Sunday, December 4, 2011

Math Class Experts

Last night I was preparing my list of things to do. This has become a typical Saturday night activity for myself. Almost every week, I am commissioned with the task of preparing a new unit for one of my classes. I am a new teacher working with new curriculum. These two realities, coupled with my desire to keep my classes fresh, force me to steadily plan and reflect on past preparations. As I sat down to prepare a pre-calculus unit on rational expressions, I quickly became bored. The weekly drone of preparing a unit plan got me thinking:

If I thought this was boring, what would my students think?

I know exactly what they would think. I began to muse on different ways to present the topics in order to give my students a well-deserved change of atmosphere. The Pre-calculus curriculum is packed, and we have rocketed through many topics; a refreshing perspective might work wonders for their learning. 

I was also approached by an intern in our building; she wanted to observe me teaching. I figured if I had another set of experienced eyes in the room, I may as well set-up something different that we could try. I should be clear that this will not only be a learning experience for the intern--I will certainly take numerous learnings from the experience as well.

I decided to set up a system of class experts where groups of students (formed by me) are assigned a section (or topic) from the unit. They will be given 3 class periods to master their topic, isolate key learnings, and prepare a presentation to communicate them to peers. I planned the preparation time over a weekend so groups could meet if they so chose. The goal, from my standpoint, is to provide an authentic learning task during one of the hardest times to garner any type of learner engagement--the Christmas season.

In about 2 hours, I had set up a wiki page complete with project explanation, a detailed schedule of the unit, evaluation criteria, and a page for every group to upload their files. This will be my first experience working with a class wiki; I purposely am using it in a limited capacity until I become comfortable with how students react to it.

This experiment has three main purposes:
  1. My hope is to show the intern (who will be, and already is, a very good teacher and coach) that mathematics instruction is changing. There are alternatives to the lecture-test-repeat model that is so often beaten to death. I want to demonstrate (hopefully) that crucial learnings can still be attained when students are given some independence. Also, I want to introduce her to the role of math-teacher-as-facilitator-and-questioner. The most important discussions with students aren't about answers, they are about the process.
  2. I want to develop my own repertoire of teaching strategies. I find it harder to arrange "open learning tasks" as the complexity of the mathematics increases. My younger students enjoy numeracy prompts and designed projects that allow them to play with concepts and create understandings. I want to get better at teaching complex topics. This experiment fits into my constant professional development.
  3. I want to compare the students who participated with those students from an identical class that will be taught in a traditional sense. I have two sections of grade 11 pre-calculus; only one will be using the wiki. By examining the scores on the test and cross-referencing them with previous data, I want to check and see if the class format develops deeper understanding. I must admit, this is huge draw because I am planning a fairly wide-scale implementation of Project Based Learning next semester. A closer documentation of that can be found here ( The vision has since changed and I will post results throughout that process. 
I have heard (through twitter) from others who have tried something similar; if you have any advice or results from your personal exploits, it is more than welcome. I hope to report great things in the weeks to come. I believe that educators need to take risks to stay in touch with their students; sometimes this results in failure. The ultimate success comes when we take the failures, examine them critically, and continue forward with conviction.



  1. Thanks for sharing the wikispaces link. I hope you will post how this goes so that I can learn how your "experts" did, what worked for you and your class, and what you would do different the next time around.

  2. I love this idea and may try something like it with my grade 8 math class. Or maybe even in physics. This could be another variation on the jigsaws that I like to do in my classes.