I’m now a few weeks into the next phase of infusing discussion-based learning into my classroom. Specifically, I’m teaching a section of college-prep algebra 1 this year, and so far, I’ve not needed to lecture much at all. Every few days or so I will summarize what we’ve been doing, or if there is a topic that I know from experience kids find confusing (like function notation) then I will spend a few minutes dealing specifically with that topic. Other than that, I have been creating worksheets for each section, much in the same way I did a few years ago when we did the “test run” with Harkness in the conics unit of honors pre-calculus. Put simply, I look at the section, determine how I would lecture on the section, and then I create a list of questions that (hopefully) lead the kids through the material. Instead of putting examples on the board and going through them, I take a little more care in scaffolding the examples, creating them in such a way that the kids can at least begin if not complete the examples themselves, discuss their results in a group, and through this process learn the material.
So far, things are going well. Half the class earned an “A” on the first “individual exercise set” (it sounds less threatening than “test”), and for the most part those that didn’t made simple arithmetic mistakes as opposed to making fundamental algebra mistakes. Moving into the second unit, things are going equally well, and the kids are getting a lot out of the discussions. A few haven’t “bought in” yet, and while I’m still trying to get them on board, I don’t believe that the class being run through discussion is the reason for their lack of effort. Rather, they appear to be genuinely disengaged from school in general, which is a far taller wall in my way when it comes to reaching them. Even an activity we did last week (“So, how many standard-sized Post-It notes would it take to cover the walls of the classroom, except for the white boards?”) didn’t catch them. The rest of the class was up, making different measurements they thought would be useful, and worked hard on the exercise for 30+ minutes. The other few just sat at their desk, waiting for the rest of the group to give them the answer. Talking with them, encouraging them, trying to get them to participate…nothing worked. It’s really sort of sad to see that the natural curiosity that fills kids when they are young has been essentially removed from these kids. What it is that deadened the natural curiosity can vary, and part of my role is to help them through that, whatever “that” is. Still sad, though.
Anyway, in general I’m happy with the results so far and am optimistic that things will continue going well. If nothing else, these first few weeks of the year have convinced me that discussion-based learning isn’t just for honors kids, nor is it just for upper-level material; it is working well with college-prep freshmen. Hopefully, I will find a way to get the few holdouts to join the rest of us in learning some math in a slightly more relaxed manner than they’re used to.