Recently, a student visiting our school was sitting in my class. After the usual introductions, I turned to the class and said, "Can somebody explain how this class operates?" Quickly, a student spoke up and said,
"We do math and then talk about it"
This is the first time I've heard them say this so succinctly and I like it because, from their perspective, it's exactly what we do.
I used to be really good at lecturing. I worked on the craft, orchestrated illuminating examples, dialed my questioning, wait time, and board work. I worked hard to help my students understand.
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it enough." -Albert Einstein
But, the better I got at delivering a clear and logical lecture, my students didn't seem to be making the same gains in understanding. My teaching schedule usually had me teaching two sections of the same class so I could deliver the same lecture twice a day. Often, there was enough overlap in our curriculum that I would teach a different class in the next semester that covered the same topic. So, it was entirely possible that I could teach the same lesson four times a year. But the students didn't seem to be learning the material any better as I further nailed the lesson. Something was missing.
While I was perfecting my lessons, teaching strategies, and board work, I realized that I was constructing and refining my own understanding of the material and then forcing my students to understand it my way. No wonder they didn't learn learn better. They weren't constructing their own understanding of the material, they were trying to figure out mine. For some, it must have been like fitting a square peg in a round hole.
Fast forward several years and now I'm using problem based instruction to promote classroom discussion. Instead of showing students how I organize and make sense of the material, they are encouraged to make their own mental representations and connections. The primary vehicle to do this is through carefully designed problem sets that first tap into their previous knowledge, then introduce new material, and finally extend or challenge their understanding.
The key is to offer a just enough of a challenge so students have a chance to explore and investigate a problem before hearing explicit instructions on a possible solution. Ideally, there are multiple ways to solve the problems and this is what enriches the discussion. Students present their solutions and strategies to the class and a discussion ensues.
During class discussion, as a teacher, I'm on alert to dispel misconceptions but mostly I'm trying to understand their point of view and how to develop it further. Student to student conversation is encouraged and is usually where the magic happens. Often I find that many of the conversations around problems start outside of class and then continue when the problem is presented. As a result, students are usually well versed in the details of the problem and often simply want a nudge in the right direction.
When I lectured, it got to the point where I felt like I was the main character in a sit-com and the students were watching me on TV. My lessons and presentations got to be so polished that there were times I could look out over my class and see the same passive faces they make when watching TV. Something wasn't working...well actually I was working and they were not. Problem based instruction and discussion changed all that for me.
"Your only as good as your record collection." -DJ Spooky