"There is no one way"

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Eclectic

In between June 27 and August 4, 2016, I presented seven to ten workshops (depending on how you count) ranging from a couple of hours to four days. I share most of the handouts, resources, and slides on my Summer Workshops site. (See below my signature for more details on what's there.)

The site will remain available until some time in December or January. At that point, if I am to offer workshops in Summer 2017, I'll probably shut it down, and start setting up next summer's site. (Whether I offer workshops next year depends on whether someone is willing to host them!)

These workshops are exhausting, as I pack a lot into each one, and go all day with no prep periods. One of the reasons I keep doing them is that participants seem to find them useful. I get nearly unanimously rave reviews in the workshop evaluations. However, one of the participants in my Making Sense in Algebra 2 workshop had an interesting criticism. That anonymous participant pointed out that I presented no coherent pedagogical framework for the activities I shared. Good point! I did not present a coherent framework because, well, I do not have one to present.

Certainly, the title of the workshop captured my goal: the activities I shared were intended to help students make sense of Algebra 2 content. But that is not a pedagogical framework. In fact, I think every activity was different: I used labs, spreadsheets, kinesthetic strategies, measurement, graphing technology, games, slides/lecture (yes!), big anchor problems, and perhaps other formats.

According to Merriam-Webster:

    Eclectic: selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles

That pretty much describes my stance as an educator.

During my four-plus decades in the classroom, I've seen many math edu-fads come and go: new math, individualization, manipulatives, problem-solving, group work, constructivism, constructionism (yes, that's a thing), portfolios, complex instruction, differentiation, interdisciplinary-ism, backward design, coding, rubrics, problem-based instruction, technology, Khan Academy, standards-based grading, making, three acts, flipping, inquiry learning, notice-wonder, growth mindset... not to mention various generations of standards.

It doesn't take long for a conversation between teachers to include something sarcastic about the fad du jour. By being sarcastic, we put up an umbrella to try protect our sanity from the ideas raining on us from administrators, academics, and yes, even colleagues. I will go further, and boldly say to the proponents of the current pedagogical panacea: I'm sorry, but whatever "evidence-based" product you're selling today, I'm not buying. The research it is based on is flawed. The anecdotes that support it only apply to specific circumstances which are not easy to replicate. In short, as I have written before: nothing works.

I guess that sounds cynical.

But I am the opposite of cynical! Nothing works for every student, every class, every period, every day, every teacher, every department, every school, every district... That is just a fact. There is no one way. But this is what makes our job interesting! We need to be eclectic, and select "what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles." Instead of rejecting the fads wholesale, we need to consider each one as it comes along, as all (or almost all) have some validity. Instead of shutting our classroom door and continuing business as usual, we should keep it wide open. Without becoming a dogmatic across-the-board adopter of each pedagogical scheme, we need to learn what we can from it, and incorporate that bit into our repertoire. This is how we get the sort of flexibility that makes for good teaching. If we do that, our lessons will not fit a standard mold. Quite the opposite: they will depend on the myriad variables that make teaching such a complex endeavor.

Thus, when I share the materials from my workshops, I am not saying they are sure to work for you just as they are. Au contraire! Take from it what you want, and adapt it to your own classes, your own personality, your own math background, your own school schedule, you own beliefs. And let me know how it goes!

 --Henri

This post generated some interesting responses on Twitter. I address those here and here.

PS: The workshops whose materials I share on my Summer Workshops site are: Visual Algebra, Making Sense in Algebra 2, Transformational Geometry, No Limits, and Hands-On Geometry. Not there, but relevant to other summer workshops I offered: Abstract Algebra and Common Core: A Closer Look.

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