For a long time

For a long time, I taught my students in a way that I thought was effective.

During the last couple of years, I’ve now discovered that I was all wrong. I actually made this revelation two years ago while “flipping” my classroom.

Student learning is best when it comes from complex, indefinite situations and then, after contemplation, taken to broader ideas and concrete generalizations. When learning begins, students should be confused and perplexed, or at least unsure about what is going to happen during a lesson. The problem comes first and the solution/generalization later. I think this really stems from how we, as humans, learn on an everyday basis.

Let’s say I’m confronted with a problem, like back pain. When my back starts to hurt, I immediately begin thinking about why. I’ll probably ask myself many questions and if I injured myself during that dunk I had over Lebron James. Or was it Carmelo? Either way, I’ll try various solutions like adjusting my sleep patterns, changing my exercise routine (no dunks), and using my knees more instead of my back – all to try and alleviate the pain. Let’s say that I struggle for a while and nothing seems to work.

Over time, I begin to realize a pattern. I notice that every day I wear my old, worn out sneakers, my back hurts at the end of the day. And on days when I don’t wear them, I feel fine. So I conclude that my sneakers are the problem (and not my dunking). They seemed to have caused my joints misalign causing a chain reaction to my back. I toss them and get a new pair and my back pain goes away. Also, I learned that moving forward I should replace my sneakers more than once every 7 years.

That was a weird example, but whatever. It still sort of frames how “normal” learning happens.

When confronted with a problem we use our inherit problem solving abilities to find solutions. It’s natural to be perplexed initially and to later understand. In no way is someone going to come along and immediately present a solution for my back pain. Similarly, neither should I, as a teacher, initially provide clear theorems or concepts to students as solutions to problems I will soon give them on an exam. In a math class, we should have them identifying problems and use problem solving abilities to find solutions and generalize ideas. This doesn’t necessary mean real-world problems, just critical thinking situations overall.

I didn’t approach teaching and learning in my classroom like this for a long time. Sometimes now, even though I value the approach, it’s still hard to for a bunch of reasons. But now I try to do everything I can to teach discovery-based, problem-based lessons.

Oh, and I DID dunk on Lebron. Once. Then I woke up.


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