose, and that purpose should not be math itself. A “siloed” math education divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving tool for the real world, and education in math should look like that.

what is math?I wrote about this on my blog back in November 2010, and about Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk in which he argues that computers should do most of the computational work of math, leaving the focus on the interdisciplinary purpose of mathematics: http://mikegwaltney.net/math-is-dead-long-live-mathematics/

Top Reads This Week – February 14, 2016

“Education ought to foster the wish for truth, not the conviction that some particular creed is the truth.” Education as a Political Institution, by Bertrand Russell:

“That App is My Life” – Teenagers and Snapchat:  

3 Biases that Negatively Affect the Decision to Hire a New Head of School:

1. Priming bias: identified weaknesses of the present Head get outsized value in hiring.
2. Halo bias: a candidate’s current highly regarded, prestigious school becomes a proxy for the candidate’s collective attributes.
3. Beauty contest bias: a candidate’s interview and likability overshadow the discipline and rigor of amassing evidence that proves he/she has the needed leadership attributes.

Do elite colleges really lead to higher salaries? In Science and Math, no. In Liberal Arts, Yes.

Why and How to Take a Team Approach to Technology at Your School:

To Rebuild a School Technology Program, Leaders Must First Arrive at Common Ground

Guess what? You Already Have All The Skills You Need to Succeed. You really do. 

 

Top Reads This Week – February 7, 2016

Why kids – now more than ever – need to learn philosophy. Yes, philosophy: 

How do you prepare children for an unknown future? Innovative model:

Are ‘Micro Schools’ the new Competition for Private K-12 schools? Personalized, nimble: 

Schools in Finland will no longer teach ‘subjects.’ What of the Finland Phenomenon?

Do you call on students who don’t raise their hands? Some thoughts about pedagogy, and democracy:

Studies tie School Improvement and Growth directly to Ongoing Teacher Professional Learning:

Animated Graphics show the U.S. Map when Sized for Size of Local Economies: 

Strange But True! “Coin toss broke 6 Clinton-Sanders deadlocks in Iowa” 

And a blast from the past: Take the Multiple Intelligences Self-Assessment Quiz  (My score: )

 

iBooks as Public Products

[pullquote]one exciting way to do authentic work with young writers is to publish books[/pullquote]Authenticity is central to excellent project-based learning. In a recent post I explained that to create a meaningful and effective PBL experience, teachers should envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is used for or by real people outside of school. By doing work that students understand has a purpose bigger than “just for class” – authentic work – they are more engaged and the learning outcomes are more profound.

Now that self-publication and distribution is easier than ever before, one exciting way to do authentic work with young writers is to publish books. In my U.S. History class, I recently gave my students a PBL challenge to research and publish stories about the Cold War as iBooks on the Apple Store (following the lead of my good friend and colleague, Peter Pappas and his students’ iBooks). In their reflections after the project, students expressed that they had never felt so engaged by a school project, and that they were able to understand twentieth-century American history in new, personally meaningful ways.

True, the writing of high school students about the Cold War is unlikely to break new scholarly ground or skyrocket to the top of best-sellers lists. But their work is original and valuable, and is a fresh perspective by a new generation on historical events that have helped shape their world.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.01.22 PMTheir “Cold War Stories” iBooks – in Volumes I and II (available separately) – are the products of a 6-week project-based learning unit. Students were given wide latitude to conduct their own study of the period, and the chapters in the books show the variety of topic choices. What is common to each chapter is that the writing is original, and that the work is by students. Readers should of course not hold the work to the standard that they might for a book by a professional historian, rather, understand that these are books by students developing as writers and historians. Feedback so far indicates that readers are impressed by the quality of the work, and by the complexity of the students’ thinking.

iBooks are created using iBooks Author, an Apple application, and are viewable only on iPads and Mac computers. However, there are many publishing options in other formats, for teachers and students who work in non-Apple environments.

I invite you to read the books! And don’t hesitate to send me comments or to ask questions, using the discussion tool below this post.

Get “Cold War Stories” Volumes 1 and 2 on the Apple Store: itunes.apple.com

Get PDF versions of “Cold War Stories”: Volume 1, Volume 2

 

Creative, Appealing, Meaningful Learning

[pullquote]In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.[/pullquote]Grant Wiggins has just written about a study released in 1983 – my freshman year of high school. The study’s conclusions fit what I remember about schooling:

“School curriculum is sterile. Topics of great human interest on the way to the classroom are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal. Students scarcely ever speculate on meaning or discuss alternative interpretations. Teachers teach as they were taught years ago in their own schooling. All the messages received by them conspire to reinforce the status quo. The cards are stacked against innovation.” [emphasis added]

Grant’s post ends with “plus ça change“, and I don’t doubt that in many classrooms, if not in most in the United States, the curriculum is STILL sterile, and the work students are asked to do is STILL neither creative nor meaningful to them.

But many schools and teachers are doing innovative work. It’s not hard to be inspired by the great project-based teaching at High Tech High, the Science Leadership Academy, and at the New Tech Network Schools. In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to see the required curriculum differently, to be creative, and my students have benefited.

Here’s just one example.

In my U.S. History course last year, I wanted my students to think deeply about the cultural effects of the Cold War on American life. After a unit of study in which we explored many of the key political events and social trends through socratic seminar (try this method, here), I put some questions to my students:

  • How might you have been affected by the events of the Cold War, if you had been alive then?
  • How do you think these events in the U.S. and around the world affected individual Americans, and the culture in general?
  • What cultural trends do you notice in America that might have been influenced by the Cold War?
  • What more do you want to know about the Cold War’s impact on American life?

 

Students came up with some truly interesting responses, and raised a number of potential research and discussion topics. I challenged the students to consider if the topics were meaningful to other people, and how. I told them that if the topics passed my vetting process, they would be free to research them, but that they would have to share their answers with the world. They agreed.

By designing a project in which students pursue their own inquiry, what I was actually doing was asking them to speculate on what is historically meaningful and to develop their own interpretations of history. I asked them to be historians.

Here are their topics, in this Google Doc:

Sure, I had content goals for this project in mind before I gave it to the students. My challenge was to fit those content goals into the project’s design. Where there were gaps between the curriculum and the students’ interest, I designed some short socratic seminar moments and embedded them in class at key points during their research. By the end of the project, I was confident that my students were learning in ways that were creative, appealing, and meaningful to them.

In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.

How can you see your curriculum differently?

 

Doing Authentic Work in PBL with iBooks

Much of the work that students do for school is just that – work only suited to school. A case in point is the traditional research paper. Where else in life will students have to follow a prescribed formula for presenting research that nobody besides a teacher or professor actually reads? Academic research papers aren’t bad, per se, they’re just rarely “authentic” for K-12 students.

[pullquote]A sure-fire way to create a meaningful project is to envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is for real people outside of school.[/pullquote]

Authentic work is work students do that is real to them. This is work that has personal meaning for the students, because it has relevance in their lives, or because it is for people outside of school. Sure, it can be argued that because school matters to students, any class work has some relevance, but my experience and a convincing body of research shows that truly authentic work produces remarkable learning outcomes. When students take on authentic tasks, they are more engaged, develop enduring understanding, and produce better work.

A sure-fire way to create a meaningful and effective project-based learning experience is to envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is used for or by real people outside of school. In my U.S. History class last spring, my students and I agreed that by researching and sharing stories about the era during which their parents and grandparents came of age, the students would do original historical work and create a niche for themselves in published Cold War histories. During the six-week project, students thought and acted like real historians, and created a two volume iBook set.

Cold War iBook Screenshot

View our Cold War Stories, Vol. 1 & 2 in iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/mike-gwaltney/id950865027

In their reflections after the project, students expressed that they had never felt so engaged by a school project, and that they were able to understand twentieth-century American history in new, personally meaningful ways.

In future posts, I will share more about how I structured this project, and about how we used iBooks Author to create digital books now available for sale on the iTunes iBook Store. In the meantime, you can learn more about creating iBooks and publishing on my colleague Peter Pappas’s blog Copy/Paste.

Thinking and Acting Like a Historian with PBL

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.01.22 PMThere are many good reasons to teach history to high school students, and not the least of those is to teach disciplinary thinking. Professor Jeffrey D. Nokes expressed the correct sentiment in 2012 in his article for Education Week:

“Like their peers who provide opportunities for students to mimic professionals, history teachers need to design instruction that immerses students in historian-like reading, thinking, and writing. Just as students in a shop class use the materials, tools, strategies, and vocabulary of real-life woodworkers, students in a history class need exposure to the materials, tools, strategies, and vocabulary of historians. Such exposure is especially needed at a time when the Internet makes available to all readers a wide range of sources of varying credibility. Students must be equipped to analyze and evaluate such information. After all, this is how historians spend their time.”

Once you’ve made the decision to set aside purely academic endeavors, like content coverage and timed exams, students begin to understand history and how to think and act like historians. And their engagement and creativity come through in their work.

Here’s one way that I have used Project-based Learning in my U.S. History class to help students understand the 20th century and how to think and act like a historian. I presented the students with a challenging “Driving Question”, that suggested to them that they would need to become published authors about the Cold War. Their work blew me away, and you can see it on the iTunes Store (link at the end of this post).

Link to the students’ iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/mike-gwaltney/id950865027