There is a group of teachers in my building who are doing some professional development about discussion-based learning, and as part of the preparation for a day that we will be spending with one another next month we are doing some peer observations. This week, one of the other teachers came in to watch one of my classes, and while she was in my classroom she asked the kids some questions, wanting their perspective on Harkness so she could share their feelings with the group. While the other teacher didn’t share all of the responses with me, she did share one, and it absolutely made my day. The question she put to the student was simple enough: “How do you feel about learning this way?” The response from the student? “At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked the class being run this way or not. But now, I can’t imagine learning math any other way.”
I love this answer as it sits, but it got me thinking. It’s now been a year and a half since I’ve lectured on any kind of a regular basis, and I’ve reached a point where I can’t imagine teaching any other way than I am now. Whether it’s in my high school classroom where as close to Harkness as I can get rules the day, or my evening college classes where I run things on more of a flipped model, I can’t imagine running things any way other than through discussions. The assessment information I get from the discussions, the rapport I am able to build with the students, the general atmosphere of the room…all of this has improved since I started running my classroom through discussions. Not that it was bad before – it wasn’t - but the improvement from my perspective as a teacher has been priceless. I get constant feedback, the students have a real sense that we are in this together, and the room is relatively relaxed. OK, there’s some frustration when a student isn’t understanding a concept, both for the student and for me, but it’s productive frustration and certainly better than before when there were many times that students didn’t ask questions until right before the test when the urgency of the situation made the frustration far more intense. The discussion-based classroom alleviates a lot of this type of frustration by all but forcing the kids to speak up and ask their questions, as well as forcing the teacher to pay more attention to the individuals than to the class as a whole.
Nope, I can’t imagine teaching math any other way, and for at least one of the students, they can’t imagine learning math any other way. I doubt the student is alone in feeling this way, and after gathering next month, I hope that I’m not alone, either.