Those of you that know the way I usually teach probably also know that projects are not in my comfort zone. I always feel they need to be well defined in such a way to make it so that the mathematical content is the focus, and NOT necessarily about how good it looks, the “flashy factor”, or whether it is appropriately stapled. As a result, I often avoid them like the plague. The activities we do in class are usually student centered and involve a lot of student interaction, and occasionally (much to my dismay) are open ended problems to be solved.
Done well, a good project (and rubric) also involves a good amount of focused interaction between students about the mathematical content. I don’t like asking students to make presentations either – what often results is a Powerpoint and students awkwardly gesturing at projected images of text that they then read to the group in front of them. In class, I openly mock adults who do this to my students – I keep the promise that I will never ask them to read to me and their peers standing at the front of the room. Presentation skills are important, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t see educational gold in the process, or get all tingly about ‘real-world skill development’ from assigning in-class presentations. They instill fear in the hearts of many students (especially those that are students of ESOL) and require tolerance from the rest of the class and involved adults to sit through watching them, and require class time in order to ‘make’ students watch them.
I’m also not convinced they actually learn content by creating them. Take a bunch of information found on Wikipedia or from Google, put it on a number of slides, and read it slowly until your time is up. Where is the synthesis? Where is the real world application of an idea that the student did? What new information is the student generating? If there’s very little substantive answer to those questions, it’s not worth it. It’s no wonder why they go the Powerpoint slide route either – it’s generally what they see adults doing when they present something.
In short, I don’t like asking students to do something that even adults don’t typically do well, and even then without the self-esteem and image issues that teenagers have.
All of that said, I really liked seeing a presentation (a good one, mind you) from Kelly Grogan (@KellyEd121) at the Learning 2.011 conference in Shanghai this past September. She has her students combine written work, digital media, audio, and video into digital documents that can be easily shared with each other and with her as their teacher. The additional dimension of hearing the student talking about his/her work and understanding is a really powerful one. It is but one distilled aspect of what we want students to get out of the projects we assign.
The fact that it isn’t live also takes away a lot of the pressure to get it all right in one take. It also takes advantage of the asynchronous capability that technology affords us – I can watch a student’s product at home or on my iPad at night, as can the other students. I like how it uses the idea of the flipped classroom to change the idea of student presentations. Students present their understanding or work through video that can be watched at home, and then the content can be discussed or used in class the next day.
It was with all of this in mind that I decided to assign the project described here:
The proofs were listed on a handout given in class, and students in groups of two chose which proof they wanted to do. Most students submitted their videos today. I’m pretty pleased with how they ran with the idea and made it their own. Some quick notes:
- The mathematical content is the focus, and the students understood that from the beginning. While the math isn’t perfect in every video, the enthusiasm the students had for putting these together was pretty awesome to watch. There’s no denying that enthusiasm as a tool for helping students learn – this is a major plus for project based assignments.
- Some students that rarely volunteer to speak in class have their personalities and voices all over these. I love this.
My plan to hold students accountable for watching these is to have variations of them on the unit test in a couple weeks. I don’t have to force the students to watch them though – they had almost all shared them before they were due.
Yes, you heard that right. They had almost all shared their work with each other and talked about it before getting to class. I sometimes have to force this to happen during class, but this assignment encouraged them to do it on their own. Now that’s cool.
I have ideas for tweaking it for next time, but I really liked what came out of this. I’ve been hurt(stung?) by projects before – giving grades that meet the rubric for the project, but don’t actually result in a grade that indicates student learning.
I can see how this concept could really change things though. There’s no denying that the work these students produced is authentic to them, and requires engagement with the content. Isn’t that what we ultimately want students to know how to do when they leave our classroom?