If We Build It, Who Will Come? – An Online Algebra 1 “Textbook”

I just finished Karl Fisch’s post about approaching homework differently. It is a much more detailed and cogent explanation to what I was saying here.

My plan is to deliver the traditional lecture portion of an Algebra class as the homework, thus freeing up class time to explore the mathematics and pursue some interesting problems, as well as provide time for guided practice and collaborative work.

Since Algebra is very much skill based, my hope is to provide short (less than 10 minutes), targeted instructional videos that students can watch (and rewatch if necessary) that focus solely on the skills, one skill at a time. Now I want to be clear that these videos typically will come after inquiry and exploration in class.

As I said in the comment of Karl’s post, I think this is a brilliant idea. I can’t think of one downside to this plan, other than it will challenge people’s existing beliefs of what education looks like. (That by itself is not a bad thing; the fallout of that challenge might cause some headaches though.)

Watching Karl’s ‘Proof of Concept‘ video, it’s pretty obvious that this is going to be a time-consuming effort. As is mentioned, there are tons of online resources already but they tend to have been created by individuals for their own use. I could use them in my classroom but they aren’t always at the right level or don’t always have enough practice or aren’t the right length.

So here’s my question: Is it possible for us, as  a community, to create an online open-source Algebra 1 skills-based video textbook? What would we need to do so? Here are some initial thoughts:

  • We would need to come up with an agreed-upon structure for each video. (I like Karl’s Five Part Plan: Learning Goal, Explanation/Examples, Guided Practice, Self-Check, and Closing.)
  • We would need to come up with a generic list of skills that are applicable to all, regardless of state or national standards.
  • We would need people to volunteer to create a video for each skill on our list. If two or three people create a video for the same skill, that’s not a bad thing: more choice for our students.
  • We would need to come up with a structure for displaying or publishing our textbook. I’m thinking create a YouTube channel and use a wiki as some sort of Table of Contents.

Can we work together to share the time-consuming aspects of this idea so that we all spend more time focused on the ‘heavy lifting’ aspect: supporting our students effectively with our time?

Anybody interested in trying?

Image: ‘soccer practice

Beginner’s Mind

So I’m a bit behind on my writing. What can I say? It’s been a crazy few weeks

Darren Kuropatwa thinks it’s difficult to be a change agent if you are an expert.

Dan Meyer (sorta) disagrees:

Darren thinks his situation requires more novices when instead it requires better experts. Hungry experts. Experts who empathize with the novice, who constantly re-evaluate their own assumptions from the perspective of a novice, who get outside their own heads as much as possible and as often as possible.

Anytime you think of yourself as an expert – hungry, empathetic or otherwise – you have already put yourself at a disadvantage. The Zen master Shunryū Suzuki said:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p 1)

The most effective teachers are the ones who approach every unit, every day, every lesson like it was the first time. They do not ignore their wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience; nor do they let that knowledge or experience dictate their actions. Rather, they let their current situation – the one they are experiencing for the first time, the one in which they are the beginner – determine the best course of action.

I know from my own experience that my colleagues who have been the most effective and inspirational were the ones who were never fully satisfied with their work. They never seemed to use the same lesson plan twice because there was always something that could be improved. They never saw themselves as the expert and thus able to rest on their laurels; they saw themselves as beginners with many possibilities to improve.

The Dinks – Inspiration Remembered

My last post was about The Dinks. I’d like to say that I conjured that up out of thin air, but that isn’t totally true. I do remember the first time I watched the episode – maybe a year ago – nodding my head empathetically with Prezbo. And then I sort of forgot about it…

Then about a month ago, Dan points us all to Ben Blum Smith’s post about Clever Hans, the counting horse. After reading this post, I immediately thought of The Dinks but my Google-Fu was weak and I couldn’t find the necessary clip of The Wire.

Then last week I read Sam’s post on Problem Solving and , as I was re-watching Season 4,  saw that episode again. BOOM! It all came together, seemingly out of thin air.

To bring this full circle, I was reminded of Clever Hans and hence Ben Blum Smith and hence my original attempt to find The Dinks when watching Dan’s presentation on “Be Less Helpful” at CMC North, which I highly recommend any of you math teachers watch.

And a blog post was born.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Assessing Assessment

There has been a fantastic free-for-all going on over at Beyond School. I won’t get into the specifics – check it out for yourself;the real excitement is in the 75+ comments – but it has focused on, among other things, assessing students in an English Language Arts classroom. In this age, how much weight should be given to “traditional” writing assignments and what is the place for

At the same time, the Faculty Room has been giving assessment a closer look. Dan Meyer expounds on his system, which is well-suited for mathematics (I should know: I’ve adapted his strategy to implement an on-going revision of algebraic concepts in my Grade 8 class). Simon Cheatle gives his perspective from an international school in the Phillipines.

The American Paradigm

The vast majority of commentators present a very American slant on assessment. After spending the last 6 years overseas in truly international schools (my first two years were in a school that could have been situated in the middle of Iowa or California or North Carolina) I wonder why this American paradigm persists? Only in the arguments put forward by Grant Wiggins do I see any reference to criterion-based assessment. Being a mathematics teacher, I wonder how English teachers or History teachers go about grading an essay. How do you tell a B+ from an A-? Do you apply some sort of percentage? What do you do with the student who has a clear grasp of the language but a poor working knowledge of spelling? What do you do with the student who knows all of the grammar and structure protocols, but can’t present a reasoned argument? (For those who didn’t check it out, this is the initial focus of Clay Burell’s post.)

Enter Criteria

The answer, in my mind, is criterion-based grading. Why not separate the necessary skills of your course and grade each one appropriately? As an IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) school, we do exactly that. For example, in mathematics we assess four separate criteria: Knowledge and Understanding, Investigation of Patterns, Communication, and Reflection in Mathematics. If a student obviously knows the material but cannot present her information clearly, I can grade her higher in Knowledge and Understanding and lower in Communication. I don’t need to find a middle ground and she can know exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are.

A Step Further

At the end of the term, I look into my gradebook and find the highest sustained level of achievement for each criteria. I do not find the mean. If a student starts the year poorly but shows improvement, I reward that. If a student does poorly on one assessment task, it does not come back to hurt him.

Not Perfect

I will be the first person to admit that this system is not perfect. There is no room for formative assessments to influence the final grade, except as practice for the summative assessments. In my subject, life would be simpler to assign grades based on percentages. The assessment criteria, in my experience, lend themselves to major assessment tasks which are difficult to write, time consuming for students, and bloody hard to mark. Oh, and it’s a difficult system to get your head around, especially coming from The American Paradigm. Ask any other MYP teacher and they will probably have their own list of grievances.

The debate surrounding assessment is one that is necessary. There is no “right” answer as each teacher, school, and district is in a different situation. However, that doesn’t mean we should not strive to find that perfect way of assessing student performance. On the contrary, only by looking critically at our own practices and our motivations behind those practices can we, as professionals, ever hope to evolve.

 MYP Criteria