In this post I want to concentrate on a couple of the afternoon sessions I attended. The TMC program (you can find it here) was filled with so many interesting opportunities that I kind of agonized over some of the choices. One that I knew I would attend was the session run by Danielle Racer (@0mod3) discussing her experiences in implementing an Exeter-style problem based approach to Geometry this past year. Danielle and one of her colleagues (Miriam Singer who is @MSinger216) came back from the Exeter summer math program (it is called the Ajna Greer Conference and if you have never been, I suggest that you try to change that!) all fired up and ready to reinvent their Honors Geometry course. Danielle spoke eloquently about their experiences and shared out some important resources. We had a great conversation in the session about the benefits and struggles of problem based curriculum. This conversation tied in to another session I saw as well as some thoughts and conversations I have been having for years. First, the afternoon session that I think linked in here. Chris Robinson (@Isomorphic2CRob) and Jonathan Osters (@callmejosters) are colleagues from the Blake School in Minneapolis. Chris and Jonathan spoke about a shift in their assessment policy that centered around skills based quizzes using and SBG model and tests that were more open to novel problem solving. I am simplifying a bit here for the sake of making sense of my own thoughts. I thought that their presentation was thoughtful and it generated great conversation in the room. Perhaps we (especially I) spoke out more than Chris and Jonathan anticipated and we ran out of time. Another sign of a good presentation, I would say. When there is more enthusiasm and participation than you thought you’d get, it probably means that you are tapping in to important conversations AND you have created a space that feels safe and open.
These two sessions had me thinking about some important conversations we have been having at our school and I am totally interested in hearing any feedback. The first conversation I remembered was with a student who had transferred to our school as a senior and was in my AP Calculus AB class. She was complaining about my homework assignments which were a mix of some text problems and some problem sets I wrote. She said in class, ‘You seem to think that AP means All Problems.’ A little probing revealed that she saw a difference between exercises and problems. A brief, but meaningful, description I remember reading is that when you know what to do when you read the assignment then it is an exercise. If you read it and you don’t know what to do, then it is a problem (in more meanings than one, I’d say). The next conversation I recalled was with a colleague who has now retired from math teaching. We were talking about homework and the struggles with having students persevere through challenging assignments. He also used this language making distinctions between exercises and problems and he suggested that HW assignments should have exercises and problems should be discussed in class when everyone was working together. He felt that the struggle and frustration of problems when you are on your own would be discouraging to too many students and would likely lead to less effort toward completion on HW. A similar conversation came up with another former colleague who was frustrated with some of the problem sets I had written for our Geometry course. She did not want to send her kids home with HW that they would not be able to complete successfully. I recognized that this was coming from a fundamentally good place. She did not want her students to feel frustrated and unsuccessful. However, I firmly believe that real growth, real learning, and real satisfaction are all related to overcoming obstacles. I have witnessed this recently with my Lil’ Dardy who just became a full fledged bike rider this summer. I heard it from my boy, my not so Lil’ Dardy, who made the following observation recently, ‘You know, I find that I like video games much better if they are hard at first. Why do you think that is, dad?’
I know that we can anecdote each other to death on these issues and I also know that there is not ONE RIGHT WAY to do this. But I am in the process of trying to make coherent sense out of my inherent biases toward problem based learning. I want to have deep and meaningful conversations with students, with their parents, with my colleagues, and with my administration about how to approach this balance and about what a math class should look like and feel like in our school. While I have been writing this I was also engaging in a meaningful twitter chat about some of this with the incomparable Lisa Henry (@lmhenry9) and with one of my new favorite people Joel Bezaire (@joelbezaire) so I know I am not the only one struggling with these questions. Please hit me up on twitter (@mrdardy) or start a raging conversation in my comments section sharing your successes/failures/theories about how to strike a balance between exercises and problems between challenging students while making them feel safe and successful and between running your own classroom with your own standard and fitting in with a team at your school. These are all big questions and I wrestle with them all the time. I want to thank Danielle, Chris, and Jonathan for sparking them up in my mind again and for creating lovely spaces for conversations in their afternoon sessions.
Coming soon will be my last entry in this series where I think out loud about the amazing keynote delivered by Tracy Zager (@TracyZager)