Tag Archives: student centered

Let 'em Talk

We started the topic of Venn diagrams in Math 9 this week. In a class of international school students (and perhaps any group of students) the range of knowledge on a given topic is all over the place given their different backgrounds and school histories.

The teacher-me of ten years ago would have done an overview of the concept of a Venn diagram. I would have started by asking questions about different parts of what was there in a Socratic fashion. It would have been full of questions that I had written down in my lesson plan designed to get students to think deeply about the content. Based on asking questions of a sample individual students, I would have gotten an idea of what the class knew. The students who knew the material already would either raise their hands and try to answer every question, or stay silent and answer every question on the worksheet in a matter of minutes. The students that didn't know the concepts, but wanted to, would likely stay quiet until either I approached them or until they could ask a friend for help. The students that were used to being defeated by math class would pass the time by doodling, pretending to be involved, or by distracting their friends.

This isn't the teacher I am today. I've written about the power of social capital in the room before, so this is nothing new, but I don't tend to do the 'topic overview' style lesson anymore. The one or two students that nod while we go through material aren't representative of the class. The strength of my experience in the classroom is being able to observe students working and know what to do next. I can't do this while standing at the front of the room and speaking.

My approach now is, whenever possible, to make an item of the topic a conversation starter. I gave them this image of a Venn Diagram, which appears in a collection of questions from old New York State Regents exams at http://www.jmap.org:
Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.34.49 AM

I gave them a series of questions that required them to figure out what they remembered, knew, or didn't know about the topic. Students made arguments for the definitions. Their disagreement drove the need for clearer definitions of what the intersections of the sets meant, for example. I was free to circulate and figure out who knew the concepts and who did not. Many of the issues that arose were resolved within the groups. Those that still had lasting confusion were my targets for conversations later on.

As I've added years to my experience, I've become more comfortable relying on this system to drive what happens in my classroom. Every time I get the urge to just go over a topic, I remind myself that there's a better way that involves students doing the heavy lifting first. There's a reason students are in a room together for the purpose of learning, and that reason is not (all) about efficiency. Humans are social creatures, and learning is one of those processes that is driven by that reality. There are moments when direct instruction is the way to go, but those moments are not as frequent or necessary as we might think at first.

Direct Instruction Videos - What's your Workflow?

I've written before about my experience recording my direct instruction into short, Udacity style videos and having students watch them during class. This enables me to circulate and have a lot more conversations with students as they are learning than when I'm talking at the front of the room. It also puts me in a position to see how my students are engaging with this material since I'm walking around and see what they are writing down, where they are stopping the videos, and can listen to their conversations. The quality of my interactions (and the student-to-student interactions) is so much higher with this approach.

The main obstacle to my doing this more, however, is the investment of time in creating the videos. With a consultant meeting with us this week and asking us to examine our technology practices, I'm wondering whether others have cracked the code and found ways to be efficient.

Most of my time is spent editing. I do one video at a time for each piece of what I want my students to watch before they try something on their own. I also want my videos to be short (ideally less than 3 minutes each), so I find I'm editing out spoken flubs, unclear descriptions, extra pauses, and time spent writing by hand to reach that ideal. Camtasia is my tool of choice. I know there are videos out there that I could assign rather than recording my own, but I'm convinced I can still work on my efficiency with some good advice.

I wonder if one of the following would work better:

  • Record all of the writing with no narration first. Add voiceover second to match the text.
  • Record all of the direct instruction for an entire class. Edit out flubs, writing, then split into multiple videos for a lesson.
  • Write out all of the written parts before recording. Cut and paste them in the video frame one by one as I speak on top of the video. Gesture and highlight as needed.

I've sacrificed perfection for getting my ratio of recording time to video time down to about four to one. That's still a sizable investment of time, and it certainly benefits my students, but as is, I'm leaving the classroom after 5 PM pretty regularly.

Any experienced flipped classroom folks care to weigh in on this?

Just shut up and work with us, Weinberg

I have an issue with talking too much in class. I think many of us do.

I've already done some focused work identifying what my students need me to show them for a given topic, and it's a lot less than I initially think. After a conversation with some smart educators, I decided to commit this week to not do whole class instruction unless it was absolutely necessary.

Sometimes I confuse necessity with convenience. The problem is that it's always convenient to do whole class instruction. You look out and see eyes staring at you, and it seems at the moment to be maximally efficient to communicate to the entire group at once. The quality of that attention is never what it seems.

In my biggest class, I've been continuing to put direct instruction into videos. As I've written previously, these are videos (three minutes or so) that have the information distilled down to small chunks. In doing this, I get around to every student and make sure they are somehow engaging with that video through writing down important information, trying the problem being demonstrated, or completing the challenge I usually put at the end. It's impossible for me to be instructing at the front of the class (or anywhere for that matter) and be aware of what every student is doing. With the video at every student's seat, I can be there. I can ask them questions one-on-one to see what they understand. I can make notes of the students that are struggling. I can assess every student at some point while I walk around, leave alone those that are doing just fine without my dictating their attention, and focus on those that need more guidance.

This increased time away from blabbing at the front of the room means more assessment time. The class starts with a quick quiz (1-2 questions) that I can get back to students during the period. I can give every student some bit of feedback, and it ensures that I have a conversation with every single student during the class. That is awesome. It means I can ask higher level questions of the stronger students and push them forward. It means I can see what students are writing down within seconds of doing so.

Though I occasionally think to myself that the reason this works is because my students are well behaved and will stay on task when I am not directly focused on them, I don't think this is why it has been successful. I'm in the middle of my students (rather than in one location) the whole time. I can see what they are all doing. If they do get off task, they know that I know if because chances are I'll be there in a minute or so. The class is noticeably less structured, and I don't feel as productive as I think I would if I was marching through a lesson plan. This is more a reflection of how I now have a more realistic awareness of how my students are doing with the material, rather than in ten minute chunks of independent work between lecture.

The students benefit most from interacting with each other. They do occasionally need help from me one-on-one, but the nature of that help varies greatly between students. I can give that help when I'm not spending so much time talking. The inverse is more powerful there - I can't give that help if I'm talking too much.

I decided to give students a quick exit survey on whether they liked the new format, whether they wanted to go back, or whether they wanted something different from both classroom structures. Here's what they said:

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I've gotten this sort of strong message before, but I unfortunately go back to the old ways, for the old reasons. It's easier to talk. It's easier to do a developmental lesson. It's easier to ask a question and conclude from a one or two student non-random sample that the class gets it. It just isn't necessarily what works best for students. I need to keep that in mind.