Sunday, March 3, 2019

The ultimate formative feedback? Tales from the whiteboard classroom.

The idea is extremely (and deceptively) simple: Cover your classroom with whiteboards, then think about how to get students to spend most of their time standing at the whiteboards, rather than sitting at a desk listening to you talk from the front.

A "fish eye" view of my whiteboard classroom - Dec 2017. 
There are 7 whiteboards (not all are shown here) and the room comfortably fits 16 students, and 24 at a pinch. In mid 2018 I removed half the desks to make more space.

This was the challenge posed to me by Tricia Forester (University of Wollongong) at the 2017 MANSW Conference, referencing the "Building Thinking Classrooms" work of Peter Liljedahl.  Well actually, Tricia was more clever than that - she posed interesting maths problems to groups of teachers, providing a "vertical non-permanent surface" space to try it out.  It didn't take long to see the power. When I got back to school, my principal gave me permission to try it out for real, transforming a smallish classroom no-one really liked into a fully fledged whiteboard room with 7 large boards.

It's now been nearly one and half years that I've been working in a whiteboard room for my senior classes (unfortunately I can't fit 30 junior class students in the room) and there's no looking back! There are many things to share about the experience and why it supports such powerful learning, but for now I'll confine myself to a few big ideas.

The power of the whiteboard room is the way it provides continuous formative feedback - to both the teacher and the student. In fact, for the teacher, it's overwhelming - you will be bombarded by feedback. You instantly see what students can and cannot do, you see the approaches they take and you hear many simultaneous conversations discussing the problem. For the whole lesson. It's almost too much feedback. In the whiteboard room, we have a "live stream" answer to the "How do I know what my students learned?" question. I don't have to give them a diagnostic test every day - I can see it every minute. This continuous formative feedback allows me to dynamically alter the lesson according to needs of the students. It's a bit of a high-wire act some days, and often full of unexpected surprises, but it makes for exciting and rewarding lessons that students really enjoy and demonstrably produces learning. I'll write some more soon about the strategies I've developed to dynamically respond to so much continuous feedback.

Students working in "interleaved" mode on a problem.  The students worked out on their own that harder integration questions are easier done in "parallel" by two students - but they still end up correcting each others work! Different colour markers let me quickly see how (or if)  students are working together.

The student engagement factors at play in the whiteboard room, especially when combined with the Visibly Random Groups technique, are truly astounding. I have seen students who previously had difficulty making friends,  difficulty communicating, who were disengaged, lacked confidence, transformed by the whiteboard room experience. The combination of the social interaction, the risk free "non-permanent" writing surfaces and physical movement in the whiteboard room seems to work magic on students. One day a learning support teacher came into the room and asked a notoriously lazy student why he liked the room so much, he replied "Because I can't sleep in the back of the classroom any more!".  Everyone, without exception, is engaged in the whiteboard room - there's no option to not be involved *.

We also use the whiteboard room for our before school "Year 8 Algebra Workshop" - a weekly session for students who need a little more support with algebra. The whiteboards allow them to work together while developing fluency. The social interaction and support created by the whiteboard room is an essential component of this program which seeks to build confidence and a growth mindset attitude.

Is this "student-led" or "teacher-led" teaching? I think it's a blended approach, and a good example of why we need to get beyond using labels.  However I do think I need to be clear: while students are doing most of the work, the lessons for my senior classes are very strongly guided by me. The student feedback steers the lesson according to what they need or where they are ready to go, but I'm still the "guide", it's just I don't "teach from the front". Several times during the lesson I will regroup the class in front of a student whiteboard I selected because it has a "teachable moment" and then "microteach" to summarise or clarify, and then teach a small amount of new content as required so students can continue with the next set of problems.  Other times, a carefully selected sequence of problems means I don't need to do that - the learning follows naturally, and I can "spot teach" to the groups who need more scaffolding. My lesson designs have changed significantly. Because the students are doing so much work, the whiteboard room forces me to seriously consider the "What will my students be doing?" question. I spend much more time on thinking about examples and problems than on what I will say. 

It's scary to change how you teach, and even after all this time, I sometimes worry I'm doing something too different from the other classes at my school. This year, the whiteboard room is less available to me (because I'm encouraging other teachers to use it!), and due to timetabling, while I still have the whiteboard room for my Year 12 class, I can only use the room with my Year 11 class for four out of every thirteen periods - so it's been interesting to see what happens when you mix things up.  Sometimes old habits resurface, and I'm tempted not to use the whiteboard room when it's available - because it is easier to stand at the front, or you just haven't had the time to plan a whiteboard room lesson sequence. But much to my (pleasant) surprise, my Year 11 students complain and insist we go to the whiteboard room, so we just do it. And you know, when we finish the period, it's so clear they were right - it's a better lesson, even if I hadn't planned it as a whiteboard room lesson.

Some starting resources and ideas:
Laura Wheeler's @wheeler_laura blog post Building thinking classrooms is an excellent starting point.  Here's a handy link to all her posts with the "thinking classrooms" tag.

Can't set up whiteboards in your room? Try out Magic Whiteboard to transform any wall into a vertical non-permanent surface.

Peter Liljedahl's @pgliljedahl papers "Building Thinking Classrooms (pdf)" and Visibly Random Groups (pdf) are highly readable and motivating!  Liljedhal's "Thinking Classrooms" framework is much more than just vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPS) and visibly random groups (VRG). For me this is start of a journey.

* If a student really wants "to be alone", I'll give them a break and let them work solo for a while, hoping they will change their mind later, or next period. They always do.  Also at the end of a really hot day, we might decide to sit on chairs for a change - sadly the whiteboard room doesn't have air conditioning.

Some lessons work best when you do (almost) nothing

Returning to my blog after many years absence, I found this Feb 2017 post in my "drafts" folder, waiting for posting.  I think it's still worth posting now in March 2019 (!).

It's a new school year, for me the start of the seventh year teaching. And this week I think I taught my best lesson ever. The surprising thing is that I barely taught anything. In the words of one of my mentors, a teacher with 35 years experience, "you know it's a great lesson when you do almost nothing. You sit back*, close your eyes, and you hear the student conversation taking place - they are talking about mathematics - and you'll hear how they think - and then you know what you need to teach, specific to each student."

For this lesson, I handed out "A/B quizzes" to the students which looked liked this:

They are designed to test skills in way that encourages students to help each other. In the A/B quiz lesson design, different students get different papers (see the letter in the bottom right hand corner of the paper). They can help each other if they like, but since the questions are slightly different, they have to actually teach each other rather than just share answers. Half way through the period, the students form into groups with those who did the same paper and compare their work, teaching each other anything they need to. Then they repeat the process for a second round, using a different version of the "A/B" quiz.

It was amazing to watch this group of students work together. I saw them struggle through the harder integrals with negative fractional powers, debating with each other what the correct answers were. Every single student was involved, no-one was left out.  I mistakenly had some indefinite integrals on the quiz, which I hadn't taught yet, but the students who had worked ahead taught the others how to do them. And they loved the lesson, "Integration is so much fun, Sir!" I think they packed a week of learning into forty minutes. I only taught for the last ten minutes, reinforcing some of their findings and explaining a few finer points of the setting out and reasoning required to provide the highest quality solutions.  It felt like one of the best lessons I had ever taught - but strangely I had barely done any teaching.

OK - I'm exaggerating when I said I did nothing. The lesson happened as a result of many months working with this group of students, building trust, confidence and openness.  It does take a fair bit of training to get students working effectively in groups for this process - to ensure they actually help each other and look carefully at each other's work, rather than just "looking for an answer". I did design a very specific learning sequence for the topic, selecting items in the diagnostic quiz designed to elicit discussion and to expose any difficulty students had executing the required skills. And it does take many years of experience teaching a topic such as Integration to anticipate what difficulties students will have, how to diagnose them and how to provide the necessary support.

And that's the joy of the Art and Science of Teaching - sometimes the very best lessons have very little 'visible' teaching. But if you look closely, you'll see a lot of visible learning - and it will take many years of experience to feel like you got the best out of a particular lesson plan.

Would this work for every lesson? Absolutely not! It's my view, after trying many different approaches, that when teaching mathematics, four out of every five lessons should follow more traditional, explicit instruction supported with ongoing and regular formative assessment. And for the fourth or fifth lesson - try lots of different things - the more student-centred the better. "A/B" quizzes are a lesson design that works really well - the gift that keeps on giving, year after year.

* Update for 2019: I've found an even better way to run a lesson like this! Coming soon...