I love it when people write books that talk about stuff I’ve been thinking about for ages

For some time now I’ve been struggling with a lot of what I feel I have to do in the classroom. Let’s be honest… I’m a stubborn old git who doesn’t like being told what to do or how to do something. You may argue that 44 is far too young to be considered old or in any way gittish, but you haven’t met grumpy, stubborn, I-won’t-do-it Boon.

However, the longer I travel on this teaching journey, the more confident I am becoming in both the pedagogical underpinnings of my practise and my utter inability to recognise if I should be using the word practice or practise in the first portion of this sentence.

Grammatical faux pas aside, one of the things that has regularly worried me is how our education system seems to (most of the time) revolve around “reading” time, “maths” time and “writing” time. After spending three years as a relief teacher in Auckland I saw how many, many schools worked and the expectation they had for these curriculum areas to be timetabled into the day. Generally (and I’m aware there are also many, many schools who don’t work this way, so apologies to those reading this and grrring away to yourselves) “topic” work has swaddled with P.E. and The Arts in the after lunch graveyard shift where concentration no longer makes an appearance.

What if you aren’t suited to those three “main” curriculum areas? School is just going to be 10 years of ever-building hate until, if you last that long, you leave not wanting to further yourself any longer or, at least, for the meantime.

A particular area of concern for me is maths. So many kids hate it. The reason they hate it is because, for many, it is so far removed from their everyday life as to be utterly irrelevant. How much of the maths you learnt at school are you using on a regular basis? Note: I’m aware I am probably speaking to teachers when I ask that question so let us just assume I’m asking to the whole of New Zealand.

The best maths classes (by best I mean those with the most engagement from the most students) were the catapalts I built with my boys maths class in 2009(ish) and this year’s unit on financial literacy.

Can we do more of this Mr Boon. It’s not like maths at all. It’s fun!

That insightful piece of student voice summed it all up for me. Even though they were adding, subtracting multiplying, dividing and problem solving all the way through the financial literacy activites, they didn’t see it as being maths. Instead, it was fun.

To leap forward to my next point, I caught up with a blog about algebra and art written by (I feel like adding “the one and only” here) Danielle Myburgh. It’s great. Read it. In the post she talks about inspired to change her practice (I got it right that time because I copied Miss D!) after reading The Elephant in the Classroom. 

There is of course also the major shift that occurred in my practice after reading Jo Boaler’s, The Elephant in the Classroom. Increasingly, I have presented students with a problem rather than a method1.

Being a bit of a maths nerd, I instantly popped on to the Google books and get a preview of the first few chapters of The Elephant in the Classroom. I pressed the “buy now” button after about 5 minutes.

As the title to this post suggests, Boaler’s ideas really hit a nerve with me. In short she argues school maths focus on a very narrow set of skills that is, “nothing like the maths of the world or the maths that mathematicians use2

In light of other people agreeing with my way of thinking, and backed with my experiences teaching financial literacy I am now determined to give the kids opportunities for developing their mathematical thinking rather than just their ability to add and subtract using a number line (for example).

So… what’s been happening?

Well, after my students went hunting for a geometry unit last term, they discovered various YouTube videos where kids had built towers using just marshmallows and toothpicks we decided we were going to do that. While I was searching I also discovered the Marshmallow Challengewhere teams of four have to 18 minutes to built a tower using 20 pieces of dried spaghetti, 1 metre of string, one metre of masking tape and a large marshmallow (to be balanced on the top). It’s worth watching the TedTalk for a full explanation.

So what this resulted in was last Friday being renamed Marshmallow Friday and the 18 minute Marshmallow Challenge was followed by students building towers with toothpicks and mini marshmallows. Both challenges were won by the highest tower.

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Plasticine & Toothpicks

Unfortunately marshmallows don’t last forever – particularly in a class of Year 5s and 6s, so we’ve had to replace our gelatine-based sweet with plasticine. Here is a picture of the tower 3.0 or 4.0 built by one student.

The great thing about last Friday was the engagement. Every single student in the class was totally engaged in the challenge. They were talking amongst themselves as they problem-solved, designed, tested, re-designed, and collaborated (OH! how they collaborated). This was one of the only collaborative tasks this year I had where there were no arguments.

So today I tweeted this:

When I gave the maths group their catapult challenge (fire a 10 gram piece of plasticine unaided as far as you can using a device you can hold in your hand) their eyes lit up and before I had finished speaking some of them were already putting their hands up to share their solutions (I my blog more about the Polynesian Migration unit and the Christmas play later – no promises!).

For now I am determined to have every single child leave my class believing maths is a subject full of relevance and excitement and not just working on strategies or the dreaded times tables.

Right. I’m off to read my e-book.

Mr B x

References:

  1. Myburgh, D (2014) When algebra and art meet… Blogger: Auckland
  2. Boaler, J (2009) The Elephant in the Classroom. Souvenir Press: London
  3. Wujec, T – The Marshmallow Challenge