Monday, 15 August 2016

The learning pit!

This afternoon we had a staff meeting run by Sue Pine, our maths PD facilitator.
She reminded us that as teachers, we are never in the position of uncomfortable learning and the 'unknown', i.e. the learning pit. We are always the ones who know everything, and yet we expect out students to be comfortable being uncomfortable. 

Sourced from
We discussed different things we were struggling with in maths, that were leaving us 'in the pit'. It was refreshing that a lot of us were struggling with the same things.

She then introduced some ways to encourage students to talk within themselves productively about their learning. 
For both terms 2 and 3, the senior syndicate has done the Week of Inspirational Maths upon Sue's recommendation. This is a great way to build class norms about how we act and think in maths.

We discussed..
What do good maths learners do?

  • Ask questions when they don’t understand
  • Explain their thinking so others can understand
  • Use different ways to represent their solutions (visual,
  • equipment)
  • Revise their thinking when they learn new information or
  • strategies
  • Understand that mistakes are learning opportunities
  • Value a deep understanding not speed
  • Check that their solution is sensible
  • Check back in with the problem and what it is asking
  • Support other mathematicians to develop their understanding
Sue reminded us that we need to explicitly talk about those things in our classes, and have it displayed somewhere in our class so students and us as teachers can always remember. 

Next we discussed how we can support our students to be those good maths learners we want them to be.. 
A few key ways are 
  • ensure groups are mixed ability (not 'smart' groups and 'low' groups)
  • ensure groups are not larger than 4 students 
  • giving students roles within the group (e.g. in picture below)
  • giving students question prompts to use
  • explicitly teaching group/teamwork skills

One key thing Sue talked about that really resonated with me was the idea of the 'low status of learners'. This means, that there are some students with low self-efficacy, no confidence, etc., so they sit and don't try in group work. Even when they do, other students see them as 'low status' and often don't even listen to what they have to say, assuming they don't know anything and/or are wrong. This resonated with me because this is exactly what my case study for uni was about. I noticed four of the students in my own class had very low self-efficacy in maths, so I wanted to increase that. One gem moment from my case study was one of my students Lopiseni. He often sits back, doesn't try, doesn't engage in group discussions and lets others do the work. One day however, as I was browsing from group-to-group, I found his group were very confused on their problem. The girl who was scribing was leading the group down the wrong track, and none of them seemed to realise it. I asked Lopiseni what he thought, and straight away he offered a helpful strategy that would bring the group back to the right path. He knew all along, but either didn't want to say, or his group wouldn't listen. He then kind of took over the group, with his confidence boosted, and together they found the answer to the problem. This is exactly what Sue was talking about - finding those opportunities to lift up those 'low status' students, so they can fly on their own. That moment definitely was a highlight of that day. 

Something that really challenged me was Sue's idea that we act as if maths thinking is private. In all learning areas, students are encouraged to talk, think, connect, predict etc. In maths however, we seem to expect them to just think and write and know. Why is there such a difference? Why is reading knowledge so social, so discussable, so debatable between students, but maths isn't? Why is maths always 'this' answer or its not. Why is it so individual, when no other curriculum area is? Sue challenged us to think about the way we think about maths, because that influences the way our students do. If we can be comfortable in the learning pit as teachers, this is how our students will learn to do the same. We need to challenge ourselves to change our own conceptions about maths, brought about by the rote-learning we all did as kids. Why did we do that? Was it helpful? How did it effect our overall picture of learning, or what makes a 'good' learner?

I came away with lots to think about from Sue's PD today. Some of it a celebration of my students success, some of it questioning my own personal experiences and beliefs about teaching maths.. Food for thought anyone?? 

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