Classroom Discussion Techniques that Work – Try This Hollywood Classroom Walkthrough

Recently I blogged about the teacher-centric information flow in the traditional classroom. See: Engage Student Discussion: Use the Social Network in Your Classroom  If you would like to see my point illustrated, you can do a quick "Hollywood classroom walkthrough" with this clip from "Stand and Deliver." Before you play the video, create a diagram with eight small circles labeled teacher and student responders 1-7. As you watch the video, keep track of the sender/ receiver in each exchange of information with lines and arrows. Once you have finished with the diagram, reflect on a few broader questions:
1. Were the students comfortable offering their answers?
2. What feedback did the teacher give after each student answer?
3. Did the students get any closer to a valid answer as each, in turn, ventured a response?

Go back and look at your information flow diagram. You'll notice that every answer was directed to the teacher. After the first six  answers the teacher found a clever way to say "your wrong," without explaining why. Students made a series of guesses at a correct solution without any evidence that they learned anything from the prior responses. Finally a student shows up at the door with correct answer and it's not even clear that she heard any of the earlier answers. 

Some might admire the comfortable climate of this classroom – after all, students were very willing to risk a response. Ironically the only one making fun of them was the teacher (a practice more suited to Hollywood than a real classroom.) Others might consider this an example of rather Socratic approach – but I don't see the teacher posing any new questions to expand student thinking. When you strip away all the clever (inappropriate?) repartee you are left with a very teacher-centric discussion – with students guessing at a correct answer. 

This approach reminds me of an illustration I saw in "Math Is Language Too: Talking and Writing in the Mathematics Classroom" by Phyllis Whitin. It's a drawing done by Justin, a second grader, writing and drawing about his relationship with math.

Like Justin, the students in "Stand and Deliver" don't see math as a topic for peer discussion or reflection. Rather, they "do the math" for their teacher. While these two examples focus on math, this dynamic could be true of many whole group discussion across the curriculum. I admit to being equally guilty of a dominating classroom discussion as a rookie social studies teacher. "Class, what were three results of the War of 1812? … Anyone? … Anyone??"
After years of facing this type of discussion, students learn that their comments are of provisional value until "approved" by the teacher. Over time, students stop listening to each other and only focus on what the teacher says or validates – "will that be up on a test?" When students are put in small group discussion, they rapidly get off subject. With no teacher to validate their comments, they naturally gravitate to other subjects where peer comments are valued – "what are you doing this weekend?" 
In my workshops I train teachers in discussion techniques that foster student reflection and interaction. The strategies are focused on getting the teacher out of the role of information gatekeeper and encouraging student-centered dialogue. 
Want to encourage students to redirect their thinking and reflection away from the teacher and toward one another? Try a research-based discussion technique like the Fishbowl-discussion 68 KB PDF

Why Study Algebra?

Today I listened to NPR's Scott Simon and Keith Devlin of Stanford University, answer the question: Why Do We Need to Learn Algebra? (NPR Weekend Edition Saturday~February 28, 2009). Devlin described how spreadsheets have become essential to managing everything from your finances to your fantasy football team. And of course, spreadsheet are basically collections of algebraic formulas. You can follow this link to the NPR story, comments and audio file. Teachers might use Devlin's comments as a springboard for getting students to think and discuss the application of algebraic thinking in their lives. 




This is essential, since algebra is emerging as an academic gate keeper. I'm not a math teacher, but I suspect it stems in part from the fact that many students lack basic computation skills. But more importantly,  students have to be able to transition from concrete lower order thinking skills (arithmetic) to higher-level and more abstract thinking (algebra and beyond).  


As Doug Reeves has noted, "The single highest failure rate in high school is Algebra I. After pregnancy, it’s the leading indicator of high school dropout. The leading indicator of success in Algebra I is English 8. The Algebra 1 test is a reading test with numbers.”  District Administrator, April ‘05


If Reeves is correct, then this is as much a literacy problem as a math problem. Teachers of all content areas can pitch in to support the higher order skills (analysis, evaluation and creating) that will help students with more advance mathematical thinking. 

Teaching Innovation? Inspire Your Students with Maker Faire

Last month’s Maker Faire drew do-it-your-selfers from across the country to San Francisco to show off their creations. While the rest of us seem content to buy what we need, there is a dedicated community of tinkerers out there that is keeping the American tradition of backyard innovation alive. Why not showcase their work to inspire your students to think more creatively?

I’ve made the point that schools need to foster creativity to prepare our students for a future that will put a premium on adaptability. Innovation requires both a strong foundation in content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in new ways – usually across a variety of disciplines. And it requires using all of Bloom’s skills from remembering through creating. Creating is not a skill limited to the gifted. It’s something that all students can do – think of it as a new combination of old elements.

If you’re looking to inspire your students, you might send them online to Maker Faire or it’s parent, Make Magazine (or the like-minded site, Instructables.) Even if you’re too timid to let them haul in old washing machine parts, you can give them the opportunity to do paper designs of their creations in the style of Rube Goldberg.

In the meantime enjoy The Best of Maker Faire 2008

Are students well prepared to meet the challenges of the future?

Try a sample PISA question on my update post: 
“Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students”

Are they able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Or have schools been forced to sacrifice learning for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides some answers to those questions and offers an insight into the type of problem solving that rarely turns up on state testing. PISA is an assessment (begun in 2000) that focuses on 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA studied students in 41 countries and assessed how well prepared students are for life beyond the classroom by focusing on the application of knowledge and skills to problems with a real-life context. PISA website

NCLB has narrowed our curriculum and forced many schools into the test prep mode. PISA offers a better picture of the independent thinking and problem solving our student will need to be successful. PISA defines problem solving as “an individual’s capacity to use cognitive processes to confront and resolve real, cross-disciplinary situations where the solution is not immediately obvious… and where the literacy domains or curricular areas that might be applicable are not within a single domain of mathematics, science, or reading.”

A competitive workforce is made up of people who can think independently in complex and ambiguous situations where the solutions are not immediately obvious.  Educators need resources and training to craft a rigorous learning environment where students can function as 21st century professionals – critical thinkers who can effectively collaborate to gather, evaluate, analyze and share information.  You can download PISA sample questions, answers and comparative data:
Executive report 3.4MB pdf
Mathematics items 534KB pdf
Mathematics scoring guide and international benchmarks 624KB pdf
Science items 503KB pdf
Science scoring guide and international benchmarks 461KB pdf
Reading items 835KB pdf
Reading scoring guide and international benchmarks 923KB pdf