Sunday, March 11, 2012

Teaching Math - Pt. 2

The point, of course, of the baseline tests (mentioned here) is to assess specific needs of students and then adjust instruction accordingly. If, for example, I see that a high percentage of students score well on questions about the volume of rectangular prisms, then I know that I can compound a lesson on rectangular prisms with triangular prisms and right square pyramids. This year we found that, because students did not have the formula for the volume of triangular prisms given to them, it was missed more than any other shape, even shapes with more complex formulas, such as cylinders. This indicated that many students already had mastery of using formulas, but were less skilled in deducing formulas or understanding the logic that underwrites the formulas. (Understanding the logic of the formulas is part of the state standards. We have traditionally bypassed this, to our students peril, but because we yearly work to teach to the test, we are raising the quality of their education.)

This is what it means to "use data to drive instruction" - a catch phrase as of late that few people seem to be able to adequately speak to, though there is a rapidly increasing amount of pressure to do so throughout the district and the state. There are other ways to do this as well. One creative way to practice this is to use "centers."

The centers model, essentially, involves breaking your class into groups and having each group work on distinct tasks (computer activities, vocabulary, independent practice, and small group instruction) for shorter chunks of time (15-20 minutes), with periodic brief rotations to new tasks. This model is highly engaging for students and takes a lot of different forms. One effective use of this model that we have piloted this year is organizing the groups according to pretest scores. Students are broken into four groups, ranked according to how high or low their baseline scores were. Students in the higher groups would be offered more enriching type activities, while students with lower scores were offered much higher levels of direct teacher support and remediation.

The centers model takes a lot of planning and preparation to execute well. In more advanced classes, the process is fairly stress free, but organizing it for standard level students takes excellent classroom management on behalf of the teacher. It's also not always practical. Occasionally, there will be a subject where students will uniformly, across the board do miserably on the baseline test. (This happened recently with Surface Area, to no surprise.) In these cases, the centers model can be impractical. When all students are functioning at an identical level, "whole group" (traditional) instruction is often preferable. Note, of course, that this is still using student data to drive instruction.