These past two weeks have been an awesome time of learning for the students we’ve been working with, but I’ve also done a bit of learning myself.
I’d like to have my students love math and science and naturally be interested in it. But they’re kids. They would prefer to play. People get the most out of that which they put the most in to. If given the chance, students will put a ton into playing around.
These past two weeks I’ve been working with upper elementary-aged students. I normally teach high school students. I’m not sure if the age difference changes anything. The stuff they want to play with might be different, but not the desire to play.
And after 7 years of teaching math, there’s something appealing about a situation where students will be voluntary and enthusiastic participants.
I have just spent two weeks watching students play with two activities. The first was an activity called “Table Timers” where they were challenged to design and construct an apparatus on a table top that reliably moved a marble down an inclined table in ten seconds. Second, The Helium Balloon Problem challenges students to keep a helium balloon rising, but to have it travel as slowly as possible upward. Not every group worked well and not every group achieved these goals, but the engagement level has been high. I suspect this is because they we allowed to play.
Here’s what caught my attention the most: In the midst of their play, the students demonstrated some authentic problem-solving techniques. They had to identify the major challenges to their goal, which they often did. They had to brainstorm possible ways to overcome the challenges, which usually took the form of raking through a tub of blocks or looking through the supply table. They discerned which seemed like the most realistic and then test. Following a test, they discussed what happened, why, and revised. And the students were often quite excited when they got the right answer (knowing themselves that it was right and not relying on me to tell them).
That’s a pretty good learning model. That’s something that I have a hard time getting my students to do with book work.
So, the sharing, the idea-making, the consensus-building, the authentic assessment are all good things. Obviously I am not simply advocating letting the students play around all day. But perhaps by using play, we can improve engagement and the students seem to more naturally fall into a more authentic problem-solving mindset. When I consider helping them draw out the learning, some thoughts come to mind.
First, it seems like during the whole process of exploration, design, construction, testing, revising, and demonstrating, there needs to be an abundance of contents-specific vocabulary. The marble didn’t “bonk into that block.” That block “applied a force” to the marble. Students don’t “figure out how big the shape is.” The “find the area” or “circumference” or “volume.”
Second, students don’t seem naturally inclined to take data or to keep records. In the past two weeks, it seems that students are avid experimenters and do a pretty good job of verbally analyzing the problems if the plan didn’t work. Practically NONE of them documented anything on paper. No sketches, no data, no records of updates. This is an important part of the problem-solving process that would have to be established as a norm.
Third, the activities have to be tiered. Video games are great at this. The entry point tends to be quite low. The first couple of levels are pretty manageable and then the intensity and difficulty pick up. People get locked into video games through that model and people get unlocked quite quickly once the game has been beaten. Both Table Timers and The Helium Balloon Problem worked with this model. Then entry point was low for both activities and it was easy enough to begin to approach the goal, but perfecting the design and executing the plan took much more care. Then, once they hit ten seconds, we’d challenge them to add five seconds to their timer.
Fourth, I think that the groups need to be expected to summarize and present their work to each other and to field questions from the class. Class norms should allow for questioning of each other’s work and students can learn a lot about their own design, but also about the content when they know that they are going to have questions coming from their peers. Also, it would seem like this would encourage more thoughtful designs, too. Besides this, idea sharing gives the students an opportunity to look at other designs, integrate specific vocabulary into more regular use, and get the students comfortable with collaborating.
I don’t think that playing around is the answer to everything, but I know that in my own experiences, it seems to be the forgotten learning model and if I’ve learned anything these past two weeks, it’s that an environment that produces enthusiastic student participation shouldn’t be ignored.