Who or What Broke My Kids?

I am Desperate

I am on a desperate search to find out who or what broke my students.  In fact I am so desperate that I stopped class today to ask them who broke them.  Was it their parents, a former teacher, society, our education system or me that took away their inquisitive nature and made math only about getting a right answer?  I have known this was a problem for a while but today was the last straw.  

A Probability Lesson Gone Wrong

It started out innocently enough working on the seventh grade Common Core standard 7.SP.C.5 about understanding that all probabilities occur between zero and one and differentiating between likely and unlikely events which I thought would be simple enough. After the introduction and class discussion we began partner work on this activity from the Georgia Common Core Resource Document (see page 9).  The basic premise of the activity is that students must sort cards including probability statements, terms such as unlikely and probable, pictorial representations, and fraction, decimal, and percent probabilities and place them on a number line based on their theoretical probability.  I thought it would be an interactive way to gauge student understanding.  Instead it turned into a ten minute nightmare where I was asked no less than 52 times if their answers were “right”.  I took it well until I was asked for the 53rd time and then I lost it.  We stopped class right there and proceeded to have a ten minute discussion on who broke them.

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If You Can Type the Problem into Wolfram Alpha and Get an Answer You Aren’t Doing Math

When did we brainwash kids into thinking that math was about getting an answer?  My students truly believe for some reason that math is about combining whatever numbers you can in whatever method that seems about right to get one “answer” and then call it a day.  They rarely think about what they are doing as long as at the end of the day their answer is “correct”.  Today they were given a task with no real correct answer and they lost it.  It did however lead us to have a very productive discussion about that fact that they are lucky, after all they live in the 21 century where they can solve any computation problem with technology with no issue.  The problem I told them lies in the fact that they have no idea how to interpret that answer.  We talked about the need for them to stop worrying about if I think their answer is right and to start worrying about whether or not they thought their answer was right.  I told them I was sorry someone (maybe me) broke their desire to think about math and instead taught them that math was a means to an end where there was always one right and one wrong answer and then I told them to try their assignment again.

Probability Revisited

Things went so much better the second time around with not one student asking me if their answer was “right” (perhaps out of fear of another Powers meltdown).  For the first time I heard some really rich discussions that were sometimes correct and sometimes were not but the important thing was the kids were talking about the math.  There was a great discussion about the circle that was shaded in vs. the circle that was not shaded in.  The obvious answer was that the shaded in circle represented one and the unshaded represented zero but another group of students thought maybe the non-shaded circle was actually shaded in with white and would therefore represent one as well.  Fabulous.  Another group focused on the statement “it will rain tomorrow”.  One student had seen the weather and knew there was a 90% chance of rain the other had not seen the weather and though the probability was 50% since it would either rain or not.  They compromised and picked the middle but that’s not the part I cared about, I cared that they had a reasonable discussion about their thoughts.

Why Constructing a Viable Argument and Making Sense of the Reasoning of Others is Crucial

This may seriously be the most vital mathematical practice.  If students can’t share their ideas and understand the ideas of others is there any real point in them “doing the math”.  After our lesson redo I paired each group with another group to share their number line.  Their goal was to look for similarities and differences and explain their rationale about why they placed controversial cards where they did.  I heard some of most logical and articulate arguments we have had all year.  I think I heard, “I like what you did there, but…” repeatedly along with “I hear what you are saying”.  We brought it back together as a whole class to follow it up and each group shared the most interesting conversation that they had.

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In the end our meltdown and redo took more time than anticipated by me but it was time well worth it.  If we are to truly make progress in getting our students to understand the concepts presented in the Common Core to the depth intended we must help them learn to stop looking for a right answer and start looking for a right reason.  I still don’t know who broke my kids but I know it is up to me to fix them one argument at a time.

 

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