Don’t forget to show your work!” I said. I think I may have cackled. “Every step in your calculations!” My students were not doing math, and I’m not a math teacher.
They were doing a close read of literature, and
I was goading them with reminders that I had
set up this English class just like one of their
math classes. I was trying to be funny, yes, but
my reminders were intended to be thought-provoking, too.
This experiment in approaching literature
through a mathematical lens was prompted by
a professional development activity I undertook
with a group of four colleagues. We had decided
to investigate the teacher’s role in a student-centered classroom. One of our ideas was to observe
one another teach, and I observed the chair of
our math department.
Our math teachers had been practicing
problem-based learning for several years.
Their students spend most of each class period
attempting to solve complex mathematical
problems, both alone and collaboratively, and
then explaining and discussing their solutions.
The teacher observes and supports. The tradi-
tional notion that the teacher needs to demon-
strate a method before students can practice it by
solving problems is, for the most part, discarded.
I had been aware that this was happening
in our school, but only vaguely. In truth, the
main thing that had brought it to my attention
was complaints from students and parents,
who were worried that the approach would not
be as effective as traditional methods. But as
a reform-minded and progressive educator, I
was instinctively sympathetic to what the math
department was trying to do. I appreciated the
fact that they were putting students at the center
of the classroom.
The math class I observed, which focused on
basic trigonometric functions, was inspirational. What struck me most was the pace of
the class. Fifty minutes were spent on only
two or three problems. Students sat in large
table groups. After greeting them, the teacher
put a math problem on the board, and the kids
started working on it. Many began by working
Writing, . . .
A problem-based instructional approach borrowed
from math can pay dividends in an English class, too.