I have been told over the last couple years that what I am doing with the honors pre-calc kids can’t possibly be done with college-prep-level students, that it must be nice to have the opportunity to work with the honors kids where discussion-based learning is possible, and that I’ve lost touch with the reality of most classrooms. I have essentially dismissed all of this, firmly believing that discussion-based learning is the way to go regardless of the “level” of the student. There was no doubt in my mind that if we don’t prejudge the ability of the students to take responsibility for their own education and give them the opportunity to do so, great things will happen.
This year, I have five honors pre-calculus classes and one section of algebra 1, which has provided me with the opportunity to run a college-prep-level class by discussions. With as much work as we have done over the last couple years for the honors pre-calculus class, the preparation in terms of exercises and so on has been minimal, and instead we have been able to focus almost exclusively on the kids. However, I have not taught algebra 1 for about six years, long before I converted my classroom to a discussion-based learning environment. So, the preparation work for that class has been extensive, writing exercises that lend themselves to discovery and discussion (which are sorely lacking in the textbooks). In addition, of course, there has been the usual struggle of getting the kids to take responsibility for their learning, which is something that the honors pre-calc kids struggle with as well. That being said, the algebra 1 kids have been, for the most part, far more willing to take chances, make mistakes, and learn from the experience than the honors kids. As such, I have had the opportunity to watch them in the early stages of solving linear equations, finding an equation of a line, and multiplying polynomials, and then help correct the misconceptions in a much more individualized way. This informal daily assessment is crucial for any student learning anything, and a discussion-based classroom is the perfect place to allow this to happen.
Two days before the most recent test, I gave the kids a practice test in class, running that day in exactly the same manner as I do the actual test day. I graded the practice test that evening, which allowed me to see where the misconceptions remained and where the common mistakes were being made. The next day in class we discussed the practice test exercises, and the kids got to use the practice test as a means of preparing for the real thing. Was the practice test taken for a grade? Nope. Did the kids take it seriously? Yep, most of them did. They understood the benefits of practicing well for the test, and realized that the only way to correct the mistakes was to make and become aware of them.
Then came the actual test. On a test with which students have historically struggled, fourteen of twenty-seven students earned some version of an “A”. Most of the rest earned a “B”. The test was the only grade that actually went in the gradebook. However, the success most of the students had was set up by the informal daily assessment and the formal practice assessment, the more personalized, detailed feedback the students received, and the seriousness with which the students took the feedback they were receiving.