I wrote about this earlier today and I want to spend a few minutes trying to organize my thoughts.
A conversation on twitter today with David Wees (@davidwees) reminded me of a conversation with a former colleague. It also reminded me of a class I took in my master’s program. The course had the vague title Problem Solving and my professor (who was my advisor) had a long background in studying problem-solving. I remember (not clearly enough) that we had a working definition for what qualified as a problem. The definition revolved around the idea that there are certain questions we encounter in math where we immediately know what we are supposed to do – what formula to use, what definition or theorem to call upon – while there are other questions where we do not immediately know what we need to do. The first group we classified as exercises while the second group were called problems. It is not necessarily that problems are harder. I have certainly dealt with many challenging math questions where I knew exactly what I needed to do, it was just really hard to do it. I have a real fondness for problems in mathematics and I have developed the habit of writing homework assignments for my classes that should probably be called problem sets. For years, I was writing these for Honors Calculus, AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, Honors Precalculus, and AP Stats. A few summers ago I wrote a Geometry text for our school and I wrote all the HW assignments as well. These students are fundamentally different in many ways from the students I was working with in those other classes. I do not necessarily mean that they are inherently less talented or anything like that. What I do believe is that they are younger, less experienced, and less patient in their problem solving. So, they are more likely to simply shrug off a problem and figure that we’ll talk about it the next day. Over the course of the year most of them have become more patient and they are aware that we will discuss these questions and that they will not be graded on their HW. After my twitter exchange this afternoon, I am (once again) rethinking this strategy and I am nowhere near a conclusion. I did share the tweets with my class after we struggled through the question I wrote about earlier today. I asked them to honestly share their opinion about whether it is a valuable exercise to struggle with questions like this one. A few were upbeat and said that they liked thinking about these questions and that it is helpful to try challenging problems. One student said something really striking. She said that it is really frustrating to work through these problems alone and that she wishes she could get the opinions/insights of others when she is struggling with these questions. This is certainly in line with what David suggested in our exchange and with what my former colleague (who I wrote about earlier today) mentioned as well. I have some thinking to do here. I do believe that it is powerful for students to wrestle with challenging questions. I do believe that by not grading HW I am helping to create a safer environment to struggle. I know that a number of students work together on assignments either here in our dorms or libraries at night or during study halls during the day. I also believe that conversations in class are richer when they have some ideas already thought out to toss around. However, I also recognize that this is frustrating for some students and may simply push them further away. I recognize that if I am going to say that I value collaboration that I need to commit to making the time for that when we are together. I also recognize that what works to motivate seniors in college level math classes might not work as well with 9th and 10th grade students in a required math class.
Lots of thinking to do, luckily the summer will afford me some valuable time.