Friday, 2 August 2013

How to Learn Math (Sessions 2 & 3)

For my blog post on session 1 of this free online course by @joboaler click here.

Session 2 of the 'How to Learn Math' course I'm currently working my way through was called 'Maths and Mindset' and spoke about how the brain can change and adapt and discussed the differences between a 'fixed' mindset and a 'growth' mindset.
This session was shorter than session 1 and introduced Carol Dweck's mindset research. The session asked a few short questions, the one that stuck out was one where I was asked to say how, if schools took mindset evidence seriously, would things change.
The main way I feel things would need to change is how we, as teachers, give students feedback and how what we say and how students interpret our messages affect their mathematics and attitudes towards maths.

Session 3 was called 'Mistakes and Persistence'. Having introduced the 'fixed' vs 'growth' mindset work in session 2, this session spoke about how students learn best from making mistakes. There was a really interested part about what happens in our brains when we make mistakes, in terms of the synapses etc.
What seemed to be evident from the two sessions is that people with a 'growth' mindset make more mistakes and learn from them. It didn't take long before I realised that this course will help me introduce a 'Fail Safe' culture in my room this year. Session 4, which I am looking forward to, is 'Teaching for a growth mindset'. This session, I hope, will give me strategies to use in class this year to help enforce a 'growth' mindset in my students, make them feel safe in the fact that they can make mistakes without feelings of 'i've failed' or 'i'm not good at maths'.
What also became evident in this session was the subtleties in the language you use in class and how this language affects your students. For example, rather than saying, 'no, that's wrong' saying 'not quite yet' implies that they will, at some point get to the correct answer and are on a 'learning journey' towards that end; making a few mistakes along the way and learning from them.
Another interesting point was that of the 'didactic contract'. The contract we enter into with students when asked for help. A student will put up their hand and ask a question and the teacher would go over, answer the question for the student, and then the student has the answer they sought, without any real thinking on their behalf. As much as I'd like to say that I, instead, encourage students to seek the answers themselves by asking other questions of them like 'what have you tried so far', 'what do you think you could do', 'if you tried 'x' and it didn't work, how about trying 'y'?' and so on. This is something that naturally, when you're a bit fed up, it's the end of the week (perhaps Friday P5) and the student in question is short on interest, becomes easier to give them the answer they seek in the hope that they then apply your thinking (from your explanation to them when telling them the answer) to the next question.
Finally, there was a discussion on speed in mathematics lessons and how this is one of the contributing factors to students experiencing anxiety in our subject and being afraid to make mistakes. This even included questioning timed examinations and whether the time it takes a person to complete a task is really important over them arriving at the answer/solution in their own time. The pressure time can put on students to complete tasks got me to think about the timings I give in class, the 1 min timed times tables task I have given my 'bottom set' students all year and whether this has had a detrimental effect on their progress/mindset.
However, we need to have some time constraints surely? So, I perhaps need to do a bit more thinking here. Project-based learning tasks clearly are open to the amount of time a student spends on them, but there needs to be a point where we say, 'OK, that's done now and lets move on'. I feel that in class, timed tasks can increase students motivation, especially if there is a competitive element to the task?
As the last task in session 3 we were asked to design a poster to state to students that they learn from their mistakes and that it was OK to make them. I've recently purchased the 'Fail Safe' posters from @SparkyTeaching ( as part of my want to create a more 'mistakes are ok' environment this year. I gave the link to these posters for this task as I think they're great.

In summary (and things for me to think about/do):
'growth' mindsets beat 'fixed' mindsets hands down
I've got to get students into this  'growth mindset'
mistakes are important and are huge learning opportunities
'didactic contract' - avoid it
speed (good or bad?) - 'faster isn't smarter'
think about the language used in class
effort is needed from the students to solve a problem that is challenging
set up more 'Spot the Mistake' plenaries
think about feedback given in books/verbally
'I love mistakes'
students write mistakes on board and discuss as a class

Right, off to do session 4...

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