Friday, January 6, 2012

Rearranging the desks (Part 2)

Why you might consider rearranging the desks in your high school mathematics classroom from rows to groups? In Part 1, I suggested that by doing so we emphasise to students that a central theme for the class is that "they are their own teacher", at least as much as the adult standing at the front of the classroom. Let's consider two other ideas: how changing the configuration might help reduce maths anxiety, and how it might affect the teacher.

The funny thing is our primary (elementary) school teachers have known this for more than fifty years.
What makes middle and high school so different it doesn't apply?

Reason 2: To create a positive environment that reduces "maths anxiety".

Most mathematics teachers will have one or maybe two "high achiever" classes per year. The remaining classes have students ranging from those who dislike and struggle with mathematics to those who tolerate it and just want to get through the next fifty minutes without too much being demanded of them. In addition, for some students, mathematics creates high levels of anxiety, and, as I’ve come to discover, this anxiety is also present in high achieving classes, arguably in even more harmful forms because these students may define their self-worth by their current success at mathematics. Before I can even begin to hope for high quality learning outcomes, I need to face this challenge.

I am inspired by the words of Lindsay Grimison: "We must change the mathematical experiences of so many school students who regard the subject with a mixture of fear and loathing tinged with perceptions of failure and irrelevance". It seems to me that unless our students can be made to feel welcome in the mathematics classroom, that it is a place where they can enjoy learning, we won’t get off the starting block. Collaborative group work is far less threatening than whole class discussion - no-one is put "on the spot" in front of the whole class. Students are more likely to take risks and ask questions of their peers.  Now I’m not saying a classroom with rows is unwelcoming – but I do feel the group configuration helps develop and sustain a positive environment. I want everything in my kit that can help me with this challenge.

Reaons 3: To encourage me to change my teaching practice.

What message did I receive when I walked into my classroom with its rows of desks? The whole class is looking at me – I’m the centre of attention. As much as I wanted to include more student-centred activities, I found myself talking more and more – becoming the lecturer that my decades of schooling tell me that’s what teaching is. In contrast, facing a classroom organised in a group configuration forces me on a daily basis to evaluate what I am (or am not) getting students to do. You just can’t keep up the lecturing for long stretches when the desks configuration is just screaming out to be used for collaborative student work.

On a very practical level, with the row configuration I found it difficult to spend quality time with each student. There were fourteen or fifteen pairs of desks to stop at. Even allowing just two minutes per stop (hardly quality time), that’s more than half the period gone. Meanwhile there are students on the other side of the classroom, desperately waiting for me to visit them. The students sometimes seemed so dependent on me it was like they were helpless unless I was at their desk, answering their questions. And yet – sitting right next to them, or behind or in front of them, was a student who could help them. What I discovered when I moved to a group configuration, was I only needed to visit seven desk groups – making it easier to spend time with more students, to listen to them talk about and engage with mathematics. And because I could  encourage students with unresolved questions to work with their peers, I could move to another group without leaving those students unsatisfied. If it sounds like a cop out to expect other students to do my teaching for me, I take heart there is very strong evidence that peer tutoring helps the tutor as much as the tutee – it pushes their learning further when they have to deal with misconceptions held by other students.

So arguably, the group configuration encourages me engage more with students, to help students to help each other and helps me find out more about what is actually happening in my classroom. If I’m at the front talking all the time – or spending one to two minutes with each student (if that) – how can I find out what they are doing, beyond just assessing their final products of the lesson?

In the final part of this series I consider some of the challenges posed by the group configuration, ask where Direct Instruction fits into this arrangement and look at the bigger picture beyond learning mathematics.

L. Grimison & J. Pegg (Eds.) (1995) Teaching secondary school mathematics: Theory into practice. Sydney: Harcourt Brace.

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