Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hi. I'm Audrey. And I'm an Explain-aholic.

Here is my story. It starts yesterday.

Yesterday, I gave my students a situational problem to work on, which is the term we use here in Quebec for a problem that is rather complex, involves many steps, and has many possible correct answers. For example, design a house that has a total living area between such and such m², and costs no more than such and such to build, given these materials and constraints etc etc.  I've grown to love these problems, but they always seem to bring out one of my biggest weaknesses as a teacher, that is, as I've confessed, that I am an Explainaholic.

One of the things this type of assessment is supposed to measure is the student's ability to independently move forward in the problem. As such, I told the kids, as I always do at the beginning of a situational problem: "You can ask me for help, but if I help you, it's gonna cost you. Not money, marks."

But then I always fold like a house of cards as soon as someone goes all helpless and floppy and sad. For I am all too happy to swoop down and.....EXPLAIN.

Not this time. I just wrote a post right here acknowledging that I have a bad addiction to explaining the life out of everything, so I felt armed and ready to resist temptation. I faced my addiction like a Gladiator. Strength and honour.

So for each class, I put the kids into breakout rooms, which is equivalent to pods in the brick and mortar classroom. Then I waited and watched. In my first class, no major breakthroughs happened, and no one asked me for any help, which is fine, that's what I want, right? But not right somehow.

But in my second class, about 10 minutes into their breakout room time, I saw that a student in one room, I'll call him Evan, had made a breakthrough. He didn't seem to know that he had, and he didn't know what to do next, but he was onto something. So I let Evan and his group chew on it a bit. They asked me if I could give them a nudge, and I am proud to say, I said no. But I wanted everyone to sink their teeth into it and move it forward, so I moved the rest of the class into that room, one by one, and said, here you go, no marks lost if you get help from someone besides me.....

More progress was made, and there was even some checking of results using geogebra, at which point I began weeping tears of joy. Because geogebra is another addiction, but I think it's a good one, and I'm all too happy to create new geogebra addicts.

Then, in a moment of weakness...

....I buckled. Yes, I am sorry to say, I decided to give them a hint. Don't know why. I spoke. "You have 2 unknowns and only one equation."

And..........they couldn't hear me! Some glitch in our virtual environment actually made my voice not get through, but they could still hear each other! It was divine cyber intervention saying:


Well that didn't stop me, of course, because I could still write on the board, which (cringe) I did, BUT all I did was to circle the equation they had written, write "equation #1" next to it, then "equation #2?" I heard and saw a lot of "OHHHHHHH!!" 's. Love that. Addicted to that too.

At this point I REALLY needed to talk, but not to explain, just to remind them about tutoring tonight, etc, because we were almost out of class time, so I did a few things to try to restore my audio, and by the time I finished that, the period had ended. But I seemed to be the only one who noticed, because they kept right on working. I'm not saying every single student was talking, but they were all still there, a good 5 minutes after class ended. There was a core of 4 or 5 kids who were doing the writing and talking, but the rest were still there.

There's more!

That's not the end of the story, though. It just so happened that last night at tutoring, which all students can attend, I had mostly customers from my first period, which, remember, was the group that hadn't really gotten anywhere. But I had ONE student from the second class, and I repeated what I had said, that if she helped them out, it was ok. I'll call her Courtney.

"Courtney," I said, "would you mind telling these ladies what happened in our class today?"

"Well, " she answered, "I didn't really understand what those guys were doing." she replied.

"@#!%#@$#^@^#%^" I said to myself. "Steady, strength and honour, hold the line," said the Gladiator. Sigh. My Russell. FOCUS AUDREY.

"But," Courtney continued, "I figured it out myself afterward."

My brain: "Sorry, what?"

And then she proceeded to show the others what she had done to get that second equation, which was actually a bit different than what Evan had done. More "OHHHHH!!!!" 's from the others. It gave me goosebumps. So proud of myself. Oh and my students too.

  • In disallowing my help, but allowing their help, have I just re-routed my addiction, AND fed their's, so that someone else is delivering the goods? Or does hearing it from a peer, someone in the same boat as them, have a different effect that's worthwhile? Is that the social aspect of learning?
  • Did everyone get somewhere, or just the kids who were talking and writing?
  • Does this mean that next time we do a sit prob, some of the kids will just wait around for someone else to figure it out and tell them? I mean what do they care who it is that's explaining, as long as they don't lose marks, right?
  • How do the kids who made the breakthrough feel? Like everyone else benefited unfairly from their work? Or did it benefit them too, because as we all know, when you have to explain something you end up understanding it all the better?
  • How can I make transparent whatever skills Evan and Courtney used to make that first breakthrough? Is it something the others can reproduce? And what is it? Just plain math ability? Confidence? Organized notes?
Maybe today I'll spend some time letting them discuss/process how this breakthrough came about, so that everyone will have a better chance at doing it next time. Maybe later, not sure when would be best. Strike when the iron's hot?


  1. As always, I love your reflections. Congratulations on controlling your reflexes - not easy, when as teachers we were trained to teach not to sit back and let the kids learn. I do think it is better when the explanation comes from students not the teacher. The language is often more understandable and the student is explaining the process of getting to where she understood. And just the fact that she was able to say that she didn't understand the first explanation by Evan but then on thinking came to understand is modelling - that sometimes it takes time, that persistence helps, that sometimes seeds planted by others take time to germinate.

  2. So true, Susan, about the modelling. As usual, you are able to shed some light for me. It keeps me going!