I was in fourth grade. I was learning all kinds of new things academically and socially, and one of them was long division. I hated long division. There were so many steps and it didn't make sense to me. My teacher would write problems on the board and we would go around the room walking up to the board and solving them. The spotlight was on me and I cowered beneath it. My face grew hot as I fought back tears of confusion. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't find the right answer.
When I arrived home, my father, a math major, helped me with my homework. He gave me a different method of solving my long division problems that totally made sense to me! It was amazing. I had a breakthrough with long division and thought I could finally conquer it. I practiced his method over and over again until my homework was complete.
Sadly, the next day, my father's method was but a fond memory. I was faced again with long division, staring me right between the eyes. I couldn't remember the method my father taught me so I asked the teacher about it. She said she didn't know and her way was easier. I was forlorn. Her way was too difficult for me. It didn't make sense. It would have been so much easier for her to try and teach me in a way that I learn best.
Fast forward to now. Does this sound familiar to anyone? How many of your students are screaming this rallying cry right now? It's likely that you don't know because you can't hear it. It's simply ringing in their heads every time they hear about a process they don't understand. I say "hear about" because they aren't learning. They are hearing and repeating. Making a simple switch in your instruction time will decrease the amount of time you talk and increase the amount of time your students learn.
Try teaching students concepts rather than processes. Explain to them the meaning or purpose of something and give them the opportunity to figure it out. I love this method from http://www.wholebrainteaching.com called Teach-OK. It involves multiple modalities as you see whether or not your students understand the material. Once you've seen that they have a grasp on the concept you're teaching, give them an opportunity to apply their own skills and logic.
The easiest implementation of this is with basic arithmetic. We'll use addition:
Step 1 You Teach. Many times as teachers we will gloss over what addition is and get right to showing students how to add. Use your fingers, manipulatives, pictures, whatever. Instead, just teach students what addition is. Addition is one thing or group of things added to one thing or group of things.
Make it relatable: Ask students if anyone has been told they're getting an addition on their house, or new addition to their family. What does that mean? If we get a new student, he or she is an addition to our classroom.
Model it: Ask for a group of volunteers to demonstrate. Put a group of students together(size based on skill level of your students, maybe 5.) Ask how many kids are in the class. When the students answer "5," write a 5 on the board. Have a "new student" join them, and write a +1 on the board. Ask how many kids are now in the class. Students will hopefully count instinctively and answer "6." You will then write =6 next to 5+1. This way they can see how real life translates into a math equation.
Use the Teach-OK method with this sharing of information to ensure the students understand. Once this is complete, class instruction time is over.
Step 2 Students Teach. Put students in groups with an equation to figure out. Give them the opportunity to devise a solving strategy as a group using any method they like. Make sure you limit the number of groups as the students will be presenting their strategy to the class. They can draw, use people, make models, use blocks, or whatever it is they desire. You can do this as a center and present later or as a whole group time and present immediately after. This process serves as a mini-project based learning experience in which students are finding the answer for themselves. They will naturally differentiate on their own based on the way they rationalize and conceptualize.
Step 3 Individuals Teach Themselves. Give students a short list of equations to solve. Individuals can choose any method they like from the class presentations or develop a new method. If you see something new from a student, encourage him or her to share it with the class. His or her method might make more sense to someone else.
The most important component to this approach is that you listen, observe, and ask questions more than talk. I can say firsthand how difficult this is for me personally. I see a student struggling and I just want to help. The best way to help is to allow him or her to figure it out. Ask questions that lead to a conclusion. Be wary, though, of leading questions. This is another thing I'm super guilty of. Make sure your questions are open and lead to reasoning rather than pointed questions that lean heavily toward an answer. For example, using the class model from earlier:
Student: I don't get it.
Teacher: Ok, well if you have a group of 5(model with your fingers), then you add 1(model with your fingers), how many is that?(gesture for the student to count your fingers).
Student: I don't get it.
Teacher: Ok, what is the number 5? Think about what we did during carpet time. What did I say the number 5 is? You might even ask the student to tell you what the number 5 represents. Is it 5 puppies, pencils, friends? If you know of a student who can demonstrate a method well, have him or her assist the struggling student.
Allow the confused student to decide what method he or she prefers, and make the room open. Students may use any object they like as long as the object returns after math time. Or, if that kind of chaos totally freaks you out, put out a bucket of objects for the students to use. You can include toys that are alike, counting bears, blocks, or whatever. The idea is that you don't tell the students how to add. You tell them what adding is. Coming up with their own methods will help them relate better, and ultimately remember better. Not to mention, the more readily they can conceptualize, the more easily they will understand those pesky word problems.
Now you might be thinking, "great, but what about the other subjects?" Agreed, math is probably the easiest subject with which to demonstrate this approach. That being said, apply this thinking to your teaching. Before you begin a lesson, think to yourself Am I giving the process or the concept? With history, you might give students a small bit of information and encourage them to research the rest. With reading, you might just put the book in front of the student and ask him or her what he or she thinks it says. We have many natural processes in our brains, and I'm sure your students will amaze you with what they already know.
Please, please, please share stories of how this is working in your classroom or if you have devised a system that works well. Pam and I would love to hear your feedback. For more ideas to improve your classroom and be an educational superhero, SUBSCRIBE to our newsletter.
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Have an awesome week teaching concepts!