Less Front-Loading

Recently I’ve been playing around with having students work on problems in groups with very little scaffolding.  I’m trying to help them gain experience with seeing a problem, not knowing what to do, and slowly working it out with some hints and some discovery of their own.  A lot of students tend to not try a problem when they don’t know where to start and I’m hoping that with practice, they will begin to practice using the problem solving strategies that we have used in class to put pencil to paper and try something. 

Recently, we took some very short notes that ended with the impulse momentum theorem.  With each variable labeled, they were given a task, in groups, to calculate the force involved in various sports interactions (kicking a soccer ball/football etc).  Instead of giving them a problem that listed out the numbers to plug in, I instead gave each group a small section of an article.  The numbers were all there, but often in confusing units and surrounded by other numbers that may be interesting, but do not fit into our equation.  I told them that often they won’t be given a problem with all the information; instead, they have to search for the information that they need and filter out what they don’t want.  Some students seemed to really get that and while they may not like struggling (they are quite vocal about this), they do seem to get that it will help them.

I’ve done a few problems like this, and while many students complain each time (“Mister, this is hard!”) many of them are more engaged and have better behavior during this.  Some, however, get off task towards the end and behavior goes crazy since it is a less structured environment.  Some of the students are clearly benefiting a lot from this, but I need to work on ways to increase engagement and effort among the students who are still giving in and letting the group solve the problem.  I think during the next problem I will pick a student (one who is often not engaged) and make that student the presenter.  The rest of the group will be responsible for making sure that student can at least explain the solution, even if he/she didn’t solve it first.

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One thought on “Less Front-Loading

  1. One of the things to keep in mind is the work of Carol Dweck on “mindset.” For those students who have a fixed mindset, the type of activity you’re describing here can be a threat to their identity, which would result in their shutting down and not attempting the problem. That is, if they think they’re smart, and they try, there is the chance that they’ll struggle, which calls into question their smartness. As Homer tells Bart, “Trying is the first step towards failure.” On the other hand, for those students who have a growth mindset, a challenging activity is just that: a challenge — something to be overcome. They’ll work at the problem longer because they know that everything takes effort, that nothing is easy at first, and that effort results in improvement.

    One of your jobs as a teacher is to help students develop a growth mindset. Sometimes that involves breaking down the fixed mindest that they often come to your class already having developed, and that’s harder…

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