Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Oh yeah, I get it now...

I had a talk with all of my freshmen classes today; probably a talk I should have had much earlier in the year but I don't know if it would have made as good of an impact.  I feel like they are finally to the point (3 weeks before summer) where this really clicked with a lot of them and I hope it makes them think about their actions the rest of this school year and into their sophomore year.

We just finished the hardest chapter of the year on Rational Expressions, and the kids struggled on the test.  I didn't expect them to ace it, honestly, but they did really bad.  Like REALLY bad.  Like to the point that I actually worked out the test for them in warm-up Monday-Thursday, gave them the exact same questions on Friday, and they still only got a 65% class average (when 50% is the lowest any student could score for trying).

Here is the story I told them:

You are all really good at watching me do problems on a video screen.  You copy down the notes in detail and hang on to every word I say.  Then, at the end of the video, you say "Oh yeah, I get it"

I ask you to try some problems at the end of the video, but work them out for you in a second, optional, part.  You aren't quite sure how to start them, so you watch part 2 and copy what I explain.  Then, at the end of the video, you say "Oh yeah, I get it now."

You come to class and start working on some problems, but get stuck, so you ask your group members.  They pull out a whiteboard or a piece of paper and explain it to you, or show you how they solved it.  You copy down what they said or wrote, and then you say "Oh yeah, I get it now."

You keep working on problems, but your group members are busy or stuck as well, so you call me over to get help.  I guide you through a problem or to, asking you questions along the way, but in the end you basically copy down what I say.  Then you say, "Oh yeah, I get it now."

You need some more help, and I am busy on the other side of the classroom, so you get up to check out the worked out answer key and see what I did.  You see how I worked it out and copy my work down step by step.  Then you look at it and say, "Oh yeah, I get it now" and sit down to work on the next problem.

You find another problem that you need help on, but there isn't a worked out answer key for this one, just the answer.  So you get it wrong, look at the answer on the back, and find a way to make your work seem like it matches up with the answer.  It's close enough anyways.  You're happy you got the right answer even though you have no idea how you got there, so you say "Oh yeah, I get it now."

You are supposed to take concept quizzes on each type of problem to test your understanding and if you truly get it.  You either decide not to take the quizzes at all and just ignore the fact that they are there, or you take them and fail them because you actually haven't solved one problem by yourself in all of your days of practice so far.  I ask you to come to tutoring to get extra help.  I ask you to go back over and find your mistakes, letting me know if you need more help.  Some of you fix your mistakes after a classmate explains it to you and you copy down their explanation.  Then you say "Oh yeah, I get it now."  Or, you look at your failed quiz and quickly glance over the work and say that you see what you did wrong even though you don't, and say "Oh yeah, I get it now"

Then you show up on the day of the test, when you now have to show that you truly get it.  And you fail.  And you wonder why you got an F when you truly thought that you got it.

This experience was a failure on the part of the students but also a failure on the part of me as a teacher.  Through my 54 minutes each day with them, I constantly formatively assess them through interviews, questioning, and watching them work through problems.  I knew they weren't 100% ready and there were definitely some tricky problems that they struggled with.  I tried alleviate that by basically giving them the test problems, by spending some extra days reviewing, by pulling out small groups, by reviewing some tricky examples, etc.  Was there more I should have done? Yes. Were there things I should have done differently? Yes. But I really thought I did my best with the time and ideas I had this year.

However, a large part of this also falls on the students.  I believe that self-evaluating is a HUGE skill that our students must develop.  They need to know what they know and know what they don't know... and then have the motivation, confidence, and support to strive after improving their understanding of the material.  My students do an amazing job of lying to themselves by saying "Oh yeah, I get it" when they have actually never done a problem on their own.

Do students learn by watching me do problems? Yes.
Do students learn by watching their classmates do problems? Yes.
Do students learn by looking at examples? Yes.
But students learn best (and it sticks!) when they actually DO and when they actually DO IT THEMSELVES and not by watching someone else do it for them.  The modeling is key at the beginning. The support is necessary.  But eventually, they have to learn to do and think for themselves. 

My students still do a lot of "watching" and not enough "doing".  Because of this, when they were asked to fully "do" on the day of a test, they failed.

I waited a couple of days after the test to have this "talk" with the students. I didn't want it to come across in anger, and it didn't.  I really feel like it hit home with the students.  Most importantly, I want them to know that we are all learners.  I told them that even though my formal education was over, I am still learning something new every day.  I am constantly trying to figure things out, make things better, and solve problems.  Once I stop learning, I stop living.  We as humans are learners; it's in our nature.  We are all capable of learning anything (I truly believe that); it will just take some of us longer to learn some things than it will take others.  We need to realize that is true, and realize that it is okay.  We need to know that we don't fully learn by listening, by copying, or passively participating.  We learn best by doing, applying, and thinking critically about our mistakes so we can learn from them.

After the talk, we got to work.  It was actually really neat to hear the students work together or work with me, and after having something explained to them, they actually said "Oh yeah, I get it now" without realizing it.  Then they realized what they said, and they followed it up with "Well, let me try one on my own and then I'll let you know if I get it".

How can I teach this to my kids from Day 1 next year?

This is such an important tool in a Flipped Classroom for students to be able to self-evaluate and know where they are at and when they are ready to move on, as well as when they need to slow down and do some more practice.

How can I show them that it's not about getting the work "done" or getting the work "right" but actually understanding what you are doing and being able to do it completely on your own?

How can I teach them that it's not about completing the required assignments, it's about practicing enough to master the material, whether that be 2 problems or 20 problems?  My students have no problem "waiving" an assignment for acing a quiz, but I never have a had a student ask for more problems when they are done with the requirement but aren't ready for the quiz yet.

I hope I see a change in my students over the next 3 weeks.  I know a speech is not going to reach every kid, but I will say that from what I have heard from my students the rest of the day, what I said resonated with them and made them think.  I just hoping that thinking = desire to change.  Because if this truly resonates and makes sense to them, I truly believe their level of success at everything they do will increase exponentially.  (Had to throw a math visual in there:) ).


  1. Do we teach in the same classroom? =) I have experienced this same thing and had the same conversation with my freshmen! It makes me feel better to know I'm not alone. The students probably aren't going to remember the algebra we teach them, but self-assessment will stick with them forever! Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for commenting - it makes me feel better to know there are others out there going through the same things! :) Another "Power of the PLN!"

  2. Self evaluation. Not a great trait for kids. Not even for many adults. Good enough is usually not good enough. And these are probably the same kids who didn't know how to come up with worthwhile questions in the WSQ.

    Of course they should be expected to do well on traditonal evaluations, but are the routines they are following in the flipped class helping them to prepare for such evaluations?
    The idea of mastery learning requires patience and time, two features that are tough to find in such a curriculum-driven education system.

    Sorry if these comments raise more questions than answers... they are the sort of things that I am trying to solve for myself.

    1. To follow up your comment with more questions :)...

      Do you think the transition to Common Core will help with this? Almost REQUIRE this more? I am hoping so - I feel like the flipped classroom ideology fits in well with what is going to be "expected" of us in the next few years. The types of evaluations (rather than objective standardized tests) seem to be much deeper and connections-based rather than just simple math tasks.

      I am hoping in "year 2" of flipping to just get my feet wet with the whole mastery learning thing and get through an entire school year start to finish with my "flipping system" I've created and tweaked through the course of this semester. Then maybe in "year 3" I will be ready to try something new. We'll see :)

      Thanks for all your comments; I'm glad I had a few minutes to sit down and reply to all of them!

  3. Your post rings so true for many math classrooms. I loved the way you phrased it and might try it with my 4th graders next year.


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