A teacher asked me the other day about notebooks. Should math students have a notebook? It led to an interesting discussion; I don’t have a definitive answer, even after our discussion. But it did make me reflect upon the things that we do in education because we always have.
We hope that schools are changing. Technology allows us to have information at our fingertips and to communicate with each other more easily. Critical thinking has taken the place of just “knowing stuff”. Cooperation and collaboration are 21st century skills.
So here are some of my thoughts, in no particular order, about some practices that we always did, that we grew up with in school, that maybe need to change.
- Notebooks. When I first started teaching the students listened to me and the copied the note that I wrote on the board, underlining the title twice in red. The notebook was a repository of all my knowledge and the students used it to study from. I still believe that the act of writing something down can be useful for students as it forces them to articulate their thinking. But, I could copy a note even if it was written in Italian. It wouldn’t mean that I was thinking. So, is it the process of writing that is important or having notes from which to study? If we are “testing” more critical thinking than regurgitating facts, is the notebook as study guide becoming obsolete? Do reflective journals and interactive journals replace the notebook?
- Title Pages. When we had notebooks as study guides, we separated the units of study with a beautifully coloured title page. It made our notebook organized. If you need to have students create a title page, it can take about 5 seconds as they write the title on blank page and put it in their notebook. If you use response journals or reflection journals, title pages are not needed. If you want students to create beautiful title pages then I would suggest you do them as a summative activity: After having studied States of Matter, how would you create a title page that explains what that is? Otherwise, beautiful title pages are make-work activities.
- Easing into Group Work. There is a long-standing tradition in schools that students just won’t be ready to work in groups until late fall. Students couldn’t possibly participate in small group instruction with the teacher until later in the year after routines are fully entrenched. Group work will cause the September teacher to lose control of the class. However, if your expectation is that students work in groups both with you and their peers, perhaps that should be your expectation from the start. Also, as collaboration and small group instruction become more prevalent in many classrooms, you will find that your students worked in groups last year and really it is just “how we do school”.
- Memorizing the “stuff”. How much of the content you teach do your students have to know by heart at the end of your course? It used to be easy—everything. Because, if they didn’t memorize what you taught them then they didn’t have access to it. But, when was the last time you googled something and didn’t get the answer instantly? On the other hand, it is inefficient to google 3 x 5 or the capital of Canada or the definition of a solid every time you need it. As teachers we need to think about how much time to spend memorizing or practicing things we do not really need anymore. For example, I think it is important to know 3 x 5. I think it is important to know how to solve 39 x 5 and even 39 x 15 (using a variety of strategies all of which are easier than the traditional algorithm). However, if I had to solve 3845 x 254 I would use a calculator. I would even go hunting for the calculator (or my phone).
- Homework. The problem here is that there is no research that supports homework as a way of increasing student achievement, except maybe in later high school years, and even then it is not conclusive. If you do assign homework then how are you going to monitor it? Are you going to spend valuable class time taking it up? Are you going to mark it in the evenings? If no one monitors the homework being done then will students do it? If your argument is that it teaches responsibility, then I ask how many of your students who are irresponsible become more responsible because you give them homework? I don’t think homework is all bad but I suggest extreme moderation. One math teacher I know gives a choice of 4 problems to do. That way the homework is differentiated. The next day starts with students who chose the same problem comparing and talking about the answers. Almost all her students do their homework.