Tuesday, November 24, 2015

LIfe Doesn't Give Practice Tests

As a university faculty member, I feel that my job is to help my students prepare for a successful career.  I want my students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.  That is one of the reasons that I do NOT give students practice tests and I don’t BELIEVE in giving practice tests.

Don’t get me wrong—I am a firm believer in practicing.  In all of my classes, they are assigned homework, which is practice for learning the concepts.  I sometimes give review sheets or practice problems before tests.  However, those practice problems will never be the same or even similar to the ones on the exam itself.  Why?  I want my students to learn to think and to solve problems on their own.  It isn’t about memorizing a certain type of problem and how to solve it.  It is about becoming a better critical thinker so that you can solve ALL types of problems.

When I was an undergraduate taking Differential Equations, I had copies of the professor’s exams from the previous year.  Of course, I used them to study for upcoming exams.  One time I recall that the exam he gave was exactly the same as the one I had practiced.  I did well on the exam, got an A in the course, but I didn’t LEARN anything about differential equations.  In this case, I deprived myself from learning the material thoroughly.  If we give practice tests and then give students similar tests with numbers changed, aren’t we depriving them from truly learning the material?  Aren’t we teaching to the test? Will they be able to apply the skills from that course on other problems or will they only be able to solve certain types of problems?

In our math education courses, my colleague and I have the students teach short lessons frequently so that they can practice.  We believe strongly that students need to practice teaching in front of their peers in a friendly environment before they go out into the classroom.  These practice lessons help them prepare the content, the lesson plan, the activities, and how they will teach that topic. They do NOT prepare them for the students in the room who are sleeping, talking, goofing around, etc.  We cannot possibly prepare them for every situation that they will encounter in their classroom.  We CAN offer them guidance on lesson planning and content delivery, but they are going to need to be able to problem solve on the fly.

When our students graduate and get their first job, they are going to be given tasks, problems, and projects to work on.  Are they going to say to their boss, “Can I have a practice project?”  No, they are going to figure out how to do the project by asking questions, thinking critically, and putting it all together.  Life doesn’t give practice tests!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Things we learned at the NCTM Regional Conference in Minneapolis

My colleague Chris Larson and I took 10 pre-service math teachers to the NCTM Regional conference in Minneapolis.  I am using the collective term We because I am referring to the people in our group or people we interacted with at the conference.

We learned:
  • Math is a Verb.  In most Native languages, there isn’t “one word to describe mathematics—rather they name it when they use it to count, build, cook, hunt, or fish.” Fabian Jenks
  • Running into people you know at a large conference is always great.  The best part is catching up with old friends.
  • Making connections with new people at the conference is awesome.  Then next time you see them at a conference, they will be an old friend.
  • Math Trauma is real and frequently caused by misinformed parents and teachers. We all need to work collectively to stop it!
  • We need to stop using the phrases, “You’ll need it for high school.” or “You’ll need it for college.”
  • Desmos has created some awesome activities and has super awesome math people developing more.
  • When you tell people that you brought 10 pre-service math teachers to a conference, they get super excited!
  • You can use the internet to help students make connections with people with similar interests around the world.
  • “We teach the way we teach because it is the way we have always taught.” Matt Larson, NCTM President-Elect.  We all need to rethink our teaching and our teaching practices to help students develop deep understanding of mathematics.
  • Everyone is looking for new assessment ideas—the two assessment sessions that I attended were both very full.  It makes me excited about the 1-credit assessment class that Chris and I have created and look forward to making positive changes this coming semester.
  • Calculus I faculty across the country are somehow (unintentionally) hurting students confidence in their mathematical ability, which is affecting students taking Calculus II.  This happens more frequently for female students.
  • You never know when you might stumble upon an interesting Senior Research project on Math and Music or 3-D Sudoku.
  • If you are going to advertise free food to college students over 6 feet, they are going to eat a lot of it!
  • If there is any chance that you are going to be within 5 feet of Steph Curry, you need to have something for him to sign.
  • Hanging out at a bus stop in Minneapolis late at night will be interesting, eventful, and maybe even scary.
  • You never know when you are going to use the skills you learned in the Prevention and Care of Athletic Injuries class.
  • You can fit 11 people with all of their luggage and about 50 pounds of math textbooks into a Chevy Traverse and a Dodge Caravan with a missing seat.
  • Spending lots of time with the same people makes you a family—and sometimes you need a break from your family members.
All 10 of the SDState pre-service teachers that went.
I know that the trip was memorable for everyone. I think the students learned some great things and they certainly did a great job of representing South Dakota State University!

Monday, November 2, 2015

What EVERYONE can learn from the Royals Winning the World Series

Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for posting about this article, http://nyti.ms/1XK4Myt .  And thanks to Dr. Roni Ellington for her inspirational presentation at the 2015 Midwest Noyce conference, where she talked about how teaching STEM is all about HEART.

First of all, I am going to admit that I did NOT watch a single game in the 2015 World Series.  However, several of my family and friends were consistently posting Royals updates on Facebook so I knew what was happening.  After they won last night, I saw a blog post by Larry Ferlazzo, http://bit.ly/20ohAwS that made me more interested in the Royals General Manager Ned Yost.

Ned Yost endures daily criticism for unorthodox decision-making and there is now a new verb in the English language, “Yosted.” The verb describes what happens when his decisions lead to a Royals loss. But despite his critics, his teams keep winning and this year he took a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 30 years and won the World Series.  So, what is the secret to his success?

He is willing to let players learn from their mistakes so that they can improve. He genuinely loves his players and gets to know them so that he can understand them.  He does this so that they are comfortable as members of the team and that they know he will support them no matter what.  He believes in his players when they may not even believe in themselves.  This allows them to struggle and work through their failure because they know he is behind them 100%.  He lets them be themselves on and off the field.  He doesn’t rely on the data for each player, he relies on his feelings for the player as a person.  Yost said, “I’ve never really had a guy that I strongly believed in not make it. I just knew it, don’t ask me how.”

As educators (parents or administrators or colleagues) we should all take notes from Yost’s playbook.  First, we must build relationships with our students. We need to believe in our students when no one else does.  We need to sometimes take risks and give them a chance when no one else would.  We need to let them struggle and learn from their mistakes.  We need to provide them a comfortable, safe, learning environment.  I agree with Larry Ferlazzo, Yost would have made an excellent teacher.