Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mile Deep, Inch Wide


Last week in Albany, I got to hear a fantastic speaker, Andrew Chen. Mr. Chen is the President of Edutron Corporation and a former Physics Professor and Researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the course of his session last week, he led us through math activities that increased in rigor and complexity through known operations with numbers that everybody could do, and kicking it up ten notches by adding in more complex numbers and variables.

He was proving a point. No one who says that they are “bad at math” is really bad at math. Because this was a Common Core related PD session, I was trying in my mind to relate this back to the standards for Mathematical Practice and some of the work I’ve been doing with teachers. The actions we were going through nailed each of the standards: I was being perseverent, I was reasoning abstractly, I was modeling and being precise and looking for structure to apply to the next level of complexity. Did I mention that I’m “bad at math?”

Mr. Chen allowed for multiple versions of solutions, which we shared with each other. He allowed for time to drill into the complexity of the work. He also, with his team, circulated the room and questioned individuals about their processes, NOT the answers.  There was a lot of depth to what he did. Mile deep, inch wide.

His session gave me a lot to think about, especially in terms of sharing this with teachers. Over the weekend, there was a conversation on Twitter about being “bad at math.” The participants were being tongue-in-cheek, but the message was clearly that some were genetically predisposed to doing well in math, and others were just out of luck. No one in the course of the conversation said that they were “bad at Language Arts.” Nobody ever does. I guess it’s not as funny. Or believable? But we easily believe that we could be “bad at math.” After Mr. Chen’s session, I’m starting to believe that what I was bad at was thinking. I’m willing to think and persevere and be precise in topics I’m more comfortable with--but is that really stretching my capabilities? If I’m questioning this for myself, what might this mean in instruction of both kids and adults if I can challenge those boxes I’ve been in for years?

It reminded me of a question I’ve blogged about before, but still see when I visit classrooms. If I ask kids “What are you doing?” They can always tell me.

If I ask them, “What are you learning?” Sometimes they can tell me, but often they can’t.

During the course of Mr. Chen’s session, he mentioned that the US was one of the only countries, if not the only one, where the standards (even the new Common Core ones!) are the ceiling. Everywhere else around the world, they are the floor.

Everybody Must versus Some Might.

I’m thinking it is time to start moving beyond the arguments around new standards and start shifting the conversation to higher expectations in our practice, in our students, in everything we do as educators. It would also be awesome if we could just stop saying that we’re “bad at math” or any other topic. When we say it, kids hear it, and then we allow them the same “out.”

If you are interested in the resources shared by Mr. Chen and his colleagues, I’ve included them below:


1. National Mathematics Advisory Panel Report


2. Common Core State Standards


3. STEM Crisis in USA


4. Elementary Mathematics Education


5. Mathematical Education of Teachers


6. National and International Benchmarks


Resources shared from presentation by Andrew Chen and available on the EngageNY.org website.

-Mike
On Twitter: @fisher1000

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