Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Tag: students (page 1 of 1)

How to build an apathetic student body

Here are some of the ways you can ensure your student body is apathetic.

  1. Ignore student voices in important decisions in your schools.
  2. Put up work on the walls students have done for teachers instead of student messages.
  3. Ask for input from students, but make the process nearly impossible or highly exclusive.
  4. Decide that some students have a voice (perhaps because they have a good GPA) but that others don’t.
  5. Blame the students (or their parents) when they are having difficulty learning your course material.
  6. Require students to learn stuff about which they have either no, or limited, choices.

If you watch the video below from TEDxToronto, you’ll see that these very practices are at play in our political spectrum as well.

What do your student interactions look like?

Here is what my teacher and student interactions looked like when I first start teaching.  Notice a problem?

Teacher in Centre

The first problem was that I was overworked because I was doing ALL of the work in the classroom.  The second problem was that I could only ever help one student at a time, and when I wasn’t in the middle of helping a student, they weren’t doing anything because they were waiting to be helped. Sounds like a pretty unproductive classroom if all but one of your students is off-task at any given moment.

The next thing I tried was reversing the arrows, and putting the onus on the students to ask questions when they had them.  This looks something like this.

Students asking all the questions

It’s slightly better than the first scenario because sometimes the students won’t ask questions (even if they need to) and you won’t feel so busy, but it still means that all of the interactions in the classroom have to go through YOU.  It also results in less student engagement as they wait for their turn to ask YOU a question.

I thought about this problem, and rearranged my classes into groups.

Teacher helps groups

The problem here is the same as the first example, except that I help 3 more students in my first round than before, and I get through the whole class faster.  It was a bit better, and one of the things I noticed from this trial helped me design a better plan.  Students naturally helped each other after I had left, so that I often could make sure that some of the people from each group got the concept, and then they would help the other students from their groups understand.  It has a flaw, which also happens in the technique I tried next.

Teacher distributing work

The basic premise here is, teach three students, they teach three students, and so on, until everyone understands.  Quite often I’ve noticed that one student will help 4 or 5, or that a single student will be helped multiple times, etc… but basically you are distributing the work through the class. However the flaw I discovered with this technique is that I am still at the start of the process.  Remove me, such as when a substitute teacher is in charge of the class, and no one can get any work done because the students don’t know where to start.

This is a little bit better.

Now at least the students will ask each other for help, and even occasionally other groups and the amount of effort you have to put into running this classroom is less.  Replace the teacher, and it will almost work.  It has other flaws, such as if two members of a group are absent on the same day, you have to rework your groups, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but stable groups during the year work a bit better.  I know I’ve heard advice about switching up the groups, etc… but let’s be honest, how often do YOU switch up who you work with?  About once a year right?  So do the students really need practice working with different people?  I’m less convinced than I used to be. This classroom has its own issues and I’m not convinced that it is really ideal either, but it is a good place to start, especially if you lack the technology to do what I suggest next.

Here is the classroom I have been building over this year, and plan to continue building for next year.

The first advantage of such a classroom is that I am no longer a central figure, and that I can be replaced in this diagram by a substitute teacher and everything will still work.  The second advantage is that the students no longer have a single contact for resources.  They are each nodes in an interconnected class and have the ability to self-direct their learning.  The services in the centre are there to connect the students and allow a far greater variety of resources and ideas to be shared within the classroom.

As an exercise for yourself, try and create a diagram of your classroom interactions.  Which classroom structure do you think works best?

What building strong student relationships can do for you


When I first started teaching, I worked at a tough school in Brooklyn called "The School for Legal Studies."  I moved to NYC just before I started working, so I felt lucky to have found an apartment a couple of blocks from the school.  The people I worked with mostly thought I was crazy to live in the same neighbourhood as our school, but to be honest, it really wasn’t that bad of a place to live, except possibly for the hundreds of 6th legged "roommates" with whom I was always at war.  It had some fringe benefits as well.

The most immediate benefit was that I had a very short trip to school.  I could roll out of bed, shower, and throw on some clothes and be at the school in 10 minutes.  This meant I had a bit more spare time available to me and I needed all of it, starting teaching was a very time-consuming task for me.  It also turned out to have another fringe benefit, something that never would have occurred to me.

In the middle of my second summer in NYC, I lost my roommate and realized I was going to need a new place to live.  So I looked around and found another apartment which was still close enough to school that I could walk, but was a lot nicer looking.  I rented a U-haul van and arranged for a buddy of mine from school to come and help me move my stuff.  I parked the truck in front of my house and had just opened up the back to put in a box, when I heard a voice behind me say, "Yo! Mr. Wees, what up son?"

I turned around, and saw 8 of my students standing behind me on the sidewalk.  It wasn’t that unusual for me to run into students from my school in the neighbourhood, many of them lived near the school too.

"Mister, you movin’?  Let us help you," said one of the boys.  10 minutes later, every single one of my boxes and pieces of furniture from my apartment was carefully carried from my apartment and placed gently in the truck.  They wouldn’t let me lift a finger to help them, "We got it Mr. Wees, you lay back," they told me.  The students didn’t ask for a thing for their help, but I gave them some money to buy a couple of pizzas because it was near lunch time.  They wandered off happily, and just after they had left, my friend showed up.

The reason those students helped me was not because they thought they had something to get out of it, but because I had built a strong relationship with them over the previous two years.  They respected me, and saw me as someone who respected them.  We really had nothing in common at all, I was from a small island off the West coast of Canada, they were kids who grew up in the more dangerous parts of Brooklyn.  This didn’t stop me from building a solid rapport with them and I know it was a large part of why I was successful in the classroom.

Student assessment choices

A student of mine recently was interested in finding out if a selection technique another teacher uses to choose a random "volunteer" was in fact fair.  One of the teachers in my school uses a simple finger game to choose a student who then has to be the first person to do their presentation.  Each student puts up between 0 and 3 fingers, the total number of fingers is found, and then the teacher chooses a person (usually someone in the corner of the room) and starts counting out students, until the total number of fingers up is reached.  This is supposed to be a random way of selecting a student, my student wanted to verify that this is in fact true.

He did a bunch of research on probability theory, learned about tree diagrams, conditional probability, and a few other more advanced probability techniques, all with the aim of understanding the notion of random selection.  He came to me for some help, and with about 30 minutes of discussion, we outlines a method for solution, with the idea in mind that in fact the random selection technique is not fair.  It turns out that in the two player version of this game, odd numbers come up more often than even numbers, out of 16 possible outcomes, odd numbers come up 8 times, even numbers 8 times, but one of those even numbers is 0, which if it comes up has to be discarded and the process restarted.  If there was agreement that one was going to add one to the final answer, and include 0 as a possible response, perhaps this game would be fair.

He also observed that each possible outcome for each student doesn’t happen with equal frequency because of human selection bias, and moreover that some students will tend to always choose the same number.  Given this additional information, it seems clear that this technique is far from random.  The student plans on writing up his analysis of this idea and presenting it to the teacher to open a dialogue about his practice.

Students need freedom to explore these kinds of ideas. At the end of the year we will be doing a unit on probability, and I have agreed that if the student writes up an analysis of this problem and submits it, I’ll use that analysis as his assessment for our unit on probability, regardless of whatever other projects I have planned.  His project definitely fits within the sphere of probability and is more advanced than what I plan on covering, so why not use it?  Clearly he is demonstrating his understanding of the concept.  If we provided this amount of flexibility in all of our courses, it seems clear to me that students will benefit.