This is a continuation of my previous blog post, where I recounted what I learned from this past year’s National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference in Washington, D.C. In the first post, I compared my NCTM experiences to a nearby museum. In this one, I compare them to an opportunity granted to HMH employees.
Not knowing what it would involve but craving a classroom experience, in late 2017 I signed up for an HMH class titled “Learning Creative Learning.” It was a survey that extended over six weeks; it covered Mitchel Resnick’s research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focusing on “creative learning” and was planned around his just-published book Lifelong Kindergarten.
His central thesis is this: We teach kindergarteners by having them play and explore in playgrounds and classrooms and on computers—and we should teach everyone, even adults, using the same general approach. Playgrounds are replaced with electronics, art supplies, and public spaces, but the principles and benefits of open-ended play remain the same. This way of framing education was new to me. Resnick’s research expands on these ideas. In particular, he lists four Ps as guidelines for developing creative learning:
Projects and Peers
I lump the first two Ps together because projects—especially classroom projects—are rarely developed or completed in isolation. This was clear throughout the NCTM conference, where I noticed a variety of sessions offering different perspectives on how students can best work together on projects:
- One session examined the difference between using patterns and using structure in math. The speakers—an assistant professor and a public school teacher outside of Boston—described a subtle theme between them: They both eschew the answer and focus on the process. The learning benefit of a project comes from an effortful attempt, especially if it’s a failure.
- In another session, an Illinois high school teacher explained how he has learned to best help a group of students who are stuck on a task: give the smallest amount of instruction possible, then walk away.
- The same teacher made another claim that surprised me: Only give examples for a math idea when it’s necessary. He argued that when we give examples, we focus the learner’s framework of the math in too narrow a way.
The third P, passion, can be a very elusive creature in a math classroom. Part of fostering creative learning and getting students to explore independently requires latching on to topics the students do care about. Some care about math—don’t get me wrong—but an awful lot don’t. Nearly 50 percent of first and second graders report at least medium levels of math anxiety, according to one 2014 study. At the conference, I kept an eye out for ways to connect math with topics the learner is passionate about and noticed two major trends.