Project-based math classrooms can better engage students by addressing the ‘why’
Monday, March 09, 2020
It is a struggle to help my own 14-year-old with his math homework. He struggles to maintain good grades in math, but it isn’t because he can’t do the work. For my son, he just isn’t passionate enough about it to have the intrinsic motivation to engage in it.
You’d think that doing well in math would be an easy sell for a boy who wants to fly commercial planes one day. Still, I can sit with him at the kitchen table for hours and go round and round with slope problems. He doesn’t get it.
“Dad, when am I ever going to use this stuff?” “Dad, when was the last time you had to put something in slope-intercept form?”
He got me — the last time I had used that skill was when I taught it as a math teacher myself. For my son, reaching mastery with the concept of slope only came about when I took the time to phrase it in the context of an aviation problem that he had to solve involving landing a plane at the nearby airport where he takes flying lessons. The problem sparked his creativity, and that piqued his interest to the point that he pushed himself to master the skill in question.
My son’s hang-up with math is not unique. In fact, many students his age find they engage better with math when it is presented in a project-based environment.
Recently, KQED Mind/Shift contributor Kara Newhouse wrote about “How Hands-On Projects Can Deepen Math Learning for Teens” in the math classroom. Newhouse wrote about how a project-based approach was helping Philadelphia teens find success at the Science Leadership Academy magnet school.
Newhouse followed the work of SLA teachers Victor Hernandez and Jonathan Etsey as they described applied math projects designed to bring about authenticity and spark creativity in students. Newhouse wrote, “by building a catapult or telling a story with equations, students can see how their calculation and formulas translate to contexts beyond a whiteboard. That authenticity yields stronger engagement, especially when projects allow teenagers to connect to their interests.” Newhouse offered these five tips for teachers looking to engage in project-based learning in their math classrooms:
1. Know your students. Before selecting a topic for a project, teachers should check to make sure the topic is both accessible to students, unbiased, and peeks their interests.
2. Avoid group grades. SLA math teachers do not assign group grades. Newhouse noted, “They grade students on five domains for each project: design, knowledge, application, presentation and process.”
3. Prepare students to work outside of class. Not all work on a project needs to be completed in the classroom setting. Rather, teachers can use the classroom as a time to perform formative check-ins and provide additional support to students who need it.
4. Keep it simple. Newhouse reports, “Hernández and Estey said their biggest challenges with project-based learning have come from making projects too complex.” Simpler is always better.
5. Don’t be afraid of what’s unfamiliar. Teachers should not be afraid to try project-based learning because it’s not the way they were taught. Teachers may be surprised to see how well students respond to the opportunity to engage with a project.
Project-based learning, particularly in math, is a great way to promote the ideals of deeper learning. In this 2019 Harvard Graduate School of Education article, author Grace Tatter reported out on a recent interview she conducted with Harvard Professor Jal Mehta and doctoral candidate Sarah Fine, who had recently completed research aimed at discovering what deeper learning looks like in American schools.
Mehta and Fine concluded that in classrooms where deeper learning was most prevalent, “students were enthusiastically engaged, participating in challenging tasks that drew on their analytical and problem-solving skills.” They expanded upon their findings in their 2019 book, “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.”
Tatter went on to offer three tips on how educators could use Mehta and Fine’s work to promote deeper learning in their own classrooms.
1. Think of your students as apprentices. Teachers should help students “make meaning like a mathematician rather than relying on predetermined formulas.” Students will develop mastery in knowledge and skill of mathematics when they have the opportunity to make connections with math to their own world and are encouraged to creatively solve problems.
2. Focus on depth over breadth. So much of the best learning gets stifled because teachers are too concerned with “teach to the test.” Teachers are encouraged to work with their school administrators to release that pressure and promote depth over breadth for deeper understanding.
3. Give up some control. Tatter wrote, “Rarely does deeper learning happen when a teacher spends the entire classroom lecturing from the front of the room, Fine and Mehta found. By allowing students some choice in the topics they explore and the methods they use, teachers can let students see the purpose in their learning and be more engaged.”
As a school leader, I challenge you to look for ways that you can promote deeper learning in your math classrooms.
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