Thursday, April 25, 2013

Whiteboarding wins and fails

Now that whiteboarding (my posts on it here, here, and here) has become a full-fledged part of my classroom, I wanted to reflect on how it's been going. So first, the successes...

Whiteboarding wins:

  • Student cooperation and engagement in group activities has been kicked up a notch. I thought that I was doing fine with structuring group work and encouraging student engagement and participation, but whiteboarding has really increased cooperation and discourse between students. There's something about having one person write for everyone that creates more investment in the process and final product. A white board also encourages larger and clearer writing, making it easier for everyone in the group to see and participate.
  • All students have to demonstrate understanding and it's harder to hide or have one person do all of the work. When groups present or when I go around the room and talk to groups, I pick students at random to explain their group's thinking. Rotating the marker between group members also help keep everyone involved. 
  • Kids love to get picked to show their work and work harder to make their thinking more explicit and clear.
  • It results in greater perseverance and willingness to try crazy things - something about the ease of erasing makes kids more willing to take risks and get messy with a problem.
  • Kids get used to asking questions of others' work and disagreeing with their process politely, and I am seeing this carry over into non-whiteboarding work.
  • Students really like it, and it lends itself to other activities & structures that allow it to continue feeling fresh and exciting.
... and now for some failures...

Whiteboarding fails:
  • Annoyingly, kids are still uptight about making mistakes and having errors publicly attributed to them. Even after playing the Mistake Game, kids were still getting upset and unhappy with each other when unintentional mistakes would get exposed in front of the class. I had one incident where a group of boys exploded with accusations about whose fault the mistake was and had to talk to them out in the hallway about their behavior. Kids still find it embarrassing to be wrong, which I am finding frustrating. Like, how many times do I have to say, "This is the awesomest, most interesting mistake ever! We are learning so much more from it than we would from the "correct" approach!" before it sinks in? When I would ask groups to present, kids would still anxiously ask "but is it right or wrong?" Right now, I'm working around this by putting up boards with mistakes and having the class give feedback without attributing from which group the mistake came, but I'd like to get to a place where students are actually comfortable with their errors and aren't embarrassed by having them publicly discussed.
  • Kids are still kind of bad at asking questions rather than just pointing out the mistakes. Or their questions are really just statements with a lilt at the end: "Should you get 8 when you square 4?" 
  • The boards are sometimes hard to display if the group wrote too small, and the whiteboard is too big to stick under the document camera. My workaround has been to take a photo of the whiteboard and send it to the projector where I can zoom in on their work. Hopefully, their writing will get better as we continue to use whiteboarding regularly.
  • Students would like to have notes they can take home, and whiteboarding does not lend itself to that. I thought Bowman's post on giving students time at the end of a period spent whiteboarding to reflect and write down some notes was really great, but it's hard to find the time for this what with going over homework, whiteboarding, and student explanations of their work, all of which must fit into a 45 minute period, 4 days per week. I've thought about taking photos of their whiteboards and putting them on our class webpage and perhaps asking them to do some reflecting and summarizing for homework, but haven't actually followed up on this.
Overall, I am really happy with how whiteboarding has gone this year!!


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Anna! I've not gotten much of a chance to do whiteboarding, as none of the teachers I work with are into it, but it sounds like it's done a lot towards the goals of getting kids comfortable agreeing and disagreeing, sharing their thinking, asking questions, etc. I'll have to share this post next time a teacher asks me how they can get their kids having better math discussions.

    One thing I wondered as I read about the making mistakes issue is if different kinds of mistakes feel different and require different kinds of questioning? So for example, I hate making arithmetic mistakes, and do it all the time. When other people spot them, I like to just be told, "yo, sqrt(27) is not 3!" And it stings, no matter how nice the other person is! On the other hand, when I misinterpret a problem, or don't really understand how an operation works, I like to be asked about what I was thinking, so we can figure out together what question I did have the right answer to, and why this is not that question.

    I wonder if working as a class to classify different kinds of mistakes you see on the whiteboard and having students journal or discuss in pairs how each mistake feels and what they like to hear when they make that kind of mistake would be fruitful?

    I've also started wondering lately what it would be like to banish the word mistake, except in the context of brain farts where you totally knew better but screwed up anyway. Any mistake where you don't know better could be thought of as the answer to a different question, or the logical result of your current way of thinking. It doesn't need to be corrected, just clarified and compared to other ways of thinking. What question are you answering? What do you think is happening in this case? How can we decide if that matches what we already know or breaks math? I don't really know how kids would take that reframing, but it does help me find more creative ways to respond to students who have thought hard and yet come up with a wrong answer.

    1. Feelings in math class?! Are you mad? ;) I like the writing/discussing idea of what you'd like to hear and try to think of applying that to others, Max.

    2. Oh!!! Love the suggestion of classifying different mistakes and having students reflect on what type of feedback is helpful!

      In terms of reframing the conversation and not using the word "mistake," any suggestions for a better word to use in that case? Thanks so much for the feedback!!

  2. My workaround for the first fail you list is to change the rules a bit for the mistake game. I tell them they should have AT LEAST one mistake, but no more than 3. That way there can be a little bit more gaming of the system and they can try to be sneakier. Also, if they make an honest mistake and didn't realize they made it, they can play it off as, "Oh yeah! That was TOTALLY one of our 3 mistakes. You caught us." It also makes the "audience" students stay on their toes once they find a mistake to double and triple check that there aren't others.

    1. Thanks, Dave! They are actually totally fine with making and showing their mistakes when we do the mistake game, it's just not carrying over into "regular" whiteboarding mode where we are just working problems and mistakes are unintentional. I guess I could put them into mistake game-mode more often, but is it wrong that I just want them to get over the stigma of making an unintentional mistake?