Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Can online classes respond to the immediate needs of our students?

In light of the current educational reform debate playing out in Idaho, I wanted to share an experience in my classroom that I think asks some fair questions regarding the use of online courseware in our schools to replace teachers in the classroom. I also preface this post by saying that I do not teach high school and am well aware that online classes are unlikely to be given to elementary age children. However, the same basic principles of effective teaching apply.

My students complete a short twenty-question math assignment every night. It takes most students fewer than 10 minutes to complete this assignment. Most mornings we spend fewer than 5 minutes correcting the homework as a class. Our grade level team chose this activity as a way to introduce, review, and extend our curriculum. Additionally, a nightly homework regimen helps students begin to prepare for middle school and beyond.

Recently, my fourth grade students were presented with the following question:

How many triangles are shown?

The answer I want to students to provide is 5. However, many students answered 3, while some others answered 4.  Seeing the confused look on these students’ faces, I decided this was obviously a teachable moment. Using colored whiteboard markers, I had a student walk up to outline a triangle. I repeated this process until all five triangles had been identified.

Wanting to provide additional practice for the concept, I drew the following figure on the board and asked the students to identify the number of squares present.

This time, nearly all the students immediately responded five. I could tell that the students were enjoying the new activity, so I extended it further and asked the same of the following figures.

After about a minute of looking at the figures hands started to go up. I called on a few students to share their answers.  I added a single square to the left. As I was looking at the board, I had the following written on it:

I asked the students, “Does anyone see a pattern forming with our numbers?” Using previously learned tactics to find patterns, my students started to find the difference in number of squares in each expansion of the grid. I had a few students come write the differences on the white board.  We now had the following:

When I asked what we noticed about the differences shown, one student noticed they were the numbers in yellow on his multiplication chart. Another student making the same connection, but at a higher level, told the class those numbers were squares. He walked up and added the annotation above the shown differences.

After that the students quickly recognized that adding 36 or 62 would give us our next number in the pattern.

It took only a few more minutes for the class to create a function (albeit greatly simplified from the f(n)=n(n+1)(2n+1)/6 formula) to determine the number of squares in a 10X10 grid. They knew to add 102+92+82+…32+22+12. I had kids begging me to stay inside during their recess later that morning so they could test their function.

In a span of less than 15 minutes I was able to introduce a new concept, review a previously learned concept, and extend the new and old concepts. I didn’t expect or plan for this opportunity to arise. As a teacher, I am presented with moments like these throughout my school day. I don’t tell this story to toot my own horn. I see other teachers in my building identify teachable moments like these everyday as well. I know middle school and high school teachers that work closely with those in and out of their departments to allow students to make connections in other subject areas. These are the teachable moments that online courseware will fail to recognize. They are the connections that will no longer be strongly tied across curricula in our high schools.

It’s not that I cannot see the value of technology in our classrooms. It is increasingly more important to utilize technology in the classroom, both to prepare students for their futures and to connect with their realities.  But do not be fooled into thinking that the advances of technology can supersede the art of teaching.

I, for one, do not welcome our new computer overlords.

Josh Walker
Joint School District #2