Monday, January 9, 2012

Rising to the Challenge

Today I started conducting a research project as part of my Master’s program. In summary, I am required to identify a topic that was challenging for students to learn (as measured by standardized testing) and develop a technology based learning activity that would address it.  The research design is of the traditional quantitative sort with treatment and control groups as well as a post test, the results of which I will analyze using statistical methods.

The objective for my learning activity was for students to demonstrate (and deepen) their knowledge of similarity concepts in Geometry by using Excel to create a model that could be used to solve a variety of problems involving similarity concepts.  As part of the methodology I observed the first half of a Geometry class while the teacher gave notes and then took half the students to a computer lab to work on the activity I had designed.

While sitting in the class today, I observed one student who was particularly disruptive.  He was shouting out, bothering those around him, and talking constantly.  As I called out the names of the students who where to go to the lab with me, I was happy to see that he was one of them as I could tell the teacher was frustrated with him and I was sure that she could use a break. To my surprise as I introduced the activity and got the students started he became very engaged.  He didn’t make a sound the entire class period.  When I checked his work at the end, he explained his “similarity problem solver” to me and demonstrated how he was using it.  While many other students had chosen to make a modified version of the model I had provided, he had done his a different way.  After he explained it twice, I understood what he had done.  It was impressive.  

I acknowledged and thanked him for his hard work and asked him what he thought of the activity.  He stated that he thought it was useful as it allowed him to solve problems without getting tripped up by calculations that included large numbers or multiple decimals but rather allowed him to focus on answering the question.  I was astounded at his insight as it really got at the heart of the theoretical basis of the study which aims to shift some cognitive load to tools like Excel so students can focus on the higher level thinking required to solve unique, context based problems.  

I started to wonder how many other students could improve their academics if given the opportunity to take on challenging, meaningful tasks.  While this student certainly stood out because of the contrast in his behaviors, there were others in each section that were able to create thoughtful, complex models to assist them with their geometry problems.  There were also those at the other end of the spectrum, who when faced with a task that had multiple possible outcomes, where frustrated and hesitant to proceed without a certain amount of handholding.  I guess what I learned is that kids can surprise us.  Often students get pigeonholed academically by teachers or their peers or their learning environment.  Changing this pattern and letting them try something challenging, meaningful, and stimulating can bring out the best. 

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