Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Is there a problem here?

Is there a problem here?

from Doug Fisher's Michigan Reading Association Presentation (via delta_dc)

A student in my W14 teacher-assisting seminar raised this question:
If the [desirable] Japanese lesson style* is all about posing meaningful problems and allowing students to explore them, and if the proper role of the teacher is to lend perspective and support in those investigations, then why are we taught to use gradual release of responsibility?
  * we might substitute problem-based learning, or 3 act lessons, or active inquiry, or...
Then today (4/9/14) I read this on Twitter from @ZPMath.

Zach's concern seems to be about the type of learning that these assumptions might tend to support.

Dangerous Thing #1: "I teach using the smart board." I get this one. I've argued in the past (and have an as-of-yet-unfinished post about it) that teaching via smart board can* pull us toward a teacher-centered, sequential, closed-task mode of instruction. I know this because I've seen it happen -- to me. More on that elsewhere.
 *(to be clear: can pull us, not does).

So that one made sense.

So did Dangerous Thing #3: "I just make all of my questions worth one point." Lots of concerns there: If all problems are weighted equally, how are students to distinguish between what's essential and what's nice to know? Does accumulation of points matter, or does achievement of essential learning targets?

But Dangerous Thing #2 surprised me: "I do, we do, you do." That, together with the student observation I shared earlier, leads me to wonder:
Does using a Gradual Release of Responsibility frame pull us toward a teacher-centered, skill-focused, piecewise practice-oriented mode of instruction?
Don't get me wrong: I have no problems with "demonstration lessons". They can be a productive way to support improvement on complex performance tasks. In a demonstration lesson, the teacher models the thinking of an expert on a genuine task; afterwards, students are led to reflect on which elements of the demonstration were significant. (See What did you see/hear?)

In my experience (read: anecdotally), that is not how most teachers view Gradual Release of Responsibility. Instead, I get the sense most teachers, especially new teachers, tend to think of Gradual Release this way:
  1. Teacher works some examples.
  2. Students try a couple in small groups. The teacher circulates, answering questions. 
  3. If it goes well, students are assigned independent practice (homework).
So I wonder: Does Gradual Release of Responsibility make teachers -- especially preservice or new teachers -- more likely to focus on procedural skill and less on "doing math" in the sense that Dan Meyer talks about it in his TEDx talk, Math Class Needs a Makeover?

Math Class Needs a Makeover (youtube)
from Math Class Needs a Makeover, by Dan Meyer
I don't know. But I do wonder.

Comments welcome.


  1. So to clarify a little bit, all of these came from the same person. We were having a vertical articulation day today with the 7th and 8th grade teachers from the elementary school districts that feed into our high school.

    #1: Based on my previous experiences with this person, I would infer that mostly "closed-task, sequential instruction" is what she meant. There are some good things, however, like the "function man," that she's used from it. I would guess that SMART boards probably can be a good tool if used appropriately. I don't have one, so I don't feel I have enough knowledge to comment on that.

    #3 That really perturbed me. So a student gets an answer wrong and gets zero points out of one on the problem. I had to speak up. I said (very diplomatically, too) that I personally would not do that because I would feel that it sent students the message that all I cared about was getting an answer. She did go on to say that she does write a lot of comments about their work, which is a good thing for feedback. However, does the student pay more attention to the feedback or to the fact that they got a zero out of one on the problem? She does do multiple points if the problems have multiple parts, but it seems like only if the problem is a word problem and it's a point for the equation and a point for the answer.

    Now, I'm no saint when it comes to grading. I'm trying my best to move away from "points" where I can do it, especially in classes I don't teach with other people, and I do try to challenge some of the other teachers' views where I can. I have a whole unfinished blog about answers vs. process as well. But, regardless of what she says and the feedback that she gives, I feel that the unintended message that she's communicating is that getting the answer is all that matters. Her only reasoning for doing it that way was that "It's just the way I do it." I'm sure it's very convenient.

    #2 I could probably write a whole post about this one as well. But, when I heard that, I immediately thought of the exact way you described the "gradual release of responsibility." I'm in a battle with my students at times because that's what they seem to want, even though most of the time they've demonstrated to me that they're capable of so much more than that.

    Without having any other kind of context, the "I do, we do, you do" comment scared the hell out of me, because it just smells like students learning to imitate a procedure. Then when they get to high school, I'll have to deal with the "Mr. P doesn't teach/explain anything" complaints when they actually have to do math.

    This phrase came from the "Digits" curriculum which I think is this:

    I am not really familiar with it, though.

  2. I tried to write a blog post in response to this but it just sounds angry and I told the presenter about Nix the Tricks which leads back to my blog. So....

    Gradual Release of Responsibility is awesome for things like:
    "I give you a complete number line and we use it for integer operations"
    "I give you a number line with tick marks and 0"
    "I require you to draw a number line to support your work"
    "If you get stuck I remind you that you can draw a number line to clarify your thinking"

    But "I do, we do, you do" just makes me think of training monkeys.