Picturing (and Questioning) the Ideal

Since second-guessing the whole concept of self-paced learning after beginning it with my students, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of anti-ed-reform blogs and all kinds of articles discussing the problems with competency-based education (CBE) and the kind of technology I was trying to embrace.

I find myself chastened, sure that I need to change things up and decrease the reliance on tech, and still utterly confused about what the “ideal” urban middle school math classroom in a high-poverty area should look like. I am pretty sure there aren’t answers here, and I find myself increasingly frustrated and defeated by the sheer volume of writing out there on both sides of the CBE/ “blended learning” divide and how few realistic, right now actionable solutions either side actually offers.

The gist of what I get from the anti-CBE side is that they believe public schools need to be fully funded and class sizes lowered to allow teachers to accomplish more personalized, person-focused work with their students. Great! I am all for that!

However, it is not the reality in which I operate every day at school.

It is not what I see my reality becoming anytime in the near future.

So what do I do with what I have NOW?

I’ve had an ongoing back and forth email conversation with a colleague in the math education world who is not a classroom teacher. When I first mentioned my plans for self-paced instruction, he wrote an email that included the following snippet:

To me, there is much more to mathematics than what can be incorporated in practicing a set of skills. In addition, in math, skills are often portrayed as decontextualized pieces of knowledge that aren’t related to students’ own lives.To me, math is an art, an ethos, a language, and something that should not be divorced from authentic problem-solving opportunities.

I sent back a lengthy response, which included:

In theory I would like to operate the way you’re describing, where math isn’t divorced at all from problem-solving. However, I don’t really see how that’s possible in the constraints/ structures that I have to operate in, particularly when my students are all over the map with their skill foundations.

I see the self-paced thing as a way to meet everyone where they are with skills and simultaneously free me up on a day to day basis to work fluidly and flexibly with individuals and groups. I haven’t figured out what that will lead to/ look like.

This email exchange was a little over a month ago. I still haven’t figured much out, except that the digital self-paced thing isn’t really what I really want my class to be like.

There are still aspects of it I like in theory and wish I knew how to incorporate in practice, like meeting students exactly where they are and being able to let students set their own pace.

As I said (understated, actually) in the email, my students are all over the place with their skill sets. For many of them, that means they lack a significant amount of the mathematical foundation that would be required to be successful in an entirely problem-solving based model. If success is tied to testing, that is. Which, unfortunately, it is in the world in which I currently operate.

So, here I am. Making another change in my practice. Spending time I don’t have reading and reading and reading. Trying to figure out what is best for the 65 seventh graders who cycle through my classroom every day.

For now, I have a lot of thoughts, but very few answers.

Thoughts About Things I Want to Happen in My Classroom

  • Students working in pairs or small groups on tasks/ activities
  • Students working pairs/ small groups at whiteboard stations, discussing mathematics
  • Students working independently on targeted practice/ problem solving
  • Students filling in gaps in their knowledge and understanding
  • Students engaged in authentic/ relevant/ project-based learning
  • Students enjoying problem solving for its own sake
  • Small group instruction and practice
  • 1-1 instruction/ support/ practice (peer-peer, student-teacher, maybe other tutoring supports?)
  • Abstract thinking/ problems and math for math’s sake/ because math is beautiful in its own right sometimes (not JUST “real-world” problems)
  • Math art/ creative implementation of mathematical concepts and ideas
  • Technology in useful ways (calculators, computers, graphing, spreadsheets, data; also for content creation and some content consumption)
  • Numeracy
  • Thinking about thinking (to a point)
  • Real, legit proficiency in math skills, to the extent that math skills support larger understandings and an ability to work with more complex topics and skills
  • Students responding to peers’ thinking, ideas, and work, likely in both conversation and in writing

Things That Are Shaping My Thinking


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