One of the most painful classroom experiences I had as a Literacy Tutor was in a Grade 10 Applied math class. As a passionate math educator, I felt the death of the subject in this classroom. Students were given booklets of worksheets to complete without understanding why they were learning the material. The teacher walked around the class yelling instructions at random intervals, while the class chatted among themselves as they felt confused and overwhelmed by the content. Every class, the students were expected to perform perfect computation, and left the room with no idea how to apply what they learned or why they were learning it.
Student engagement is at its highest when the content is interactive and when learning becomes an empowering experience.
Frankly, I don’t blame the students for being disengaged. The classroom felt like a worksheet factory rather than a place that cultivated thinking, exploring, and learning. I mean, it’s just sad comparing that lesson to their ever engaging smartphones. How did we expect the kids to be interested?
There are two ways to re-engage students in math learning which can happen simultaneously in a classroom.
We hear the term a lot nowadays. We also hear from many educators that math is one of the most challenging areas to apply inquiry-based teaching. However, I feel some teachers remain too focused on computation rather than connecting concepts with a bigger idea. This gap, I believe, is where inquiries can happen.
If you were to teach the unit on volume and 3-D shapes, where would you begin? Teachers I had in the past always began the lesson with showing the formulas. They would explain the rationale behind the formulas to generate understanding.
I want to create lessons that reverse this order. Instead of showing the formulas at the beginning, I would ask the class an intriguing question to spur discussions. For example, “In preparation of a party, do you prefer to help your mom fill 50 cups with lemonade or 1 large tank? (Assume your favorite TV show will start in an hour.)” The students would likely inquire about the size of the cups and the tank. To guide deeper conversations, I could further develop the problem with more questions, and invite the class to add in their own.
Does the shape of the tank affect the answer?
What about the speed of the pour?
If we poured the lemonade at 1cm3/s for 30 minutes, how much liquid would the tank hold?
When would the tank overflow?
In exploring through questions, students would slowly connect length, width, height, shape, and volume. Only after that would I reveal the formulas to explain how they are connected. A simple brain teaser evolved and became more complex as the students tackled the problem from different angles and manipulated it at their will. They began creating their own math questions. Student engagement is at its highest when the content is interactive and when learning becomes an empowering experience.
In an education system that tends to reward response highly over process, it inadvertently breeds a culture of math phobia where learners feel inept and diffident in making mistakes. Our youth need to learn to embrace failure (scary!). They need to start viewing errors not as a reflection of their ability, but merely as taking different paths to find an answer. Within my inquiry-based classroom, I want to embrace, celebrate and cherish mistakes as part of the learning experience.
I would ask my students to brainstorm as many possible ways to approach a problem by referencing concepts that were taught in class regardless of units in the textbook. As they approach the problem, if they applied a concept incorrectly, they must try again. Students could build confidence by talking through their original line of thought and where it went wrong (either to themselves or out loud, depending on their comfort level).
Most importantly, students themselves need to understand that making mistakes is part of learning, and being gritty is part of success. To achieve the desired learning outcomes, it is vital to build a safe environment and trusting relationships in the classroom, and it is up to the teacher to create such an architecture.