Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Times They Are A Changin'

One of the great joys of Twitter is being introduced to big names in education, without the social embarrassment of clearly not having a clue as to who they are (on the internet, no-one can hear you google). And so, in time, one comes to know ones Hattie from ones Lemov. Speaking of whom

Fairly early on this academic year I came across the work of Lemov yes, via Twitter and so boldly ordered a copy of Teach Like A Champion, only slightly alarmed by how appallingly bad the cover is (seriously, Doug, have a word with someone about that). For those who dont know, Doug Lemov spent quite a while observing champion teachers, trying to isolate exactly what skills or attitudes or practices they had which made them so effective. I should mention that Lemovs work was targeted particularly at schools serving poor areas in the USA. Before long, Doug had a list of 50 things champion teachers do, and so the book was born. Quite what would have happened if hed got stuck on 49 things, is anyones guess.

The book is an easy read, if a tad heavy on the Americanisms and positivity (Im Scottish, you see) and its all the better for coming with a DVD illustrating the methods etc in question. So before long, I found myself at the end of chapter one, and with all manner of ideas for trying things out in class. I was particularly taken with Method Two: Right is Right, in which Doug challenges teachers to insist on getting correct answers from pupils before moving on dont accept answers that are half-way right, or nearly right, and insist on correct usage in terms of notation, vocabulary and whatever. (I know this probably sounds pretty harsh the first time you hear it, but Lemovs worry is that by not insisting on correct usage, we are impoverishing the vocabulary of poorer students, and denying them the sort of knowledge they need for gaining entry to further/higher education the whole book is really a form of handbook for encouraging students into college entry.)

Quite why this approach struck a chord with me deserves some explanation. Ive been teaching for a good few years now (ahem) and my trajectory in terms of using correct mathematical phrases etc is probably not uncommon; that is to say, when first I started out, I was gung-ho for using high-falutin language with my classes, and overall I was quite definitely pitching things too high. In time, Ive learned to temper my language, in order to ensure that things are clearer to students so these days Im probably less likely to explain to a class that one cant be a prime number because if it is then we cant have the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic. Like I say, I was young. Or if Im keen to promote proper usage, Ill do so in a more throwaway manner: a favourite would be when a pupil says that an area is, say, 25 cm squared, and I say back to them, yes, thats right, its 25 square cm. You see what I did there? Johnny gets praise for the right answer (well, almost) and I dont get thrown out of the mathematically correct club. Everyones happy.

But then you catch yourself in the mirror one day and think, wait a minute, I almost never say multiply anymore. The kids say times all the time, and so do I. Likewise top and bottom rather than numerator and denominator. God help me, these days Ill even talk about happy parabolas (where a>0). I mean, who cares anyway (Just so long as none of my students ever come across a maths professor at a party and talk about happy and sad graphs. Oh, the shame Ill feel then.)

And now along comes Lemov to challenge me on exactly this very practice. Right is right, right?
Normally my response would be pretty blunt. If the kids get it, then whats the problem? Except is there a sense in which you dont really get it if you rely on incorrect terminology? And more importantly, what about this college entry stuff? The last thing Id want to do is limit the horizons or opportunities of my weans, just because I cant be bothered to make a fuss over what could just could be relatively minor matters in terms of correction.


Ah, what the heck, I though, might as well give it a go. And so off I went to teach my classes, reborn with an enthusiasm for correctness in all things mathematical.

Please believe me when I tell you that Im not making the next bit up. My first lesson was with my high-ability S2 class (thats Year 9 or thereabouts in English money), and our topic was multiplying fractions. This should be interesting.

An hour later and Id become more aware than ever before just how many times pupils will say times instead of multiply, and ditto the whole top/bottom business. It was a lot. A helluva lot. And yes. Doug, albeit light-heartedly, each time they did this, it was corrected by me though I admit sometimes I saved the corrections up, cos we wouldnt really have got through the lesson otherwise. Did the kids mind? Not really, as we did treat it as a bit of fun I might get pelters from Mr Lemov for that, but I couldnt see any way of doing this otherwise, though perhaps its easier to adopt a zero tolerance approach from day one, rather than trying to introduce this on the hoof. You should never evaluate the success (or otherwise) of a new approach based on the evidence of just one lesson, but so far, so good.

There was barely time to draw breath, however before the next class came in, this time in the form of my middle-ish ability S3 class (a year older). And today's topic: multiplication of fractions. Well, I thought, that's handy. So, off we went.

It's by no means unusual to find yourself teaching more or less the same content to classes of efferent ages; obviously you need to pitch the work at the appropriate level, so this wasn't a direct copy of the previous lesson, but by jings, it wasn't far off. The kids reacted in much the same way as the previous lot, with mild bemusement rather than annoyance being the main theme (again, I was trying to avoid being heavy handed).

But here's the thing: as time went on, and the number of transgressions increased considerably, I could feel my resolve beginning to weaken. "Och, what does it matter?" I'd think, as another times whizzed its way towards my eardrums, "I mean, I've made my point, maybe we can just leave things be for the rest of the lesson. They get the idea."

Being blunt, I was expecting less of this class than the previous one, and the temptation to make excuses and drop it was overwhelming. It's insidious, this business of lowering our expectations, and being honest it's something I pride myself on avoiding for the most part, but here I was, feeling the pull of just letting things go. I'd imagine that Lemov's would be quick to point out, that this is exactly what approaches like Right is Right are all about. You don't take the easy way out, you don't make excuses, you expect high standards from all classes at all times. Those you make excuses for, are those who need the challenge more than most.

This was a wee while ago, and Ive continued with the experiment, with (I hope) a certain degree of success. Nothing earth-shattering, and I have to emphasise again the obvious point that if youre going to try this approach, you should do it from the get-go with new classes, rather than trying to introduce it on the hoof as I did. What surprised me most about this while business, though, was how much it revealed about my own bad habits, as well as (on a deeper level) my prejudices and expectations.

If you havent read Lemov on this subject, I do recommend that you dig out his book (ignoring the cover) and see what he has to say.
Seriously, someone was paid to design this cover?

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