Friday, November 22, 2013

Baby steps

There was a good discussion recently on Twitter about complex tasks and why many teachers and students shy away from engaging with them or give up in frustration and return to low-level tasks.

I think that we can all come up with reasons why it's difficult for many teachers (including myself) to move out of their comfort zones and implement rich tasks in their classrooms. I am also interested in figuring out why students would resist complex tasks. @MathEdnet blogged about the various reasons that complex tasks can empower students by giving them more control and a voice as mathematicians and doers. The idea is that working with rich problems allows students to see their knowledge as valuable and themselves as active users of such knowledge. In implementing such tasks in the classroom, however, I have often seen student frustration and discomfort with the change in expectations from previous classes or from how the class had been functioning. This is sometimes especially true for students who care about their progress the most and who have certain ways of doing mathematics that have worked for them in the past that no longer work in a framework of complex problem solving. For these students, complex tasks appear confusing, unfamiliar, and an obstacle to their goal of doing well in the class. It can feel very frustrating to the teacher, especially if she hopes that implementing a complex task will increase student buy-in and engagement. Everybody is unhappy.

There are many ways of working on this issue, I think, and each is unique to the particular confluence of school, teacher, and group of students. Some teachers have big enough personalities that they can persuade students to trust them and step out of their comfort zones through sheer awesomeness.

Not a teacher, but would probably be an awesome one.

Teachers like me who have a hard time not being liked by our students and are not inspiring enough to get everyone to drink the Kool Aid come up with more gentle approaches. Baby steps, if you will. I have been working on a mix of traditional and complex instruction that takes students from the type of work that they're used to doing in math classes and gradually, inserts some open problems, starting with smaller tasks that are worked on in class and give students plenty of supports to hopefully build on more and more rich problems as students' comfort level increases.

I am, by no means, amazing at this. I definitely give tasks that are too open for students to handle and they freak out. Or alternatively, too many low-level tasks, which undo some of the work I've put into pushing them past that point. But this is the type of thing that is really, really hard to learn to do. Or, at least, it is for me. It's not something that is part of a graduate course or can be picked up by watching a lesson or two taught by a master teacher. And I have certainly never seen a pre-made curriculum that does this type of nuanced dance between what this particular group of students is comfortable doing and something that's just a bit outside of their comfort and ability zone so that they feel challenged and interested, but not overwhelmed and frustrated or bored and disengaged. So. My point. I did have one. I feel like lots of us on Twitter are stabbing away at this teaching thing, but with different tools, personalities, and kids. And it's easy to feel frustrated that I'm not doing amazing open tasks every day with my students or month-long cross-curricular projects that empower and engage them to the utmost.

Wait, this isn't what your classroom looks like every day?

But, I'm working just outside of my comfort zone and pushing my students to do the same. Baby steps. But progress, nonetheless. And I'm confident that y'all are doing the same, in your own way.

So coming back to the original question - perhaps what I'm hoping for is more recognition of baby steps and meeting people where they are, both teachers and students, to help them make small, but noticeable progress, as a way out of the cycle that @emergentmath described.


  1. This is exactly what I was needing to read this week as it is exactly where I'm struggling at the moment. My last few days before Thanksgiving break were rough. Admittedly, the looming break may have played a role but the students were well past their comfort zone and I do not have the personality to sell it. I'm using this week off to take a breath and go back to the drawing board by thinking in terms of baby steps. I don't want to pull back into my traditional teaching comfort zone, because...well, frankly, it's not that comfortable for me anymore. I need to keep pressing on, but I need to figure out ways to do that gradually so that the pushback from my students is less fierce.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Yay!! So glad this was useful to you :) And great job on continuing to push yourself!! This stuff ain't easy, that's for sure. I know that your students appreciate all that you are doing for them.