Sunday, February 12, 2012

Being Less Helpful

Less helpful. That is Dan Meyer’s tag line on his blog. He is a high school math teacher who says we must give students more time and less help in solving real math problems.

Here is an excerpt from Dan’s talk entitled Math Class Needs a Makeover:
David Milch, creator of "Deadwood" and other amazing TV shows...swore off creating contemporary drama, shows set in the present day, because he saw that when people fill their mind with four hours a day of, for example, "Two and a Half Men," no disrespect, it shapes the neural pathways, he said, in such a way that they expect simple problems. He called it, "an impatience with irresolution." You're impatient with things that don't resolve quickly. You expect sitcom-sized problems that wrap up in 22 minutes, three commercial breaks and a laugh track. And I'll put it to all of you, what you already know, that no problem worth solving is that simple. I am very concerned about this because I'm going to retire in a world that my students will run. I'm doing bad things to my own future and well-being when I teach this way. I'm here to tell you that the way our textbooks -- particularly mass-adopted textbooks -- teach math reasoning and patient problem solving, it's functionally equivalent to turning on "Two and a Half Men" and calling it a day.

Right now I am taking a fantastic class with Sandi Stanhope about math problem-solving in elementary school. She frequently mentions the need to “sit on our hands”. We’re so used to teaching, guiding, instructing, that we deprive students of the opportunity to develop into competent problem-solvers and mathematicians. Our homework for Sandi’s class is to pose appropriately challenging problems to our students and then to encourage them to solve them in whatever way makes sense to them. We work on our ability to ask good questions and to facilitate high-quality dialogue among students rather than to front-load students with algorithms and strategies we hope to see.

So far, it has been incredible to work with students this way and to hear others in the class describe their experiences doing the same. Our students tend to pleasantly surprise us with when we let them. They also demonstrate the ability to work long and hard on a single problem when we allow and encourage that.

Be Less Helpful can be applied to homework as well. If you find yourself very involved in a young person’s homework, it might be time to take a step back and rethink things. I have applied this principle to my involvement in my own children’s homework. I find I am still helpful and supportive, but just in different (better) ways.

In Sandi’s class, we’re using a book by Larry Buschman called Share & Compare. I highly recommend it. Buschman has also written many great articles in NCTM’s Teaching Children Mathematics magazine.               

I'll close with Buschman's two most important discoveries as a teacher:
Teachers give themselves teachable moments by carefully listening to children.
Teachers give children magic moments by letting go.

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