I have been asked a couple times recently why I run my classroom the way I do. Here is my current response:
It is a beautiful Saturday afternoon and, more importantly, it’s the first day of baseball practice. The coach, having never met any of the players, quickly introduces himself, and then begins batting practice. The coach lines up the players behind the backstop while he spends the next hour hitting baseballs being pitched to him by a machine he set up on the mound before practice began. The boys watch intently as the coach explains and demonstrates how to properly stand, hold the bat, swing the bat, and so on. At the end of the hour, the coach tells the boys to go home and practice what they have seen.
At practice the following Tuesday evening, the coach asks the players how their practice at home went. One of the players says that he struggled with his stance, so the coach demonstrates again the proper way to stand in the batter’s box, showing the player by example how it should be done. Much the same as Saturday, the player watches intently as the coach hits the baseball.
“Do you understand what you were doing wrong?”
“Yep, I think I get it now.”
“Good. Any other questions?”
Then the coach begins fielding practice. The boys stand behind the backstop and watch intently as the assistant coach hits ball after ball to the head coach who fields ball after ball from the shortstop position. He shows the players proper technique, how to stand, how to hold and place the glove, and so on, and after an hour of demonstrating what the players are supposed to do, sends them home to practice on their own.
This is repeated over the next several weeks with the coach showing the players how to catch fly balls, how to bunt, how to pitch, how to throw. He shows them everything they need to know to play baseball. He never sees them play. They never practice together or play together. The first time the coach actually sees them play baseball is at the first game. You can imagine the results.
The coach is confused. He showed them everything they needed to know. They were very attentive at the practices, and what few questions they had he answered. How did they not do well?
Absurd as this sounds, this is precisely how many people teach mathematics, performing in front of the class while the students watch, and then sending the students home to practice on their own. The teacher answers questions by showing the students how to solve the problem at hand. The teacher never actually sees the students do any mathematics except for the tests.
Why do I run my classroom the way I do? Much the same as a coach spends most of his time watching the players at practice, noting the mistakes they are making and helping them correct those mistakes before the actual game rolls around, I want to see my kids doing math, see the mistakes they are making, and help them correct those mistakes as they are learning the material. Just as the majority of the time spent at baseball practice involves the players playing baseball or practicing a particular skill, I want the majority of the time in class to involve the kids actually doing math.
Why it took me so long to figure this out is a travesty. How others don’t see the benefits of running a student-centered classroom is a mystery.