A Take Charge Student

April 16, 2014

womanmathI have been thinking a lot about how to help my students take charge of their learning because I think it is key to having a strong class and stronger learners.  BUT HOW DO I HELP MY STUDENTS DO THIS?  Especially since I like predictability and order and control… (What can I say? I am a teacher!).

Because I am teaching math, I have been online looking at different math teaching approaches. I just stumbled on this book: Changing the Way We Teach Math by Kate Nonesuch.  Here is an excerpt:

I notice out loud when learners make decisions.

Most decisions made in math class are not life changing. Should I use a pencil or a pen?  Should I solve this proportion in four steps or three? Should I cancel here or multiply across and reduce the answer? Should I come late to class after my doctor’s appointment, or just go home? How can I get help with this computer program? The consequences of making a wrong decision are not great, and the increase in self-confidence and self-control over the learning process far outweigh any consequences of making the wrong one.

On the other hand, I have an opinion about all of these things. If called on to make a decision about them, I can quickly decide which would be the better course in a given situation. My job is to refuse to make those decisions; my job is to get out of the way so the learner can make them, and reinforce the learner’s confidence in his ability to make decisions that work for him. When a learner comes and says, “What shall I do?” I say, “Your choice. What are you thinking about?” He can outline his thinking with me as an audience, perhaps asking a question for clarification, but at the end of it, I say, “Your decision. What will you do?”

I give a lesson in saying “No!” Of course, when everyone agrees about what should be done, there is no problem making a decision. It is when there is no agreement that we want learners to make decisions for themselves. Asserting that decision may be difficult, especially when a learner has to assert it in an area usually controlled by the teacher. I have developed a workshop session on saying no; it goes on the schedule every term as “How to say ‘No,’ to the teacher,” and learners are free to attend or not. In the workshop, learners get a chance to express some of their feelings about saying no to someone in authority, and are given explicit instructions and role play in saying no in situations that come up in class. Their assignment is to say no to a teacher at least once in the following week, and much public acclaim comes as learners say no to a request I make. This explicit lesson makes it clear in the public space of the classroom that it is okay to decide not to go along with a suggestion from the teacher; that making your own decisions is expected; and that saying no will be respected. It also gives me time to say publicly that I can deal with people saying no to me. If I need something done, I may ask a learner to do it; if the answer is no, I’ll ask someone else, or make some other plan to get it done, but I don’t take it personally if someone says no to me, and I won’t lay on a guilt trip when they do. Again, this making public my own decision-making process provides an explicit model for learners.

I haven’t tried the workshop in saying “NO” yet, but I have been trying to use the dialog — it is your decision and what do you think you should do next — when I have students working problems on the board.  It is a small thing, but I am hopeful that it will help them take ownership and feel some pride when they do the problem correctly!  One baby step at a time…

You can download a free copy of her book here: http://en.copian.ca/library/learning/mathman/cover.htm

 – Lesli Smith, College Transitions Instructor

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