Re-thinking How I Teach Math. Part 1: The question, the rationale and student opinion.

In part 1, I will focus on the student side and changes that have been occurring in my own practice. In part 2, I will focus on data and conclusions collected from math teachers at Crestwood Preparatory College and discuss what I think this means for the department as a whole.

I’m going to cut to the chase and pose THE Question:

How might we build capacity in math teachers to:

  1. determine the best balance between PBL/inquiry vs. content? 
  2. implement it in meaningful and effective ways?

The Rationale

If I’ve spoken to you about my journey before, then you already know I went on a bit of a research kick after attending Michael Moore’s (@mmoore) PD last year on observations and conversations. During that session, I had some of the most influential discussion to date on what math teaching needs to look like right now–that is, problem-based, inquiry-focused and student-centered. There were several teachers who were implementing what I now believe are elements of best practice in their own classrooms. I followed that up with a great discussion with Lisa Dickinson (@ldickinson) on how she implements problem-based learning (PBL) at RSG. It was from her that I looked into Carmel Schettino and that, in turn, led to me an incredible wealth of information and resources (

So, the question wasn’t if PBL and inquiry learning were important and necessary elements of teaching math today. The question was, how on earth do I do this effectively? And how do I help others start doing this effectively? On top of that, I wanted more opportunities for students to collaborate–formally and informally. So, a second major question at the time was how to infuse collaborative learning so that it became a seamless and natural part of math learning.

Subsequent information collected from conversations with other teachers (thank you Jenn Gravel @jgravel l for sharing your ideas and successes in using whiteboards in the classroom) and from additional research indicated there was a real impact of having students work at whiteboards. Peter Liljedahl found it’s easy to implement, effects are felt immediately, there is long-term buy-in and grade level doesn’t seem to affect this retention. See his paper Building Thinking Classrooms here:

So, last summer, we got all the math classrooms retrofitted with more whiteboards. Whiteboards for you! Whiteboards for you! Whiteboards for youu!!!! It was my Oprah moment.

Data and Conclusions Drawn from Student Interviews

On Collaboration:

The 6 students I interviewed all commented positively with regards to collaborative work and whiteboards. They all:

-enjoyed working in groups to discuss solutions and assist one another
-preferred working out challenging problems together at the whiteboards, rather than at desks
-felt it was a good change from lectures or independent work
-expressed wanting more group-focused whiteboard activities in a variety of capacities (problem-solving, review, homework take-up, during lessons)

YESSSS!!!!! I knew what the research said, but I honestly didn’t anticipate it would have such a positive effect on every student I talked to. I was VERY excited by this. 

On Problem-Solving:

Student comments here were less clear. The majority of interviewees couldn’t recall experiences where they really enjoyed problem-solving in math class. A few linked it back to collaborative problem-solving that they’ve done at the whiteboards (which was really good to hear). However, this general lack of knowing, pointed to a gaping hole in my math teaching. Students don’t have favourite experiences related to problem-solving because they haven’t done it, or they didn’t realize they were doing it (that messaging then is on me), or did and it was “MEH.”

So. There is a lot of work to be done here. But, also TONS of possibilities!!

Action Plan Outcomes and To do’s:

  1. Continue the course with regular whiteboard use as a means for collaboration and PBL/inquiry-learning.
  2. Take PBL in my grade 12 data management class to the next level. The plan is to have students pose a big question or take on a large problem that will guide all their learning in the second term (collecting, organizing data, one- and two-variable stats, perhaps even throw an interview with an expert in the mix). I’ll use the gold standard PBL wheel by PBLworks to guide me ( I have Robert Porteus @rporteous, Holly Jepson-Fekete @hjepson, and Anthony Chuter @achuter to thank for their guidance and encouragement in taking on this risk (I’m a paralysis by analysis person, you see).
  3. Continue tracking student opinion and insights along the way.

Final Thoughts

I kind of feel like I may have bitten off more than I can chew? This is definitely going to be a long journey, one that far outlasts the year. I need to be okay with the idea that not everything will be perfect. I also need to practice what I preach and embrace the failure as much as the success! But, despite the low key dread, I’m really excited about how my practice has already changed and how it will change in the future. 

Find out if I figured out how to blog(ish)! My Power of Three Reflection.

I just realized that this, in fact, is my SECOND post. People, this is why I gave myself a 3 out of 10 on the blogging proficiency front during yesterday twitter chat T-T Well, without further ado, I present to you, my second post!

Reflections from our first face to face:
I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect from the first face to face meeting. It can be really healthy to go into something without any expectations though. There was no priming with the day’s full schedule e-mailed in advance and so I was made more open to the experiences of the day than I might have otherwise been. I imagine now this was done intentionally–if it wasn’t, well done and keep the new recruits on their toes next year too!

There were a few things that made a big impact on me:

  • Within the first half hour of arriving at York School, I had conversations with so many people that I can barely count them on both my hands. Everyone, both new and returning, was incredibly warm and inviting. You could tell that there was this excitement in the air for learning and collaborating. It was palpable.
  • Facilitators, coaches and mentors, you are all amazing. For every question or challenge, someone had an answer or could direct me to someone who did, zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds.
  • You guys weren’t lying about snacks, coffee and tea galore. It was a bit of a slow morning for me, but being able to caffeinate and carb-load all day really helped keep me in the game. 

A couple suggestions for improvement:

  • I would love a re-usable name tag for all the face to face sessions. That would really help out with that one or two “heyyyy youuu” scenarios.
  • A few more 5 minutes breathers between activities would be nice. I drink A LOT of water, if you get what I mean 😉
  • The large group discussion (based on how long we’ve been teaching and age) were great ideas, with a lot of incredible conversation. However, I had a lot of trouble hearing everyone and think that creating smaller sub-groups for easier conversation might be worth trying next year.

Now, for the Power of Three:
I believe the three most urgent needs for my students are the following:

  1. Learning to work collaboratively
  2. Being resilient
  3. Developing problem-solving, application, critical thinking skills

There has been a lot of conversation with my fellow math teachers. Formal interviews with students have not yet been completed. Up to this point, these are my 3 top insights:

  1. Teachers find that using the whiteboards regularly is pretty easy. Depending on how one wants to use them, incorporating white boards can be very low effort, easy to just drop into a class and flexible
  2. After visiting teachers in the classroom and conferencing with them, it seems that my original vision of a 1:1 ratio of socratic method vs. inquiry and problem-based teaching was unrealistic. For both teachers and students alike, re-thinking how we teach and learn, then also implementing that, needs to be rolled in incrementally. We also need to leave a lot of room for input, more re-thinking, and revision.
  3. Students are starting to buy-in and enjoy using the whiteboards as a way to work collaboratively. They’re starting to ask for it in class as a way to break the class up and change pace. Though, there has been some frustration voiced at not being able to copy everything from the whiteboards down in their notes. I might need to be clearer about when it is and isn’t necessary to have a hard copy of it.

I’m looking forward to finishing up formal interviews with students to get more of their input on where they’d like to see collaborative work and inquiry learning go!

My best learning experience

c21_logo_mediumWelcome to you Cohort 21 Blog. This journal is an integral part of your Cohort 21 experience. Here you will reflect, share , collaborate  and converse as you move through the C21 Action Plan process. 

This is your first post and an opportunity to share a little bit about yourself as a learner and leader. Please respond the to the following prompts below:

1) Reflect on your own personal learning journey and K-12 education. Identify one learning experience that you can point to as having made a significant impact on some element of your own growth and development. It could be that teacher and subject that really sparked significant growth or a trip that opened your eyes to a whole new world or way of thinking or a non-catastrophic failure that you learned so much from.  Briefly describe the learning experience and identify the various supports, structures, mindsets and relational ingredients that were put in place by the teacher or facilitator that directly contributed to your growth and success. 

In highschool, I learned the importance of building good relationships from my cross country coach, Coach Reeks. We had a team of several dozen students, but he would always carve out time to speak with every student and get to know each one of them. Reeks got to know me so well, and when someone knows you, you build incredible trust. So, when we set goals, I trusted that he would help me be ambitious without being reckless. And when we did those grueling double workout weeks (two workouts a day), I trusted in Reeks’ coaching plan. His style rubbed off on all of us because we, in turn, made a point to build good relationships with each other. 

2) What is the one Learning skill (MOE) or Approach to Learning (IB ATL) that you feel is MOST important in this day and age? How do you intentionally build it into your curriculum and develop it in your students throughout the year?

One learning skill that I’m focusing on building into my classroom is collaboration. I’m as guilty as the next person for not thinking “math class” as the most natural setting in school to see great collaboration at work. This year, I’m challenging myself to plan opportunities for students to work collaboratively every class, which a focus on using non-permanent vertical surfaces. A few of these opportunities include:

-inquiry prompts posed at the beginning of a lesson to have students start thinking about new concepts
-problem sets that can be on both familiar or new concepts, of varying degrees of difficulty
-group projects (e.g. creating a unique probability game, making a video that teaches a concept, putting together an assessment review)

The first two of these opportunities require students to work in small groups at whiteboards. I’m planning to assign specific roles (e.g. scribe, manager, presenter, planner) so students have varied types of interaction with one another.

I’d be thrilled if, at the end of the year, students walked away feeling that collaborating is as natural a thing to do in math as in any other class.

3) Insert an image below that best captures the essence of that Learning Skill or ATL. (Click on the “Helpful WordPress Video Tutorials” link in the left hand sidebar to learn how to insert it)

collaboration puzzle pieces

Photo from: