Friday, December 14, 2012

Learning how to learn

One of my absolute favorite things about teaching is watching kids learn something.  And by learn I do NOT mean taking tests.  I'm so over tests actually.  I don't want to give them anymore, or grades really...but that's a whole other story for another time.  I mean actually being able to watch a kid do something that they weren't able to do before.  And it's the coolest thing ever when I know for a fact that I helped to make that change.

I've been working really really hard all week with my student I talked about on Monday.  When I have a kid that is having serious trouble I think it's extremely important to think about the why.  What exactly is going on with that kid?  Where exactly is the disconnect happening?  For awhile I've been watching this kid. And I try to watch everything because it's all clues into what's going on.

This kid in particular hates math.  Hate may not even be a strong enough word honestly.  It makes him visibly angry.  When he does math alone I can literally watch the anger build up and it kills me because I think he's such a great kid.  I noticed awhile ago that he gets less angry though when I'm near him.  When I'm at his table he'll talk through the problem to me, checking if each step is correct.  But what I noticed was that I wasn't really helping all that much.  He would start an equation and say, "so I add 2x to both sides..right?" and I would say, "uh huh."  Or he'd make a mistake and say, "so now I subtract 2?" and I would say, "say that again...what was that?" "I subtract 2..oh no wait, I add."  I wasn't giving him answers or steps, he was figuring them all out on his own.  I would eventually tell him that he was doing great all on his own and then I'd move on to another table.  As soon I was gone he'd forget what to do and make mistakes get angry again.  By the end of the period he'd be so angry that even a normal conversation was a lost cause.

I was discussing this with another teacher because I thought it was so interesting.  Why could he do it when I was near him but not when I walked away?  I wasn't really even helping him.  She said he sounded like an auditory learner.  Duh!  Why didn't I think of that?

So I started to watch the kid keeping that in mind.  When he looks at problems and tries to process them in his head he freezes.  The longer he sits there, the more I can visibly watch the frustration build. I almost went about it like an experiment.  I would let him try and then eventually just ask something simple like, "what are you thinking?" or "what do you think the first step might be?" and when I got him talking all of a sudden he would remember.  I would start him talking and then just stay quiet, but in the area.  So he thought he was talking to me, but really he was just talking himself through the problem.  I also tried to keep watch of other non-math related things and how he goes about solving problems.  He talks and is very very good at explaining things that he is knowledgeable about.

So I shared this with him.  I told him about the things that I had noticed and that I had a suspicion that he was an auditory learner, which meant that he processes things best when he hears them.  He agreed that he is really good at remembering things that he hears.  The next day I pulled up a website that I had found and just had him read through the following list to see if anything sounded familiar:

Look over these traits to see if they sound familiar to you. You may be an auditory learner if you are someone who:

  • Likes to read to self out loud.
  • Is not afraid to speak in class.
  • Likes oral reports.
  • Is good at explaining.
  • Remembers names.
  • Notices sound effects in movies.
  • Enjoys music.
  • Is good at grammar and foreign language.
  • Reads slowly.
  • Follows spoken directions well.
  • Can't keep quiet for long periods.
  • Enjoys acting, being on stage.
  • Is good in study groups.
Surprise, surprise..he said that actually sounded exactly like him.  So for the next couple days I spent a lot of time working with him and paying extra attention to getting him to talk himself through problems.  I also made sure to make him aware of this.  I would point out to him when he talked himself through something.

And then today something so cool happened.  During class the kid sat down and attempted the work along with everyone else.  He called me over for the first one just to check that he understood what to do correctly.  He did.  So for the next couple ones I stood in the vicinity so he could feel like he was talking to me (even though he wasn't because I was doing nothing).  He was doing -2 squared in a problem and I heard him talk it through and end up at the right answer.  (The majority of the class did -2^2 in their calculator and got it wrong)  Eventually I walked away.  I looked over though and he was reasoning through the problems by himself out loud!  He took what I had told him and used it to help himself.  It was soooo cool to see.  And to know that I did that.  And get this...the kid that usually struggles did the best in the class.  Better than kids that usually do much better.  I actually ended up using his as the answer key because he finished first and with no mistakes.

I told him that next week I'd actually like to do a little experiment.  I want to have him take a test under regular testing circumstances (quietly) and then have him retake the same test talking.  I don't know what will happen, but he agreed so I'm really looking forward to seeing what how it goes.

The thing is though that so many kids genuinely do not know how their own brains work and we really have to help them.  They NEED to know themselves and understand how they work.  I really think that teaching is not just about delivering a lesson.  Witnessing learning is not about having them get a good grade on a test.  Witnessing learning is watching that kid understand how he processes information and use it to his advantage.  It's watching him use my suggestion to do something he's never done before and have it actually work.  This week he learned how to learn and that's cool.

We need to know how to make learning happen and in order to do this we need to know how their brains work.  I feel like this type of help can be SO much more valuable than any math help I could ever give.  How cool is it to be able to give the tools to help themselves??  To watch a kid be able to do something they thought they couldn't do and know that I helped to do that??  Sure it takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort and dedication, but's just about coolest thing in the world in my opinion.  It's really my favorite part of the job.

I also told him that I don't plan to give up on him...and that can be pretty powerful too.  He told me that he had already given up, so it didn't really matter all that much.  I just smiled and said oh well, because I still have no intention of giving up him and that's that.  I told him I'm just crazy like that so he'll just have to deal with it.  I also know for a fact that this kid will put forth more effort for me than anyone else because he knows that I'm willing to put forth effort for him.


  1. Hi Sarah, Just wanted to let you know how much I look forward to new posts on this blog.

    I'm a 2nd-year Algebra 1 teacher in San Antonio, Texas. Each one of your posts gives me new ideas for engaging activities, classroom organization, or how to interact with my students more effectively. I based my own version of the "Equation-Solving" challenge off of your recent posts, and my students loved it--and improved tremendously at solving multi-step equations. We also used your "HOY VUX" graphic organizer on horizontal and vertical lines in class.

    Keep the posts coming, and THANK YOU.

    --Dave H.

    1. Thank you so much, you have no idea how much it means to hear that. I feel like everything I do has been the result of years of trial and error so I am so glad to be able to share my ideas and experiences in the hopes that it may save someone the time :)

      How did your equation solving go?? I would absolutely love to hear what you did and how it went!!


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