The Power of Math Exploration

If I had a dollar for every time I hear “I would do more hands-on, inquiry, problem-solving, collaborative learning, in math class if I ________________________ (insert any one of the following):

  • had more time
  • didn’t have as many students
  • didn’t have to get through the ‘curriculum’
  • had students who would actually talk
  • if I didn’t have to make sure they were ready for the test
  • if I didn’t have to review all the things they didn’t learn from last year…..
  • ….the list goes on…….

I would be a very wealthy woman. What is mind boggling to me is there is so much research out there that shows students do better when they learn for understanding and not for memorization, which means learning through context, through inquiry, through problem-solving, through struggle. Time is one of the biggest ‘road-blocks’ teachers throw out there, and granted, there definitely is a time crunch to get all the content in before those dreaded assessments. What I try so hard to get across to the teachers I work with, is that you can  save time by taking time – you actually can ‘cover’ more ground by teaching from a more contextual, experiential, problem-solving way. As students make connections and problem-solve, they are able to learn more efficiently and more than one concept at a time because they are working from a connected-math view point instead of the single-skill/concept at a time approach we traditionally provide.

An example from Geometry: (this is using Classpad.net, free math software) 

Concept – identifying polygons, and then what’s the difference between congruent-sided polygons versus regular polygons (identifying what a regular polygon is).

Activity: Using the drawing tool, have students draw examples of 3-side, 4-sided, 5-sided (and more….) polygons.  At least 2 of each kind that look ‘different’. Can be convex or concave

  • Have students compare their shapes noting similarities and differences and coming up with definitions – attaching specific words to their definitions like convex, concave, closed, etc.
  • Now have students use the arrow tool, and select one of their triangles, and the Adjustment menu to make all sides congruent. Then, choose a second triangle and Adjustment and make the shape a ‘regular’ polygon. What do they notice? Have them measure sides and angles and compare to others.
  • Do the same for two different 4-sided figures (so Adjust congruent, then adjust regular), the 5-sided, etc.  Each time compare the two on their paper, and then compare to others, and try to come up with what the difference is between congruent-sided polygons and regular-polygons.
  • Come to group consensus, and by the end of class students have manipulated, explored, collaborated and defined several things: polygons, convex polygons vs. concave, triangle, quadrilateral, pentagon,….regular polygon, congruent sides, etc.

An example from Algebra: (this is using CG50 Graphing Calculator (CG10 is similar):

Concept: Parent Function and Vertex From of a Parabola 

Activity: Students graph the parent function of a Parabola (y=x^2) and then graph another in standard form using variables for coefficients.

  • Have students use the modify feature of the graphing calculator to animate the different coefficients (one at a time)
  • Observe what changes in that coefficient does to the parabola by comparing the modified to the parent
  • Make conjectures and compare with other students till consensus is reached.
  • Do this with all the coefficients.
  • Have students then test out their conjectures by providing them several equations of different parabolas and, based on their conjectures, determine the shape, direction and location of the parabola BEFORE they do anything, and then test their guesses by entering in the calculator.
  • Time saver: Doing this activity with linear equations first will then give students a general understanding of transformations of functions which they then extend and solidify with quadratics, which then can be easily extended into other equations, like the absolute value function. Time saver!

Obviously I am using technology here, because technology allows for conjectures to be made and tested very quickly. But technology is just a tool that is appropriate in some instances, but there’s so much that can be done without technology as well. You can make math much more of an exploration just through your own questioning (i.e. why do you think? can you explain that more? Are there other ways to do this?) and by providing students a chance to puzzle things out on their own, ask questions, use tools (so objects, paper, pencil, etc).

One of my favorite things to do is to provide them with a situation that has lots of information, but no question (basically, find a rich math task, but don’t give students the question(s)). Students then write down all the things they notice, such as quantities, relationships, etc. and then come up with their own wondering’s and questions. Then you let them choose a path they want to explore (this works well with small groups or partners). Usually it ends up that there are several different questions and solutions generated and explored using the same information. When students then share their findings, you find that there is a lot of math going on, which leads to some really interesting class discussions – some you yourself might not have thought of. You can then maybe even give them the question that might have been given in the problem – by that time students may have already explored it and if not, by now they have a real sense of what information in the problem will help them and they are more willing to actually solve the problem.

The key here – students only become problem-solvers if they are given the opportunities to explore math, make their own connections, and collaborate with others to verify their thinking. The more you give them opportunities and provide tools and resources and challenging problems, the more efficient they become at using math, connecting math concepts, and viewing math as a connected whole instead of isolated skills and facts. Take the time….it’ll come back in the end.

 

 

 

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Creativity of Students – Provide Opportunities for Expression

I was straightening up my office – something I realized I do not do enough. I found a file of student projects from when I was teaching Geometry over 15 years ago. We had done some geometry poems for Valentines day – i.e. write a poem that utilizes mathematics vocabulary (getting that ELA and creativity flowing in my students), and I had clearly saved a few of my favorites.  There were other files of student projects – scale drawings of bedrooms and furniture (so students could ‘rearrange’ their rooms using a scale model), dilation pictures, transformation sketches from Sketchpad, problem-solving portfolios, and designing an aerial view of a city using geometric shapes and properties. As I walked through memory lane, looking at student work from years ago and remembering specific students, it really made me miss those classroom experiences. And what I had forgotten is how incredibly creative and thoughtful students are when given the chance to express themselves – you learn so much about them if you let them, what they know about mathematics, what they think, and what they don’t know if you provide opportunities to approach mathematics creatively.

I’d completely forgotten about the problem-solving portfolios I did with both middle and high school students in all my courses. They were given a choice of problems connected in some way to the math content we were learning or applications of prior knowledge, etc., and they were to choose from several. They had to complete one per unit and put it in their portfolio as examples of their problem-solving and learning/application of mathematics. This was way before the ‘Common Core’, but as I look at my expectations, it was very Common Core like. The idea behind was really very much centered around helping students to persevere and think critically about problems, use problem-solving strategies, and explain their interpretation of a problem, plan out a solution path, justifying their thinking, and showing multiple ways to approach a problem, and analyze their solutions to see if they made sense.  Here are the ‘steps’ they needed to go through and demonstrate in their problem-solving:

  1. Restate the problem in your own words, writing out any questions or wondering you have about the problem.
  2. Create a solution plan – what do you think about the problem  and why (is it hard, easy, does it seem similar to something you have seen or done before), what math might be needed, what problem-solving approach will you start with and why do you think this might be a good approach? What do you think might be the solution, before you begin?
  3. Work through the problem – include everything, especially if you changed your original plan and why. Write down everything that comes to mind and what you did to think through things.
  4. What is your solution and why do you think this is a reasonable solution?
  5. Analysis of your problem solving – What did you think of the problem after working through it? What did you learn from doing the problem, either about yourself or about math, or both!?

In reading through some of these (I’ve posted some samples below from several different portfolios), you can ‘hear’ students personalities coming out, you can immediately see if they might have a misconception about what the problem is asking or an interesting approach to a solution, or identify those who really needed some extra support because their art work was more substantial then their mathematical work! It gives great insight into who might need some extra support or who might warrant some extra challenges. But mostly – the freedom to choose, think on their own and be creative and work through their problems provided students and ability to express their learning in a different way than an answer on a test. I remember at the time I was considered a rather eccentric MS/HS teacher because I did all these ‘strange’ things like keep math portfolios and journals, use manipulatives, used technology (Sketchpad) and projects instead of tests to demonstrate learning. But – in looking back on the past, and looking at what we want from students today in mathematics, with College and Career Ready Standards and Mathematical Practices, I think it’s the right path. Provide students opportunities to think, choose, be creative, find multiple solutions, justify their answers and question their results. It brings out their creativity and they learn to express themselves as mathematicians.

 

Pee In the Pool and Other Summer Problems – Problem Solving Resources

As part of my daily brush-up-on education news, I read over my Twitter feed to see what interesting articles or problems the many great educators and educational resource companies I follow might have shared. I laughed so hard when I saw the Tweet from @YummyMath asking how much pee was in the water, with a picture of a large pool and many people in it. Come on – let’s admit it, we have all asked that question at one time or another (especially if you are a parent!!)  It’s a great question. And now I am curious. Where to start? My thoughts are I’d probably need to do some research on the average amount of pee found in a pool and then go from there. The great thing here – Brian Marks from @YummyMath has done that work for me, and even has an engaging ‘lesson starter’ video to go along with the lesson (link to the lesson). So – this would be a really fun problem to start out with that first day of school – funny, lots to notice and wonder about, getting ideas from students on where to begin, what information they might need, etc.

In an early post this summer, Summer Vacation – Use Your Experiences to Create Engaging Lesson Ideas, I talked about how your own summer experiences could raise questions and interesting problem-solving experiences to bring back to the classroom. But – as the tweet from Brian Marks @yummyMath reminded me, there are other amazing educators and resources out there who are already thinking of these questions and even creating the lessons for you. No need to reinvent the wheel, as they say – if there are some interesting questions and resources already being posed and shared, then use them. Saves time, maybe provides some ideas you hadn’t thought of before, or maybe it takes something you did think of and provides some questions or links that you hadn’t found yourself. As educators, we need to really learn to collaborate and share our expertise so that we are not individuals trying to support just our students, but we are educators trying to work together to improve instructional practices and student achievement. Isn’t that what we try to stress within our own classrooms – i.e. working together, communicating, and sharing ideas because this leads to better understandings and new approaches? Same goes for our teaching practices and strategies.

Here are some fun problem-solving resources, with lots of different types of problems, but definitely some ‘summer-related’ things already started for you!

  1. YummyMath – (check out the ‘costco-size’ beach towel activity….that’s funny!)
  2. Mathalicious – (Check out the ‘License to Ill’ lesson – relevant to todays’ debate on Health Care & Insurance)
  3. Tuva|Data Literacy (Check out their lessons and their technology for graphing and analyzing data, and their data sets – so much here!)
  4. RealWorldMath
  5. TheMathForum
  6. Illuminations 
  7. Center of Math
  8. MakeMathMore.com
  9. MashUpMath

 

Failure is Key to Learning & Perseverance – ISTE Keynotes

I was unable to attend one of my favorite conferences this year, the International Society for Technology in Education Annual Conference (ISTE), which was held in San Antonio, TX June 25-27 a couple weeks ago. I was doing some training in Austin, TX so could not make it. But – because it is a technology conference, they video many of the presentations, especially the keynotes, and make them available on their ISTE Youtube Channel

This years completed videos are not up yet, but there are some ‘teasers’ of the three keynote presentations. I particularly like the closing Keynote speaker, Reshma Saujani, the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, on coding and how coding is all about the iterative process and failure – i.e. learning from failure and doing things over and over until you get things to work. This is how we develop that creative thinking, that problem-solving, and that critical thinking in students – letting them fail, learn from that failure, and try again. It speaks to the mathematical practice of making sense of problems and perseverance. Here is the excerpt that is currently posted on the ISTE website – short but worth a listen:

This is the excerpt from the opening keynote, Jad Abumrad, the founder of RadioLab, also about learning from failure.

Both of these speak to something I have been focused on this summer in a course I am teaching – how to get students to persevere in problem-solving and be okay with ‘failure’. Instead of giving up, to have that drive to find another path or look for another solution. I am sorry I missed the conference, but it’s nice to get a peek into some of what was focused on, and I think it’s something educators really need to think about as we use the summer to plan for next year – how can you support productive struggle and learning from failure and perseverance in students?

Math Test Prep – It’s That Time of Year Where We Bore Our Students Into Failure

I know when I was teaching in the k-12 classroom, this time of year was always so frustrating as a teacher and even more frustrating and anxiety-ridden for my students. This is the time of year when standardized testing is occurring or about to occur, in the majority of states. This can mean state-tests or national tests such as the AP exams, SAT and ACT. For me, the biggest ‘anxiety inducer’ was the mandatory End-of-Course tests that all my math students were required to take and pass with a 70% or better in order to earn the credits needed to graduate. No pressure there…..

Things have changed a bit as we move into the new era of ESSA, with many states changing the standardized testing requirements, but there is definitely a lot of pressure on students to perform, and on teachers to get their students to achieve at specific levels. This impacts teacher evaluations, school evaluations, etc. I’ve always hated that these ‘one-point-in-time’ tests have such dire impacts on teachers and schools, considering they do not reflect student growth over time or other impacting factors such as absenteeism.

But – regardless, tests are out there, happening now, and causing teachers and students undo stress. I know, for me, part of the frustration was the inordinate amount of time we were ‘required’ to prep students for the test. This included days specifically set aside to practice for the tests instead of teaching, and a ridiculous number of ‘practice tests’ and test taking prep.  Boring, stress-inducing, and really kind of pointless in my opinion. I felt we spent entirely too much time preparing for tests instead of actually teaching our content and letting students continue to learn. It was as if ‘learning’ stopped and the whole school went into ‘test-prep’ mode, and we forgot what school should be about – engaging students in learning and understanding, not preparing them to take a standardized test. My thoughts were these prep times only increased students anxiety about the tests and often, the long, drawn-out, constant test prep led to student burn-out, apathy, and failure. For many students, they got so tired and bored of ‘practicing’ that when the real test(s) came along, they made beautiful designs on their bubble sheets instead of actually focusing on answering the questions. (Yep – that really happens).

What are my suggestions? Keep teaching. And not teaching to the test or for the test, but teaching. Teach new things. Teach applications of things that might be on the test but  NOT through standardized-test questions, but with real questions, real problems, and real applications of the things students should know for the test. Worksheets with multiple choice answers are NOT teaching, or learning, or engaging. Technology with “practice” problems and right/wrong answers is NOT teaching or learning. Do something with the knowledge students should be able to use and do on these tests. Create interesting learning experiences, where students have to problem-solve and apply the knowledge and talk to each other. Example: instead of 20 solve these ‘systems of equations’ problems on a worksheet, provide real-world problems where a systems of equations is needed to find the solution. Where students have to work together to create the equations and come up with the solutions. Where they get to decide the most appropriate method to solve the system. Way more interesting and much more insightful into what students know and can do.

It’s not that you shouldn’t prepare students for tests. It’s that you should do it in a way where students are applying their knowledge and engaged in applications of that knowledge. It’s not about worksheets and test-taking strategies. It’s about understanding and applying the concepts. Tests suck. Don’t feed the anxiety and the boredom and the apathy towards tests by creating rote, mundane, drill-and-kill test prep. Make it about engaging students in applying their knowledge in interesting, relevant ways. There are many resources out there that can provide excellent ‘test prep’ ideas and problems in a much more exciting way than a worksheet with 40 multiple choice problems. (Bleh).

Some fun #math sites with challenging application problems to use for ‘test-prep’:

 

A Math Nerd’s Dream Museum

img_3760I went to the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) today – what else would I do while in NYC?!!  If you were unaware, this is yet another img_3766great attraction to add to your to-do list next time you are in New York City. I was lucky enough to have a few hours today to myself and thoroughly enjoyed my hands-on experiences – me and several hundred school-age children.

The museum is focused on providing hands-on, interactive img_3782mathematical experiences so students can see, create, and play with mathematics.  There are games, art exhibits, bikes with square wheels to ride, cars to control around a mobius strip, img_3780angles, tessellations, fighting robots, logic puzzles….it was really fun, and there was a lot of ‘learning’ embeddedimg_3775 in all of the exhibits, though I did find I was the only one reading – the kids wanted to just ‘do’. But can you really blame them?

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One of my favorite exhibits when you walk into the museum is the wall of etchings done on metal plates. There are parabolic lights above them that move and due to the angles the metal etchings are at, it appears the whole display is moving and that the etches are 3D when in fact they are flat. The etchings themselves are beautiful – lots of mobius strips in there!!  I tried to capture it on video but it doesn’t do it justice.

Another favorite was the art exhibit showing the amazing geometric img_3770sculptures of Miguel Berrocal – famous for creating sculpture puzzles – i.e. sculptures built by pieces fitting together. There are numerous sculptures on display along with puzzle books showing the steps to build some of the sculptures. There are also two hands-on opportunities to try to build some of the sculptures. I tried my hand at the above sculpture, “portrait de Michele”, which they recreated the pieces using a 3D printer and then provide ‘directions’ to build.  My results are below….I was very proud of myself!

There was a little bit of everything – I made myself into a human fractal tree (that’s me as the trunk if you look really close). And then I made two 3D shapes (sphere and star) by putting together flat plates with 2D shapes (circles and triangles) in a layered order so that they end up looking 3D.  That was a challenge trying to piece the different sized shapes in the right order.

There was a lot more fun to be had – from the square tire bike to the shape challenges to building polyhedra. All in all, a fun-filled few hours doing some math and experiencing students enjoying doing math as well. If you ever get the chance to get to NYC, be sure to include the MoMath in your itinerary!

Visuals to Start Interesting Conversations & Problem-Solving

I realize most teachers and students in the U.S. are just beginning their summer vacations, so thinking about math and problem-solving is most likely the last thing on their minds. But – if any of you are like me, the summer was always a time to regroup, rejuvenate, and come up with new and brilliant ideas to utilize in math class starting in the fall.  I often spent my summers taking a class or finding projects to use/create, so always looking for ways to enliven my math instruction.

This morning, with all the news about UK voting to leave the EU, shocking news to be sure, I couldn’t help notice the many different visuals being bandied about to visually show how the votes were laid out.  It’s fascinating to look at these different representations, and then to just consider all the possible questions that arise.  Here are some examples of the visuals I have seen:

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The interesting thing with these visuals is they are all showing the same “results”, but from different perspectives or different ‘groupings’.  I love the map one – it clearly shows how the countries played out in the vote.  Now – this is NOT a post about the referendum – you will have to go to your news sources for information there.  But – from the math teacher side, all these visuals about the same results just got me thinking about how really great questions and problem solving could arise from the simple act of putting up a graph of some results and asking students “what do you think or wonder?” and letting them then investigate. For example, if we look at just the map, and don’t give them any numbers, they might wonder is it half blue/half yellow? How could they then determine the actual area of each colored portion of the graph?

Here’s a couple more pulled from the Prizm Resource Page:

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If you were to just throw these up on the screen at the beginning of class and ask the students to come up with some things they wanted to know about these visuals, it would lead to some student-generated questions that then would require the use of mathematics and possibly some background/related research, to find the answers.  If we are thinking about the mathematical practices, or habits of mind we are trying to instill in our students – such as analyzing, communicating, persevering, applying, arguing, critically-thinking, problem-solving, rather than giving them all the information and then asking them to ‘calculate’ the solution, why not let them find answers to questions that interest them? They would be applying mathematics in several ways, perhaps incorporating skills they have not yet learned but need – and in the process realizing that mathematics is useful and interesting.

Try it – find an interesting visual – graph, picture, etc. that spark in you some interesting questions that need math to solve. Put them in your “things to add to my class for the fall” and then get back to summer!