Thursday, August 1, 2019

Changing the SCRIPT: A Student Perspective

A student stayed after school this past spring to talk with me.  I figured it was something about a grade or some help he needed.  He actually wanted to talk with me about the math class SCRIPT.  Here is what he said about math classes in general...

...everyday we had a note sheet, some set examples, a target written out with what we were learning, and then there were blanks so you would wait for the teacher to put it up on the board so you could then fill in the blanks.  Then you just followed all the examples.  It is like a script.  I guess it was really efficient in teaching you exactly what you needed to know, but there was no thinking in it.  The teacher wants you to follow exactly how they tell can't deviate at all...I couldn't do it another way or skip this step.
As a math teacher, you know the script:  review homework, present any tools/formulas you need for the lesson, then show how to do problems step by step using those tools/formulas and then give alone/group time to practice all of that.  I know the routine very well because I learned math using this script when I was in school K-12.  Once I become a math teacher, I modeled this script for many years.  And it works!  The script is efficient and mistakes are minimal.  If the students do the work, they will be prepared for the test.  I as the teacher gave the most efficient method to the students to solve a problem and then they practice.  Many students like the script because it works for them.  Students know what is expected and respond to it.  If students practice enough, they can reproduce the work on tests/exams.  If you look at the last few things that my student said:  follow exactly how they tell you, don't deviate, don't do it another way.  This is worth looking at because I don't always follow the script in my class anymore.

My student went on to say a few things about my class in particular.

...when I first took your class, and you suddenly threw us into this place where we have to do it and think ourselves, I was like...crap I'm not going to do good in this class.  

Whoa.   As you can see, it was not pretty in my class the first part of the year.  I often have many students that are completely frozen with fear in my class because they have never had to do a problem without first being confident on how to solve it.  I'm working on how to calm this fear, but in reality, this is a mathematical mindset that is important for all students to confront.   I often ask my students to look and engage with a problem BEFORE they are given any kind of formulas.  Here is the reason I do this...“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” ― Peter C. Brown, Make It Stick   Furthermore, students tend to be more engaged with the problem and own it after they have tried it themselves.  So when you give the problems to the students (in varied ways) before you have shown them how to solve it, they remember it better and they are more engaged and empowered.  This is typically how I run my class.

And my student says a little more about my class.

...I got the hang of it, and then I started to realize ...Oh, I'm doing this automatically in other classes now.   

What?  What did he get the hang of?  I explored this a little more with him and he said this...

...for example when I first started physics it was just really hard because I wasn't able to think freely.  I wasn't able to think abstract or imagine things.  Now I can think on my own and decide which way is the right approach. 

He is evaluating his own work and practice.  He is actually empowered by thinking on his own instead of just following a script.

I have been thinking about this all summer long.  There are things in this conversation that are really important to note.  One, he felt awful at the beginning of my class.   This is important for me to help smooth out.   Second, he felt liberated by going outside the script.   And thirdly, he uses this technique in other classes.  Since there are pros to the SCRIPT and there are pros to being off the SCRIPT, it is important to remember that students, parents, and other teachers are not always on board when you deviate from the traditional math class SCRIPT.

Benefits of the math class SCRIPT
Do the work, and you are prepared for the test
Mistakes are minimal
All the expectations are given in a concise manner
Many students like the script because it works for them
All are on the same pace

Benefits of being outside the math class SCRIPT
Lack of direction creates a mathematical need
There are MANY ways to solve a problem.
Making mistakes and learning from them is OK and needed
Many students love being in charge of their own learning

I would say that I am using the SCRIPT less and less as time goes along.  I'm forever tweaking my teaching to get better.

I encourage you to try a different approach.  Make sure you tell your students what you are doing and why.  Then give it a go.  Give the students a problem before you have explained all that is needed to solve it.  Give them time to work alone and then with others to solve it.  ENGAGE.  Lastly, discuss what math is needed to solve the problem and work through how students can get that information.