Friday, March 9, 2012

Math Memoirs

There's one of my favorite math teaching videos up in Keith Devlin's most recent blogpost.  (Thrilled that it's now on YouTube with several other of her interviews.) It's from the wonderful Marilyn Burns, who has really done more for math education than anyone in recent decades. Her stuff was good enough to get word of mouth sharing before there was an internet. (Dan Meyer is quite reminiscent of her in several ways.) Devlin uses the video to make the point that apparent understanding is not proof. A better assessment can uncover the truth, and Burns is excellent at questioning to get an accurate picture.

As a novice teacher I quickly found that the students giving an answer did not tell me whether they understood or not, and I moved to asking for how they got it. It took me years, however, to get to understand that how is better, but also does not get at understanding. It's their thinking that I want to hear. Then I should ask for it! Unfortunately, even spoiled university teachers don't have time to sit down and interview students over all of our major objectives. I can, however, ask questions to which I really

Dave Coffey found this excellent solution by Carl Barnard, a high school student, to the painted cube problem that crossed the line to be a memoir. We often introduce the idea of a memoir by having our students read it and comment on it. (Here's my most recent version of the workshop; Dave was almost certainly the original writer of it.) It's a start to learning how to communicate your thinking. While it's important and beneficial for any math student to do this, it is unbelievably crucial for math teachers, and a big part of pedagogical content knowledge to me.  Most students on end of term evaluations comment that this is an area where they grew significantly.

I wanted to experiment with what this looked like in elementary school, so I asked my daughter to give it a go. These are from the summer between her 4th and 5th grade. She was a bit precocious with her writing, but had had pretty traditional math instruction. (And not interested in talking with me about to a large extent.)

Just writing the method. A first attempt at memoir. I supported with a kind of questioning framework.

She was game enough to try twice more.

This is the sort of information that I want from an assessment. I get so much more an image of what ideas she has about number and operation. And it is far more interesting reading than traditional assignments where I'm looking for what I expect or not.

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