As I gave ISAT tests this week, I had a lot of free time to reflect on conversations I have had during the week. I was fortunate enough to have a great conversation with my principal, Bob Beem, after school Tuesday. My wife has also been having conversations with people about Common Core on Facebook. With all of this going on, one main idea kept coming up: What is the real purpose of my teaching? What am I really doing when I am teaching these different concepts and different strategies? What is the reason parents send their kids to my class?
It seemed to all start earlier this week when my wife was having a conversation with someone she went to school with about Common Core. This parent was upset about the new ways that students are being taught different concepts like multiplication. I can understand this parent’s frustration, especially if they have not been informed about the changes or if the teacher teaching these things really doesn’t have any faith in the new ways. While talking to my wife about this, I asked her the question “Why do our kids go to math class?” I think if you asked parents this, they would say that they want their children to be able to “do” all of the mathematics they should be doing at that grade level. However, I have never been at the store, looked on the shelf and seen a box with “2.99x + y = 20.” But, I do see that milk is on sale for $2.99, I have $20, and I need to decide how many I can buy, including tax. There are many different ways I can get this answer, the important thing in life is getting the answer and feeling confident in it. Although some people may not like the new way multiplication is being done, some students may finally understand it and be able to use it in their lives. At the end of the day, I think all of us can agree that our goal is for students to be able to successfully use mathematics, not just do it.
I believe being able to do mathematics involves recognizing how things are related in the real world and then making a decision and planning how I am going to get to an answer. In real life, the use of mathematics isn’t always posed as a question. We see things in life and then ask ourselves those questions. If we have the ability, we can then use mathematics to come up with the answer to our own questions. For example, one day in class I showed this video. The video is from 101 questions and was uploaded by the highly talented Andrew Stadel. (He’s a great follow on Twitter, if you are looking for some great math educators.) The video doesn’t ask a question. It shows the blue cups being taller when the stacks are 1 cup tall and the styrofoam cups being taller when the stacks are 20 stacks tall. The video then cuts out and shows the two stacks at the same height. In every class I showed this, kids asked right away, “When are they the same height?” That’s mathematics to me. I gave them the dimensions of the cups and they did the rest. After it was all finished, I then showed them this video, which shows them how many cups are in the stacks when they are the same height. Most student got it correct and were very excited with their success.
These two things brought me back to thinking about standards-based grading again. If I believe that students should be in a math class in order to learn how to use mathematics, what does 83% mean? Does it mean that they can use mathematics correctly 83% of the time? Not usually. What that grade reflects is a student’s ability to answer questions correctly, possibly save their notes, sometimes get their rules sheet signed, and even at times bring in the correct amount of Kleenex boxes. Almost none of these show the ability to use mathematics. Maybe someday we’ll have a better way of evaluating and grading our students than letter grades. I’m thinking it might be sooner, rather than later.
When all is said and done, maybe nothing will change. Maybe everyone else is right and I’m completely wrong. However, I think that students benefit any time their teachers reflect on their teaching and discuss it with other educators. Any time teachers think of what they could do better, students win.