Crippling with Compassion?

Strange title? It comes from teacher Ellen Berg’s article in Teacher Magazine, Teaching Secrets: Don’t Cripple With Compassion. From her perspective, “One of the major issues with American teachers especially is our predilection to rescue kids instead of letting them struggle with the content a bit. In essence, we’re too compassionate.” It is second nature for us as teachers to help our students, but do we rush in on rescue missions too often and too soon?

Berg writes, “I get how difficult it is to step back and let them struggle, but I also know that it’s in the disequilibrium that kids have to make sense of things and that’s when the learning happens. If we do it for them, why would they be persistent with a problem or give it more than 30 seconds? And how can they become confident, self-directed learners if we don’t ever let them have that experience? Finally, why would they ever believe that they are able to figure it out if we show them by our actions that we don’t believe they can, either?”

Thinking of how we math teachers might challenge students to tough thinking, I looked around for problems that would work in middle school classrooms. Here are a few below, but please share any of your favorites from the classroom in the comments section.

Balanced Assessment

A set of more than 300 assessment tasks actually designed for off-the-wall thinking. Most tasks, indexed for grades K-12, incorporate a story problem and include hands-on activities. Some intriguing titles include Confetti Crush, Walkway, and Hockey Pucks. Rubrics for each task are provided.

Understanding Distance, Speed, and Time Relationships

In these two lessons, students use an online simulation of one or two runners along a track. Students control the speed and starting point of the runner, watch the race, and examine a graph showing time versus distance. Students can use the activity to come to conclusions on the distance, speed, and time relationship. They can also use it to consider the graphical representation and the concept of slope.

Measuring the Circumference of the Earth

Through this online project, students learn about Eratosthenes and actually do a similar measurement that yields a close estimate of the earth’s circumference. It’s a challenge! Even with access to only one computer, students can obtain data from other schools that lie approximately on their own longitude. Careful instructions guide the students in carrying out the experiment and analyzing the data collected. The project also provides activities, reference materials, online help, and a teacher area.

Down the Drain: How Much Water Do You Use?

Students first collect data from their household members and their classmates and then determine the average amount of water used by one person in a day. They compare their average to the average amount of water used per person per day in other parts of the world. Through the Internet, they can collect and share information with other students from around the country and the world. A teacher’s guide is included as well as guidelines on how students can publish reports, photos, or other work directly to the project web site.

Accessing and Investigating Population Data

In these activities, students use census data available on the web to examine questions about population. They also formulate their own questions. For example, in one section they analyze statistics from five states of their choice, develop specific research questions using the data, and create three graphs to compare and contrast the information.

The Handshake Problem

This two-lesson unit allows students to discover patterns in a fictional but real-world scenario: How many handshakes occur when the nine Supreme Court justices shake hands with each other? Students explore—through a table, a graph, and finally an algebraic formula—the number of handshakes in any size group. A second pattern is explored, that of triangular numbers; again, students generalize the pattern with variables. The lessons are well illustrated and include background information for the teacher.

These problems require patience and analytical thinking, even the easiest of them. I would not give such problems without having prepared my students with the needed tools to do them, if not before they start the work, then as they’re doing it. As Ellen Berg put it, “I’m not talking about failing to scaffold instruction or give kids input. Of course we want to do that. What I’m talking about is resisting the urge to fix things for them instead of asking more questions to get them thinking. I’m talking about sometimes just telling them, ‘I know you can do this,’ and walking away.”

Another teacher who feels that we need to help math students less is Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher. This 11-minute talk, Math Needs a Makeover, begins with: “I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.” From there he moves to actual examples of textbook math versus ways to present real, hard thinking problems. Worth watching!

Citation: From Teacher Magazine [Teacher Update], Wednesday, May 26, 2010. See  http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2010/05/26/tln_berg_compassion.html?tkn=URPFzAhx52nB4%2FOp1kNYkfQZs6eV8MJI9rtk&cmp=clp-edweek

Testing! Beyond One-Step Math Problems

Middle school students often do well on straight calculations but feel lost when faced with more complex problems. And many tests these days require critical thinking and ask for an extended response. As in all test preparation, students need practice, especially on problems requiring more than one-step computation. Here are sites that offer test items you might use in class reviews, challenges, quizzes, etc.  Please let us know of other treasure troves of practice problems or how you prepare your students for testing.

Searching for Solutions
Within this WebQuest is a set of individual lessons on several problem-solving techniques, such as finding patterns, making a table, working backward, and solving a simpler problem. Each strategy is explained simply, with students in mind, then activities requiring that strategy are presented. An excellent guide from an e-learning specialist on ways to attack math problems!

Balanced Assessment
A set of more than 300 assessment tasks, indexed for grades K-12. Each incorporates a story problem format and includes hands-on activities. Rubrics provided.

Figure This! Math Challenges for FamiliesCreated for students in grades 6 to 8, the site offers math challenges that focus on everyday life, such as how fast your heart beats, what shape container holds the most popcorn, and how much of you shows in a small wall mirror.

Word Problems for Kids
A wide range of carefully selected problems! Organized by grade level from 5 through 12, each problem links to a helpful hint and to the answer; the more difficult problems offer complete solutions.

Problems with a Point
Here you can search for word problems by topic, lesson time, required mathematical background, and problem-solving strategy. Take the time to do the short guided tours of the site, and then look at favorite problems selected by teachers — a good set of problems at the middle school level.

Fermi Questions
Fermi questions emphasize estimation, numerical reasoning, communicating in mathematics, and questioning skills. Students often believe that word problems have one exact answer and that the answer is derived in a unique manner. Fermi questions encourage multiple approaches, emphasize process rather than the answer, and promote non-traditional problem solving strategies.

NAEP Questions
Over 2000 questions archived.  Online tools allow you to search the collection by content area, grade level, and difficulty. The site also shows what students at each achievement level are likely to know and how NAEP questions are scored.

Writing to Communicate in Science

Communication is a science process skill found within the Science as Inquiry section of the National Science Education Standards. The resources here point to methods and references science teachers can use to assist students in continual honing of this important skill.

Writing with Scientists
In this workshop students will use their own notes and research to write and publish a report online. The workshop will be most helpful if students have completed research on a topic.

14 Writing Strategies
This article from the December 2006 issue of Science Scope enumerates strategies that will encourage critical thinking and provide purposeful writing practice. NSTA members can download the article at no charge; nonmembers must pay \$0.99.

Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides
This resource comes from a site intended for college students, Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students. However, because it focuses on PowerPoint presentations it is useful to students and teachers at all levels.

How to… Write to Learn Science
This book, available from NSTA, focuses on tapping students’ creativity, allowing them to express science concepts in their own words. Also offered are options for managing writing evaluations and a section on portfolio assessment. (NSTA members receive a reduced price.)

Assessment Tools

Here are some great resources to help you add variety to your assessment techniques. Assessment Standard C of the National Science Education Standards implies a need for multiple forms of assessment and recommends the following: (a)The feature that is claimed to be measured is actually measured, (b) Assessment tasks are authentic, (c) An individual student’s performance is similar on two or more tasks that claim to measure the same aspect of student achievement, (d) Students have adequate opportunity to demonstrate their achievements, and (e) Assessment tasks and methods of presenting them provide data that are sufficiently stable to lead to the same decisions if used at different times.

The ABCs of Assessment
This article discusses aligning assessment with instruction. It offers ideas on how to evaluate the effectiveness of any given assessment activity, stressing authentic assessment.

Portfolio Assessment
A portfolio is a collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas of the curriculum. This resource discusses the characteristics of an effective portfolio, types of portfolios, and the phases of portfolio assessment. It offers guidelines on how to get started using portfolios and how to evaluate them, and provides additional resources on portfolio assessment.

Classroom Assessment Techniques
This is a short, easy-to-read matrix of (a) classroom assessment techniques, (b)outlining descriptions, (c) what to do with the data, and (c) the time required for each type of assessment. The techniques included are the minute paper, chain notes, memory matrix, directed paraphrasing, one-sentence summary, exam evaluations, application cards, and student-generated test questions.

Assessment and Evaluation: Middle Level Science
This reference describes the phases of the evaluation process, assessing student progress, student assessment in science, performance-based evaluation in science, record-keeping, program evaluation, and curriculum evaluation. It contains many how-tos for teachers. The document also has a chart detailing what types of evaluation methods are good for evaluating specific skills.