Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Teaching Tips: Chaos

Another title for this post is "Chaos" vs Chaos.  True chaos is not appropriate in a classroom for obvious reason.  As an instructor transitions from lecture to IBL methods one has to recalibrate what and orderly classroom looks and sounds like.

Talking -- there will be more talking, especially if one uses collaborative groups.  If the tasks are implemented appropriately, then there will be noise.  This is a good thing.  Listen to the discussions about math and get insights into how students think.  

Side note: If students are talking about other stuff, redirect.  Ask them them what they tried, if they can work on the next problem, give them another task,...

Non-textbook route -- students who are learning math should not be expected to produce clean proofs like a seasoned, professional mathematician.  It's hard for instructors to remember the challenges we faced when we were learning ideas for the first time.  To instructors the work looks chaotic, disorganized, messy.  But that is a fact of life.  Learning is messy and nonlinear.  That's a good sign.  Students are trying and working and building and exploring.   If there's nothing on the page, that's when you need to step in and provide guidance and mentoring.  When there's stuff happening, keep an eye on them, but don't mess it up by intervening.

For pure Modified Moore Method classes, such interactions in classrooms as described above may not happen.  That's fine.  You know it is happening outside of class, but it is important to know and be conscience of the fact that students are struggling.  If they come in for help, then it is our job as instructors to listen compassionately and understand that the students asking for help are stuck and are developing.  We can shape the path for them without giving away answers, and we can be supportive and point out all of the positive steps they have taken.

The purpose of class discussions, presentations, homework, portfolios, etc. is to put all this chaos into a final form that makes sense.  Our goal is to produce mathematics, and the way mathematics is produced is by proving or justifying why statements are true.  Class discussions, presentations, homework, portfolios are some ways to channel the chaos into a product.

Short story:  Embrace good chaos.  Channel good chaos into a final product of some sort.  Don't expect students to take your path to a proof or solution (i.e. what you think is chaos might just be another way).  Help and support those who need it without diminishing the intellectual value of the task.

Note:  If the homework collected is not high quality, use homework templates to encourage your students to improve their process.