Monday, January 19, 2015

Brussels Sprouts

I don’t like Brussels sprouts.  I never have.  As a child, my parents, who for some reason actually enjoy Brussels sprouts, served them with dinner a few times each month, which means I had to eat them.  The only way I found them even close to palatable was for them to be doing the backstroke in a sea of butter.  As an adult, I can appreciate that they are “good for me”, but that would require that I actually eat them, and since I now have a say in planning the menu, that won’t be happening, ever.

The reason I mention this is that I gave my honors pre-calculus kids a short survey last week with three questions:
  1. Please describe the benefits you have found learning in a student-centered, discussion-based class.
  2. Please describe the benefits you have found learning in a student-centered, discussion-based class.
  3. Which of the following best describes you:
    1. I prefer the student-centered, discussion-based classroom.
    2. I prefer a teacher-centered, lecture-based classroom, but I see the benefits of being in a student-centered, discussion-based classroom.
    3. I prefer a teacher-centered, lecture-based classroom, and I don’t see the benefits of being in a student-centered, discussion-based classroom.

Knowing from the research that even when students have done better in a student-centered classroom they still overwhelmingly prefer a teacher-centered classroom, I was expecting about a 20-80 split in favor of the more traditional classroom.  What I got was more than I could have ever imagined.

First, the kids clearly gave their responses a lot of thought.  The depth of their statements showed a good deal of meaningful reflection was given to the assignment, even though it wasn’t for a grade.  Among the responses were these:

  • “There's an ability to learn things from the ground up, to build up understanding rather than just memorize rules or formulas. When you get a firm grasp on the concept from the beginning, you're able to learn it in a more natural way than the usual "memorize this" method. In groups where everyone is at an even level, there's a feeling of investigation when you try a problem and figure it out as a team. On a more personal level, you feel satisfaction when you figure something out the hard way.”
  • “It took awhile for me to realize putting whatever thoughts I had about the problem onto paper was more beneficial than just leaving it blank. I would leave questions I didn't know blank in previous math courses and then the teacher would show me how to do them. But now putting whatever thoughts I had down it allowed my peers to help guide me through the problems with whatever work I did have.”
  • “Originally (like many others), I disliked the setup of the class as well as the Harkness Discussions. However, I soon realized that there were an abundance of hidden benefits in participating in the said discussions, like: -More engaging class; having your classmates teach you feels more "personal" and "on your level". -Less intimidation; some students find teachers intimidating but this method takes that away--as students can ask each other now. -Better pacing; if you don't completely understand a question, your group can wait and explain it to you while if it were in a classroom-based setting, the teacher would probably have to go on with the schedule and you might have to seek out the teacher on your own time to understand that problem.”
  • “Initially I had problems talking in the groups and realizing errors. I was stubborn and wanted to have something right instead of understanding it.”
  • “I feel that having to explain my thought process and articulate what I do not understand helps me to better understand the skills that I am supposed to master. Also, when I have to work through problems before actually discussing them, I can best observe areas that require improvement, and then, the frustration of initial failure all the more clearly brings the means for success into my mind.”  
  • “I at first was rather timid in asking questions of my peers, for fear of appearing inept due to my want of mathematical understanding. This, obviously, hindered my understanding, yet I was soon compelled to overcome this barrier. At times, I have also struggled to see the bigger skill set and focused too much on individual practice exercises, and not, necessarily, their broader scope. Now that my attention has been drawn to the main topic numbering system, this is much more clear.”
  • “By learning in a student-centered class you are able to not only use your opinions and ideas over the question but also how other students approach the problem and are able to answer the question. This is very great to you as you aren't limited to the teacher's perspective and their teaching/solving method. Also being able to discuss with a deeper discussion and allows for a better understanding of the material as long as you are engaged and asking questions/answering the questions while the discussion is going on. Also having the students be the ones teaching, they understand you the best and are able to help you with maybe how you are making a mistake and get in your mindset to correct it and explain it to you in a manner which helps you learn the best.”
  • “You are very in charge of your own learning. Independently you have to check yourself on a daily basis to make sure you are caught up and understand everything you're learning.”
  • “Student centered classes make sure that the students are all contributing and helps promote leadership among the group because if an individual knows something about a problem that others don't they tend to take the lead and guide the other students so that everyone understands and are on the same page. Also, by explaining a certain question, it ensures that the student truly understands the problem. It helps boost communication skills.”
  • “It is harder to learn the material yourself than to be given to you. It takes a lot more time to do the homework because you have to do more problem solving and look things up on the computer. You get frustrated with yourself at first if you can't figure something out, but you have to learn to just give it your best then collaborate with your classmates the next day to solve your issue.”
  • “I feel like I'm actually able to discover new things and truly understand them when I figure it out either by myself or through group work rather than being told exactly how to do something. It's easy to remember that one "aha" moment than trying to recall something from your notes.”
  • “In the beginning it felt strange to be in a classroom setting where the teacher wasn't in charge of everything. I felt frustrated at times when I couldn't figure problems out. Eventually, I learned to be more open with my classmates, because i realized that everyone is here to help everybody else.”

I received page after page of feedback along these lines.  Beyond the benefit to the students to do this kind of reflection, it was incredibly helpful to me to hear how they are feeling now that have been at this for half a school year now.  And it was obvious to me that they get it.  They get the point and purpose of running the class through Harkness, including that it’s not just about the math.  More importantly to me was this: out of the 90 kids that responded (I have more students than this, but they didn’t all take the survey), 43% said that they prefer the student-centered classroom, and 54% said that even though they don’t prefer it, they see the benefits.  Only 2 kids said they don’t see the benefits, even though they listed out a few benefits in their response to the first question.  Regardless, this was way better than the 20-80 ratio I had anticipated.

So, the big picture: having tried Brussels sprouts, 43% of the kids actually like them, and 54%, despite not preferring them, admit that the sprouts are good for them.  

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