I threw all of my units out the window.

So I’m noticing a trend. it seems like every few years I have an epiphany that causes me to blow up my teaching and rethink what I’m doing in a major way.

Case in point, six years ago I flipped my classroom and realized what is really important when it comes to learning. Three years ago I implemented standards-based grading and learned how to be more analytical with assessment. I now find myself smack in the middle of another major shift in my practice: problem-based learning.

Attended the Exeter Mathematics Institute in August was the catalyst. Experiencing a purely problem-based classroom was new. I had known the “PBL” buzzword for a long time and thought I understood what it meant. I didn’t.

Here’s the workflow: Students explore problems for homework and we use the entire next period analyzing and discuss them. The problems are designed to enable key ideas to organically emerge during homework and class discussions. There are no units. No direct instruction. This is what they call the Harkness Method, I think.

Now I find myself thinking through and sequencing the problems I give my students like never before. This has been pretty fun. All problems need to be inherently scaffolded and since they are now a learning experience (and not just practice), they are everything. Well, I shouldn’t say everything, because the class discussions are crucial too…but without the problems, you have no meaningful discussions.

Without knowing it, I think I have been moving towards PBL for a while now. For a few years, I have been trying to think about sequencing questions/prompts to naturally guide students towards a learning objective — so many of my problems have come from handouts that I’ve developed through the years. Now I’m finding myself weaving these prompts/problems together that is problem-based and not concept-based.

And about the class discussions, that’s something that I feel I’ll be tweaking with throughout the course of this year. I’ve started out doing whole-class discussions and, with classes of 30+ students, I watched as equity quickly crashed and burned. Kids were hiding their ideas and drifting off. I’m now transitioning to smaller groups of around 6-8. I plan to move around the room to guide the group discussions. I’m still debating whether I should give solutions. Maybe towards the end of class to avoid it being a conversation killer?

If I’m honest, I’m worried. I have no idea how this will go and I’m pretty sure that I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I really believe in the process, but this is a pretty drastic change. Because I have no well-defined arrangement to the curriculum, my SBG is gone. And did I mention that I have no units?!

Patience, be with me.



8 thoughts on “I threw all of my units out the window.”

  1. “if I’m honest, I’m worried.” ….I’m impressed by the candor as I just wrote something similar in a personal reflection but not for the whole world to see — as in a blog post like this.

    I agree on the challenge of communicating with 30+ at a time. Even with the best groups, I’m lucky to get 50 percent throughput. Yes, I could pursue the Korean teaching model and accept nothing less than 100 percent attentive listening, but my students aren’t Korean. They’re American. God love ’em. I’d rather work with the strengths of the culture (creativity, idea-sharing, energy) than the weaknesses.

    Are there any geometry problems you would recommend for someone attempting to transition to this model?

    1. Thanks for reading, yet alone commenting. I needed some sort of reassurance – and a comment is worth a lot. Really.

      Truth! Yeah, my hope is for a palpable buzz every day. Exeter’s Math 2 is their version of geometry. It’s fairly advanced, though. The link: https://www.exeter.edu/mathproblems

      I’m taking bits and pieces from theirs and combining with lots of my own handouts that I’ve created through the years. I’m trying to be as thoughtful as I can with the sequencing and complexity of the problems, but it’s hard to get it right. And the kids let me know that!

  2. Pingback: PBL v2 | lazy 0ch0

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