Monday, November 25, 2013

Day 61: Accidental Rewards

Digital Natives with no concept of appropriate characters for Twitter handles... Also, I thought they would have been more creative with this...

I'm working on getting my geometry students to justify their reasons when talking about triangles (or anything really).  I am trying to spend a good amount of time asking them "how do you know that?" and "why?"  They hate it, but they are starting to do a much better job of explaining their thought processes and justifying their answers.

We spent 40 minutes today exploring the warm-up!  We had a great conversation about how to slice the shape into triangles, how many triangles you could make, how to develop a formula, why the formula works, etc.  I was very proud of their work.

After much consideration about what happened on Friday, I can to a difficult decision about my pre-algebra classes.  I decided to show them what my class would be like if I were NOT interested in them.  Today, we had a workbook assignment that students worked on for the entire period, silently and independently.  One student who refused to stop talking was removed by the principal and taken to in-school suspension.

The idea was that, if they saw what my class COULD be like, they would be more liable to appreciate what it IS like.

It backfired horribly in the most productive way ever.  I was reminded that many of my students would MUCH rather work on grinding through problems than tackle anything of substance.  They were able work solidly for the entire period with minimal issues, asking questions when they needed help and, in general, producing correct answers.

I have never been more disappointed in student work.  I feel as though I should be happy that they worked well throughout the entire double period, mostly staying on task and completing the assignment that was set out for them, but I'm not.

I'm sad that they would rather spend 90 minutes doing rote calculation than producing something of substance.  I know why this is the case.  I know why they want to do worksheet after worksheet.

They are easy and they are comfortable.  Even when the problems are more difficult, the process is familiar.  What I thought of as a punishment (something boring) turned out to be a reward for them.

They didn't just do it grudgingly, they did it with glee and joy, having conversations across the room about how to find the answers and which strategies they used.

They were doing everything that I wanted them to do LAST week.

So I am torn.  Do I continue letting them do the menial work to allow them the feeling of enjoying doing math inside of their comfort zones?  Do I push them beyond that comfort, knowing full well that even though the content is more interesting, they are MUCH less likely to even attempt it?

I think this is why teachers often don't bother to develop interesting lessons.  They are happen to listen to the more interesting topics, but getting them to do the work themselves is like pulling teeth.  They don't want to listen to me lecture about procedural stuff, but they'll sit and do it for hours.

What are we training these kids to be?  What are we training them to do?

And so I have come to a major short-coming of mine as a teacher.  I don't know how to explain to them that they are putting their effort and energy into the boring stuff.  I had thought that showing them what they could be doing would excite and interest them, and it does! Provided they don't have to do any work to get there.

How do I save these bright young minds from the assembly line?

It's time for some summative assessment as well.  I think it will be tomorrow since I expect low attendance on Wednesday


  1. In public school, I also had this problem. I taught chemistry (elective, upper classmen) and general science (required for freshmen), and the motivation of kids in the two classes was very different. I could excite most of my chemistry kids most of the time, and a few of the gen.sci kids some of the time.

    I didn't have a good way of dealing with it either. Adding to that, I was working with another teacher on the gen.sci curriculum, and she volunteered to take the lead on it, but most of her stuff was pretty boring, repetitive, and reflective of the just-make-it-through mentality that I hated.

    It reminded me of my own high school experience, when I took gen.sci in 9th grade and physics in 12th grade from the same teacher. He was a horrible teacher for gen.sci and a fantastic teacher for physics. I know part of that is preference for subject matters, but also partially the students involved.

    It's challenging to keep focused on improvement for all when it's so much easier for some. Definitely frustrating.

    1. I know that I have a preference for the more advanced classes and that the content in the lower grades bores me, but I've been trying VERY hard this year to express excitement and interest in all of my classes. I feed off of student interest also. I will happily teach addition to kids who are interested in it.

      I wish I knew how to get them interested.

  2. Oh geez. Good question. I run into something similar (community college biology). I think we need to give them a familiar/comfortable framework for the good stuff we want them to do. Don't ask me what that would look like, though.

    1. I think more attention in professional development needs to be paid to that transition, getting students to be more independent and persistent in their work. We need to get better answers than "Just keep working on it!"

  3. OK, I'm going to risk repeating myself and boring everybody to death. Is it possible that they are so wound up with the run-up to Thanksgiving break that they experienced a mundane assignment as a huge relief?

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    1. Absolutely! Plus, I've been pushing them HARD from day 1 and haven't let up, so they could just be tired, but it doesn't feel that way. We will see how things change after break.

    2. Just remember that there HAS TO BE ROOM for them to be authentically tired, run-down, or uninspired if you also want there to be room for them to reach for the stars.

  4. I have been struggling with this as well. Some of my students just seem to be more interested in me explaining how to get through these problems than actually thinking about a concept. I have found that the largest drawback is that, although they are getting better at certain parts of concepts and computation, it leave them pretty much totally in the dark on problem solving with these skills. I can't believe how many of them can't even apply what they were just doing with numbers to simple word problems.

    1. Read the post I'm going to put up today and you'll see I'm having that issue in Geometry. Basics, no problem. Application, CRAP THE BED!!!

  5. curse blogspot and their inability to accept my comments......Try again.
    As the other commenters mentioned, I see the same thing. Teaching modeling physics means that the students have to think really hard about the concepts to come up with the laws or whatever themselves. I'm sure they would MUCH prefer for me to just give them the info on ppt and they could apply on some problems and we move on. It would be much easier for me too! But they wouldn't learn it as well. You have to believe that in your very soul to continue to teach this way.

    1. I find it so interesting because they talk about how they WANT to do application and conceptual work, but as soon as we give it to them, they have no idea what to do and want easier stuff.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. How ironic that your efforts at reform have resulted in students, in the short term, being more comfortable with the old factory model they were so used to resisting!

    I think your explanation is plausible. Say you don't care for schoolwork in general. Say you'd rather be chatting with your friends about whatever it is you chat with your friends about. And say someone gives you a choice between tackling a meaty, open-ended, vaguely-defined task for which success is somewhat difficult to define and for which you can never really quite be sure you are done, and another task that has a finite number of problems to complete in a fixed amount of time, after which you can say "Done!" and put your homework away. It's pretty clear why they would choose the latter.

    Questions this raises for me is: How can we tap into that need for closure and the reward of "getting it done" when assigning more genuine tasks? How can we provide enough structure so that the task feels bounded without sabotaging the opportunities for critical thinking? Maybe they need to experience what success looks like on the first type of task?

    Thanks for the post -- I appreciate the insight and the questions you've raised for me.

    1. Those questions are exactly what I'm trying to figure out and I have no idea how. It's becoming more and more apparent that no one does. I think that's alright, provided we are asking those questions and moving in that direction.

      Anything worth doing will take time and effort. If I got a solution to this problem in one-easy step, where would the reward be? :-)

  7. Thanks again Justin. You hit the struggles that have become daily for me. I also attempt to get some of the other teachers who have varied backgrounds, like economics, engineering,etc. to help me think of interesting ways to present information and their comments are, "Why do you work so hard at this? They don't appreciate it anyway, just cover the material and move on." It often makes me wonder why I work so hard also, but then I know in my heart that somehow its going to reach at least one of them. It may not be right now, but in the future, they will have a moment of awakening, and remember, "Oh yeah, Mrs. Ryan showed me something like this back in Algebra!" Right. . . ? At least I can dream, it keeps me going.

    Keep sharing Justin, you are reaching the hearts of teachers out here. :D

    1. My students over the past 5 years have trained me to be the teacher they want. When I take hours and hours to plan a lesson, they balk at it and refuse to do. When I throw something together at the last minute, they work their butts off.

      My Conclusion: Planning is for chumps!

      REAL Conclusion: Train them to be the students I want instead of being the teacher they want.

      Teach like Batman: Be the teacher they NEED, not the teacher they want.

  8. I wonder if you should start from what is working, that the students seem to be engaging with more effectively, and make smaller, more iterative changes to it toward something that you see as more valuable.

    I don't think the only plausible explanation is that they simply want to do easier work, although that certainly seems like it could be part of the explanation. It may be that the problem sets provide more frequent feedback than the larger more abstract challenges, making it possible for the students to make creative leaps toward solutions on their own more effectively...

    If students are actively engaging in the work, then it is clearly not boring to them. I don't think they're just doing the easy stuff to get done with it, it may just be that they need a few baby steps in between what they are used to and more interesting abstract problems...

    Anyways just thinking out loud.


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