Welcome back Math Geeks! If you’ve been a regular visitor, you know my belief that alignment between our purpose and our practice is essential for healthy teaching, inspired learning, and engaging classrooms. (You can watch my 5-minute talk about it here.)
Why we teach must align with how we teach. In other words, our professional identity (the reasons why we became teachers in the first place) must be congruent with our choices and our practices in the classroom. When purpose and practice are not aligned, both teachers and students waste energy fighting needless friction in the classroom and learning suffers.
An Objection about Objectives
One habit where I continue to see a misalignment between purpose and practice centers on how we post, frame, communicate lesson objectives to our students. All teachers want students to be inspired, motivated, engaged, and curious, yet I’ve witnessed a lot of teachers euthanize student intellect by spending the first 5 minutes of a lesson reading aloud and unpacking a lesson objective that is written on the board. The objective often uses robust (intimidating?) language that is not accessible to students. Furthermore, the objective sits there devoid of any context, meaning, or inspirational value.
My frustration led me to post this tweet:
— chase orton (@mathgeek76) March 8, 2017
Let me be clear, every practice we do as teachers should have clear and intentional objectives. Without objectives, we have no way to measure the effectiveness of our instructional choices as teachers. It’s our practice of how we communicate and frame those objectives to students that has my feathers ruffled. I’ve seen many well-intentioned teachers derail even the most engaging learning opportunities with this practice, and it’s something I want to unpack in a few posts. This post is the first. I hope that you’ll join me in the conversation on Twitter or in the comment section below.
One Approach: Make the Objective an Invitation
I’m reading The Classroom Chef by Matt Vaudry and John Stevens. It’s a useful and inspiring read for teachers and principals who seek to prepare lessons with a focus on student engagement and classroom culture. My use of the menu metaphor in my tweet above was inspired by them.
In the book, they share a story about a teacher who enters class pretending to be a magician, stands on a student desk, and performs a “magic trick” to generate student curiosity about the sum of angles in a triangle. (Read Chapter 1 to find out more.) In a short period of time, the teacher is able to:
- generate curiosity and intrigue,
- have students be actively involved,
- set a tone of focus and fun,
- and have students internalize the lesson objective.
Most importantly, the teacher is able to do all of this without ever having to explicitly tell students to do any of these things. The invitation is made and the students are on board and ready to go. Inspiration is high; brains are alive.
This teacher has aligned purpose and practice. While having a clear learning objective in mind, the teacher is making choices that will help students internalize what the day’s learning is all about. By the end of the warm-up, all students are amazed that the angles of (at least this specific) triangle make a straight line when you put them all together. “Is this true for all triangles?” students will inevitably ask and the exploration can begin.
Most importantly, the students have internalized the objective and are able to tell the teacher without the students being explicitly told.
An Alternative Approach: Make the Objective a Mandate
This teacher could have started the lesson by explicitly telling students to:
- end their side conversations,
- take out their notebooks,
- and copy down the objective on the board.
That objective could look something like: Today, you will learn that the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees and use this fact to solve problems.
The teacher could then launch into some direct instruction while students restlessly copy notes and strive to pay attention (at best) or use this experience to hate math class even more that they already do. Some students will be earnest in their efforts because they care about good grades (which isn’t the same as good learning); some students will fake attentiveness while their notebook doodles or blank faces reveal the greater truth of their boredom; and lastly, some students will become “discipline problems” because they just can’t stand another 50 minutes of this crap.
One More Key Point
The latter half of both of these lessons may be structured quite similarly. Students could be exploring different triangles and verifying that (at least experientially) the angles in a triangle have a sum of 180 degrees. Students could work through examples setting up algebraic equations solving for unknown angles in a triangle. An exit ticket could be passed out assessing student understanding.
But the choices we make at the opening of a lesson have a significant impact on the tone and energy of the rest of the lesson. In the first approach, the teacher is able to take a risk (looking silly in a magician cape standing on a desk) that encourages other students to take risks (being curious in front of peers and willing to learn something new). This choice invites students into the learning process toward the objective. In the second approach, the objective is something that is thrust on to the students and the learning process makes math something that happens to them. There is no choice for students; the learning is mandated.
Continue the Conversation
In what ways do you craft learning opportunities so that the lesson objective is an invitation for learning and not a learning mandate? How do you have your students internalize the objective without having to explicitly tell them? What specific examples could you offer that other teachers could use?