Friday, September 20, 2013

Phronesis? (Using Tools Strategically)

I was preparing a lesson on representing data with dot plots and box plots. The goal was to help students recognize the pros & cons of each type of visual display, among other things (like simply making sure everyone knew how to construct one).

But it turned into something more powerful, at least for a moment, and I thought I would share that moment with you via this post.

The lesson also built off the previous session where we had used "MAD Minute" type tasks to generate data. You know, like these:

Lots of kids are good at those. I was good at them. Many of my preservice elementary teacher students said they loved them too. "Oh man, I loved doing these!" But you didn't love them if you weren't good at them. And we had that discussion: For some kids, these high-stakes timed worksheets were sources of extreme anxiety.

I shared a story from a colleague about a family member who one day arrived home from elementary school in tears, announcing sheepishly that he was "dumb at math" because he had failing to perform well on the Mad Minute tasks. This young man loved just playing around with -- and showed remarkable facility with -- numbers and operations as a child. His go to toy on long car trips was a simple calculator. This young man now has a PhD in computer science. But in elementary school, Mad Minutes made him feel dumb at math. When the mother shared this story with the teacher, she immediately stopped using Mad Minutes. 

And yet... someone encouraged these teachers to use these tools. Good, thoughtful, passionate teachers used them. They cared about children and about learning. They thought they were doing something with a purpose, something that had value.

So I paused to ask my class of pre-service teachers: why might a teacher feel justified in using these Mad Minute tasks?

The class erupted in conversation -- I love it when that happens! Like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne. Time to celebrate!

Before I tell you how it turned out, let me provide a little relevant context. I was inspired while planning this lesson to build upon one of @delta_dc's posted lessons (When is it ok to use a calculator?). My vision was to use our lesson on data analysis to slip in the idea of phronesis -- basically, "practical wisdom". Actually, it is very closely related to the Use Appropriate Tools Strategically Standard for Mathematical Practice from CCSS. The CCSS-SMP's serve as a guiding framework for our course, and I have slowly been introducing them over the first few weeks.

So we had this concept of phronesis, or strategic competence, or making thoughtful decisions about which tools to use, and we were about to apply it in the context of deciding whether a box plot or dot plot would be the most appropriate statistical display. I had already told them this was coming. But first I sensed it was important to uncork that champagne bottle and see what was inside.

There was LOTS of discussion. 

I finally raised my hand until things quieted down and said, "Wow, what an energetic discussion. I'd love to find out more about what you were hearing. Would anyone mind sharing something from your table's discussion that felt pretty profound?"

Two students, from two different tables, each shared something like this: "If teachers used these Mad Minutes to (formatively) evaluate students -- but not count them as part of their grade -- then they might be useful. They could find out who needed more practice with basic skills and who didn't."

After class, I tweeted this about that moment:

I didn't make that connection to phronesis until after I bumped into Dave in the stairwell on my way to grab lunch. I shared the story, which I was still pretty excited about, and he shared with me how @literacygurl had used flashcards in a similarly productive manner, by having students sort the flashcards into two piles and then use them to figure out what was next for those kids. Again, using a controversial pedagogical tool strategically, purposefully, and to good effect.

It's all phronesis. Or as I prefer to think of it, the strategic use of tools. Calculators may be used effectively, or not. Flashcards can be used effectively, or not. Mad Minutes are no different. 

In teaching, as in life, it's not about the gifts you've been given, it's about how you use them.

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