Saturday, January 5, 2013

Doing Less

One major area I want to work on is getting kids to think more on their own.  Instead of teaching them a skill and then giving an activity to practice the skill, I've been trying to move more in the direction of giving them the task first and then giving them the skills as they work through it.  I feel like this is more realistic.  It's a real struggle with some of the kids though because it's not what they're used to.

So as an introduction to an upcoming project I planned to have them find the cost to put new flooring in the classroom.

I started on Wednesday with a small task on unit conversions.  We discussed feet vs yards and square feet vs square yards and used some proportions to convert some measurements.

The next day they were going to work on the classroom task.  I started to create the activity and was going to make something that would guide them through it. Tell them to draw a diagram, space to fill in the area of the room, space to do the work to calculate the cost, etc.  I rethought it though and scaled way back.  The task is a fairly simple one though and I wanted them to have to think more and problem solve.

So instead, I gave them two things.

1) The task
Very simply stated.  I told them what we were going to be doing and had them think about what we would need to be able to figure it out.  For each thing that they said they needed to know, they had to write how they could get that information.

They did well on this and I really enjoyed watching them have to think and problem solve.  Even kids that are fairly low knew that they would need the measurements of the room.  Just for fun I then had them text their answers to to collect what they wrote.

2) The supplies
Once they decided that they would need to know the area of the room and the cost of the flooring, I gave them this:

rulers, yardsticks, tape measures, and four different flooring samples

and said go.

For the most part the kids had fun measuring.  Some of the kids that work with work with measuring often took charge and made the other kids their assistants.

A couple things to note:

  • The tape measures are 25' long and the room is longer, so they weren't really that helpful
  • Each tile in my room is a square foot so really all they had to do was count tiles and use a ruler to measure the partial tiles
I didn't tell them either of these things though, I let them figure it out.  Initially someone in each period ran for the tape measure thinking that was going to be the easiest only to realize it wasn't all that useful.  Some kids started to measure in inches and I did suggest to them that feet would probably be good to use.

Once they found the area in square feet they picked from one of the four flooring samples I put out. They really got a kick out of the actual samples. Originally I was going to have them calculate all four costs, but instead just told them they could choose whatever they wanted.  Some of them said they were going to go high end and did the most expensive hardwood while others said they were broke so they were went with the hardwood lookalike vinyl.  It's fun for me when they have fun.

Now to make things slightly trickier for them I gave all prices in square yards.  I loved that almost all of my kids picked up on that and realized they were going to have to do some conversion at that point.  I was actually shocked that almost none of them complained to me about the price being in square yards or asked me what to do.  They just looked at it and did what they needed to do as if it was no big deal.

What was even cooler (to me) though was that some kids divided their area by 9 to turn the area into square yards while others divided the cost by 9 to turn the price into square feet.  Clearly both work and I loved that by leaving little direction on the task, they were able to solve the problem in whatever way made sense to them.

One girl solved the whole thing herself with no help from me or anyone else and was SO proud of herself.  She said she couldn't wait to go home and tell her mom and grandma.  Seriously, how adorable is that?

After finishing their work and having me check it, they started work on the next part.

The focus on this part is in the explanation and showing work.  When practicing open ended writing I like to try (at least in the beginning) on keeping the task fairly unintimidating.  The measurements are the same as the classroom so they weren't immediately scared off because they knew what they were doing.  The two prices are different from the ones they used in class though so the answer is not exactly the same and this one includes the extra twist that one price is in square feet and one is in square yards.

As far as doing the math, the kids did fantastic.  I was driving them nuts though because I was insistant upon good explanations.  A page full of calculations was not enough.  They needed words so they would keep trying to hand it in and I'd send them back to keep working.  It was pretty interesting because some kids that I have that are usually at the top of the class struggled big time with their answer because they aren't used to explaining.  Others that usually struggle did a phenomenal job because it was a task that they were comfortable and familiar with.

I also wish I had a picture, but on Friday I had a couple kids that still couldn't fully grasp the idea of converting between square feet and yards so I took masking tape and taped off a square yard in the classroom so that they could physically see the 9 square feet (tiles) in there.  So when they were confused I made them go look at the square yard to help understand the 9.  One kid told me that he really likes my class because of stuff like that.  He said that most teachers would have just told them to use 9 and then made them do it.  

So overall my experiment in giving them less worked out well.  The trick with doing less though is to make sure to provide them with very strategic framework.  By now I know my students very well so I have a very good handle on how much help to give each kid and how much to make them do on their own.  It's a very delicate balance though, because giving a kid a task and just telling them to do it on their own has the potential to really frustrate some kids to the point of shutting down and giving up. So I think the challenge is to create tasks that give kids the freedom to think on their own but to also be prepared to provide enough support for the kids that need it while also keeping them challenged.

As a sidenote: I'm pretty sure my kids think I'm crazy for how many of the flooring free samples I took. They don't believe me that they were free.  Especially since I told them that I made like 3 different Home Depot trips and filled up my purse each time.  Seeing how into the samples they are, I think it was all totally worth it.  One kid wasn't quite happy with the hardwood selection though and requested Brazilian Cherry so of course I had to go back to get that for him. I think it's cute that he was that into the task to even care that much.


  1. Very cool! I am going to borrow this for an intro to Perimeter, Area, and Volume (culminating project is designing a house). I've had them research flooring in the computer lab, but doing the hands-on activity is way cooler.

  2. I love the fact that you used square ft and square yds. I am going to do that this year and I love the masking tape to show them why we use nine.

  3. I laughed out loud at your student who loves Brazilian Cherry! So cute! And you're sooo sweet to go back to Home Depot to get that for him.


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