Normalizing Struggle

As part of the Top Global Teacher Bloggers / / Global Search for Education, this is my answer to this month’s question: “Normalizing Struggle”

Who talks in the classroom?

How many questions do students ask in a lesson? Some research says that zero-point-two. Further to this, most of the questions seem to be answered in less than one second. Most being yes-no answers. Teachers talk for 90% of the lesson!

In PISA (2016), students were asked about the frequency with which their teachers use student-oriented or teacher-directed strategies in their lessons. Findings indicate that today, teacher-directed practices are used widely. Across OECD countries, eight out of ten students reported that their teachers tell them what they have to learn in every lesson, and seven out of ten students have teachers who ask questions in every lesson to check that students understand what they’re learning.

It seems that we have still lot to do, not difficult changes, so that students learn to notice that success is a chance for everyone.

Photo: Maarit Rossi

Who cares about small mistakes?

How do we do a better job of encouraging their failures rather than punishing them?  The math lesson at school needs to be a very safe place to make also mistakes. At the best mistakes outcome discussions about different ways of thinking and the students learn to listen to each other. It’s a good experience to see that by making mistakes you sometimes learn even more than just using the traditional ways of working. If the mistakes are dealt with constructive ways, they can strengthen and encourage the students to try new approaches also later on. PISA (2016) showed that the students’ positive attitude towards mathematics and the trust to their own capability is connected with their ability to solve problems.

What can happen without practice?

Last spring you could read from the online-news that the field in Beach Volley SM-tournament will have 300 kg of sand. What? Yes, you read it right. After half an hour the text was changed. The field would get 300 000 kg of sand. Also this spring we read about Trump’s budget failure – 2 trillion’s mistake!

Mistakes made in the classroom are splendid grounds for pedagogical conversations. The mistakes that come up in media are totally another issue. They cause displeasure and shame for those who have made them – they might even involve difficulties at work. Sense of proportion and experience in dealing with large numbers would have helped to avoid this trouble.

Uncertainty area for teacher or for student?

We need to change lot of Math lessons teaching methods. So it is then more question of going to the uncertainty area of the teacher. Usually teacher is in front of the classroom, showing how to work with the new concept and students repeat similar ones in similar way. What if students are active and have possibility to test their ideas and do their mistakes as part of learning process.

Here one example. If you combine estimation and rounding you will get a good learning entirety. You can do it for example like this: Bring to the classroom different amounts of different objects, like paper clips, nails, macaroni, beans, cord etc. Then put the objects on different numbered desks, let the students circulate and estimate the amounts without touching the objects. They make marks on their estimation tables and round the amounts to tens, hundreds and thousands. All the members in the group have to come to a similar understanding about the estimated amounts. When they have checked all the desks every group gets one amount of objects to count. Now they have a situation where they have to negotiate to find a sensible way of doing that.

Photo: Maarit Rossi

This is a very simple way to create a situation where students have to practice co-operation, negotiation skills and how to find a good strategy. After then the groups write down the exact amounts and the other groups practice rounding again. Very often the students notice that the estimated numbers are often too small. They also notice that the estimated rounding and the rounding of the exact amount can give them the same result.

*OECD (2016), Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers … and how PISA can help answer them, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,