Thursday, August 20, 2015

Motivated by Stature

Many people measure their success by comparing themselves to others. If they are at the top of that food chain, they will feel a sense of superiority and will likely continue to do well with as much effort to preserve that. If they are at the middle or the bottom, they will likely withdraw over time as they’ll never be able to surpass those at the top.

Anything we do in our classrooms that feeds into that culture will ultimately harm all of our students. What is needed is a belief system where people are not defined by their class rank but where everyone, including those at the top, has potential to improve.

I made the decision this summer to switch to comments-only grading which I believe will help instill this belief. Students will no longer be able to compare their grades with other students to determine where they fit in this hierarchy. All students will be asked to extend their thinking, including my highest-performing students. However, quiz feedback is just one small aspect of everything I do in a classroom. I can’t help but wonder how many of the other interactions I have with students might imply that I value ability over effort.

My hope is that, throughout this coming school year, I will regularly reflect on how my interactions with students, which are often subtle, might help or hinder this outlook.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Spaced Practice and Repercussions for Teaching

I've been reading John Hattie's book, Visible Learning, in which he ranks the effect sizes of different strategies that help student achievement. One of the strategies that is pretty high on the list is that it is better to give students spaced (or distributed) practice as opposed to mass practice. In other words, rather than having a student practice something over and over again in one day, it is much better to spread that practice out over multiple days or weeks. (You can read one of these studies here.) The main benefit is that spaced practice helps with long-term retention.

While this research certainly gives some justification for providing students with multiple opportunities to revisit older topics, I am left to wonder if this should change how I structure my lessons and assessments. I, like many others, teach by units. My students might spend a month on fractions followed by a test. They then get a month of algebra followed by another test. We, as teachers, create this span of time when all learning about a particular topic must happen. We don't always give students the time to practice these ideas, particularly the more challenging ones that almost always happen at the end of the unit and right before the test.

Based on what I've read about spaced practice, I would propose that teachers shouldn't give tests at the end of a unit. Perhaps students need time to practice these skills over several weeks before you should assess them. This is something I'm going to explore this year with some of the concepts that were challenging for my students last year.

Note: This is probably not an original idea and I'm sure someone else out there has probably explored it. If you have any resources to share on the subject, I'd greatly appreciate it!

Another note: I do allow my students to retake quizzes which I had hoped would send the message that learning doesn't stop after the quiz is taken. However, very few of my students have taken advantage of this in the past. I am hoping to correct that this year with some ideas from Dylan Wiliam, Ashli Black, and others.

Update: Henri Piccioto has written about this and calls it "lagging homework". He also reinforces the idea that quizzing should happen much later then when the material was taught. Thanks to Mary Bourassa and Chris Robinson for helping me find his work!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Movie Popcorn

I ordered a small popcorn at the movie theater and the cashier asked me if I'd like the large size for only $1 more. I knew that this had to be the better deal, so I took it. I mean, what if I had gotten the small popcorn and ran out during the movie? That would be unacceptable.



However, as I left the theater, I noticed that I didn't actually eat all of the popcorn. There was about two and a half inches of popcorn left at the bottom of the bucket. I could take it home with me, but stale popcorn doesn't sound too appetizing and I decide to throw it away. Did I just get ripped off? Should I have just bought the small popcorn?



There's a couple of ways of modifying this task to address the needs of different grade levels. It all depends on what information is given to the students. If you can just give the students the number of cups of popcorn in each bucket, then this is a fairly simple unit price problem. If you just give dimensions of the buckets, you will need to derive and use formulas. It would also be extremely helpful to use a spreadsheet.

6th Grade Version:

Info required...


Questions to explore...

What is the unit price for each size?
What is the percent change in size, price, unit price?
What is the least amount of popcorn from the large container (in cups) you would need to eat so that you don't get ripped off? (This is not as interesting a question as the 8th grade version because you can't usually tell how many cups of popcorn are left in a bucket.)


8th Grade (or beyond) Version:

Info required...





Volume of a truncated cone:

You will notice that there is a little bit of popcorn above the rim of each bucket. There is also a small gap on the bottom of each bucket. I assumed that the added and subtracted volumes of this popcorn would more or less cancel each other out. I could be wrong about this!!!

Questions to explore...

What is the capacity of each size?
What is the unit price for each size?
What is the percent change in size, price, unit price?
How many inches of popcorn would be left in the large bucket if you eat just as much as the small bucket?
What is the least amount of popcorn from the large container you would need to eat so that you don't get ripped off? In other words, how many inches of popcorn can I leave at the bottom of the bucket?

The answer....

I'm not leaving my full solution here because I'm curious to see how others might solve it. Basically, I used a spreadsheet to test different heights of popcorn eaten to determine where the unit price of the large matches the unit price of the small. If you think about it, this is further complicated because as you eat popcorn, the height AND top radius changes. You will have to come up with a formula that calculates the top radius based on the height.

I determined that you get ripped off if you leave more than two inches of popcorn at the bottom of the bucket.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

My Grudge with "Grudge"

I'm flying home from Twitter Math Camp near Los Angeles, and after successfully figuring out how to steal the airplane's wifi, I decided to write another post. This is what I do. I go to a conference, get inspired to contribute to the MTBoS community, and write a blog post. You must understand that once I get home, all motivation to do such a thing will be lost. That's what Netflix would like me to believe anyway.

There is one contribution I've made to the online community that has received a lot of good feedback from students and other teachers. This is a game called Grudge. I gave a survey to my students at the end of this year and asked them what were their favorite things were from my class. Grudge was near the top of the list. ("Mr. Kraft" was at the very top of the list, of course.) 

There is no question in my mind that it is a review game that engages almost all of my students almost all of the time. I also feel that I present it in such a way that students seriously consider their answers and are eager to understand their mistakes. But there is a problem with the game. On occasion, students will team up on other students, and while it is not always expressed, I do believe that feelings can be hurt. As Matt Vaudrey once expressed in a tweet, it hurts the class culture. It promotes competition instead of collaboration.

I've learned that any activity I use in my class should not only be engaging and promote academic growth, but should also encourage students to be respectful to one another.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

What the hell is mean absolute deviation?

When I first started looking at the Common Core standards for sixth grade a couple of years ago, admittedly, there was one standard I had to do a double-take on:

6.SP.B.5.C: Giving quantitative measures of center (median and/or mean) and variability (interquartile range and/or mean absolute deviation), as well as describing any overall pattern and any striking deviations from the overall pattern with reference to the context in which the data were gathered.

And, like many of my colleagues, I thought, "What the hell is mean absolute deviation?" My horror was confirmed when I googled it and saw how complicated it would likely be for my students.

Looking in some textbooks and online resources, I was continually left wondering why my students would even care about mean absolute deviation. I mean, you do all of these steps, you get a number, and then what? What does mean absolute deviation tell you?

I figured that the only way my students are going to have any access to this would be to compare different data sets, make a quick judgement about which one has more variability (which can be very subjective) and find some way of quantifying that variability. On top of that, I wanted my students to create their own data where the goal would be to have the least amount of variability.

I then remembered the "Best Triangle" activity I did with Dan Meyer. In this activity, Dan asked four teachers to draw their best equilateral triangles. (Notice that Andrew and I have points in our nostrils.)

Rather than having the students evaluate the teachers' triangles, I had them create their own. I started the lesson off by asking the students to draw, what was in their mind, the perfect triangle. Immediately, there were several hands that shot up from students who wanted some clarification, but I told them to just do what they thought was best. After a quick walk-around and throwing some random triangles up on the document camera, it seemed that almost everyone was trying to draw an equilateral triangle. A few students argued that a right triangle could be considered a perfect triangle and I admitted that my instructions were very vague and their interpretations were justified.

We then brainstormed all the things we should look for in the perfect equilateral triangle. Students agreed that we needed three equal sides and three equal angles. They then made a second attempt on the whiteboards to draw perfect equilateral triangles. I asked everyone to make a quick judgement about which triangles they thought were the best, but soon ran out of time for the day. After the students left, I quickly took pictures of their triangles and took measurements in millimeters. (Admittedly, this is something I would have preferred having the students do on their own, but my class time is unbelievably short...37 minutes.)

The next day, I told my students that I took those measurements and found a way to rank all of the triangles from all of my classes. Next, I showed them the five triangles which represent the minimum (best), first quartile, second quartile, third quartile, and maximum (worst) of the data (in order below). This was a nice way to show a sample of the triangles as my students had just finished learning about box-and-whisker plots.

When I first showed them these triangles, I asked them to figure out which triangle represented the maximum and the third quartile. The other three triangles were not easily identified, however, we noticed that if you reorient the triangles so that one of the other two sides was on the bottom, the inferior triangles no longer looked equilateral (leaning to the left or right).

I explained that ranking these five different triangles didn't provide too much difficulty, but I was confused how to rank triangles that looked very similar. I gave the three following triangles as an example and had students vote on which one they believed looked the best:


In each class, there was a lot of disagreement about which triangle was the best, and more often than not, the majority picked the wrong one. I then provided the side lengths of each triangle (above in millimeters) and asked the students, "how can we use these measurements to rank these three triangles?"

After a few unproductive guesses, someone usually asked to find the differences between the measurements, which lead to someone else asking to find the sum of those differences or the range. They notice that the ranges for each triangle are all 20 mm. Someone usually calls me out for doing this intentionally...which I did.

Next, somebody will ask about the mean of the numbers. I act dumb, as I do with every suggestion, and we explore that possibility. We find the means, and it would seem that we have again hit a dead end.

I have say that at this point, some classes were completely stuck, and some kept going with it. For those that were stuck, I told them that to me, the mean (157 mm for the first triangle) represented the side length that the triangle drawer had intended for each side, but sometimes he or she fell a little short of that goal (149 mm), or overshot it (169 mm). I then asked them to compare each drawn side to "the perfect side length". We found the differences of each length and the mean, and soon after, someone suggested finding the sum of those differences.

At this point, most of my classes were satisfied that we found a method of comparing the triangles. We just had to look at the sum of the differences from the mean. The best triangle was the triangle that had the lowest sum. A couple of classes even went one step further to find the mean of those differences. In reality, there was nothing wrong with either of those methods. However, the second method WAS THE MEAN ABSOLUTE DEVIATION!!! When I first started planning this lesson, never did I think my students would intuitively come up with this concept.

This was the first time I've taught this lesson and I realize that there was a lot more I could have done with it. Given more time, I could have had students work in groups to come up with their own methods for determining the best triangle (similar to Dan's lesson plan) and we could have compared the methods later.

Side note: Dan says that "the best solution is to use the fact that an equilateral triangle is the triangle that encloses the most area for a given perimeter". Sixth graders are not at a point yet where they can find the area of a triangle just given the side lengths, so some other solution was necessary. Technically, my method is flawed because it favors smaller triangles. If you double or triple the size of a triangle, it doubles or triples the mean absolute deviation. This is noticeable in the data as smaller triangles were preferred. A better method would have been to compute the percent differences from the mean, but this would have greatly complicated an idea I was just trying to introduce for the first time.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Minecraft and The Coordinate Plane

I explained to my students today that my son forces me to play a game called Minecraft and sometimes we bury treasure chests for each other to find. I pulled up the map below and asked my class how they would describe the location of the treasure.


Students suggested a bunch of very vague directions:


  • It's in the desert.
  • It's where the snow and the desert meet.
  • It's next to the large pond.
  • No, I didn't mean that pond. The other pond.
  • Go northeast, then dig.
None of these directions were that helpful. While some of the more detailed ones could have gotten me closer to the treasure, it's still difficult to find it unless you have the exact location.

Enter the coordinate plane. Some students were familiar enough with the game to know that x-, y-, and z-coordinates are given to you on the map. (They were cut off on my original picture.)
Of course, my students weren't exactly sure what those numbers meant, but it didn't take long for them to see that these values were simply directions from the origin of the map (white crosshairs) and they would provide the exact location. 

I particularly liked this introduction because it created a need for the coordinate plane (Dan Meyer did something similar here).

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I'm Crushing Your Head

Yesterday, I e-mailed my favorite estimation guru, Andrew Stadel, a question about estimating and collecting data. He said I should share my insights with the rest of the world. So, for the dozens of you who read my blog, enjoy!

The other day, I wanted to start easing my sixth graders into estimation (before diving into Andrew's estimation180.com), so I put this up as a warm-up:


For most of my students, this problem caught them off guard. It seemed as if no one has ever asked them to guess the length of something. Some were confused about what I was asking and it was apparent in their answers. I made a line plot for each class and noticed that about 80% of each class thought that side B was 24 inches...as if I was referring to some archaic property of rectangles that says that the longer side of a rectangle is twice the length of the shorter side. Only a few students in each class even got close to the right answer (which I've put at the bottom of this post).

After we talked about some estimation strategies such as using your hand as a guide (see picture below) and identifying lower and upper limits of reasonable answers, many were eager to try another problem. As each of my classes is only 37 minutes in length (crazy, right?), I told them that we could try another one the next day.

"I'm Crushing Your Head!"

So, here's the problem I gave them the next day...



And sure enough, their guesses were much more informed. As with yesterday's estimation, I made line plots for each class's data and we could see that many more students were closer to the right answer. As a class, we felt that progress was made.

And then came the beauty of the line plot itself. For every class, I asked: what do you notice? In one particular class, we noticed that the data points were spread out. In another class, we saw that we had outliers. In another class, we saw that somebody guessed 18 inches, so they really must have been thinking that the rectangle was a square. In another class, we noticed that the data was skewed to the left or closer to a bell curve. In many of the classes, we noticed that students typically underestimate (which I'm very interested in understanding why, but I'm not going to delve into that here).

Later in the day, I noticed that the data from one class was very similar to a previous class. So I put both data sets up, and all of a sudden, we weren't just evaluating different students' guesses, but two different data sets. Finally, I added a third set, and we started having discussions about which class guessed the best. And the kids were really into it and coming up with some interesting ideas about how to determine the best class.


And I thought, this is awesome. Not only are my students driven to become better at estimating, but now they're looking at using math to help figure out if they're getting better at it and if they're better than somebody else. (They're downright vicious when you throw a little competition their way.)

By the way, the answers to the two estimation challenges are: The first rectangle is 12 inches by 32 inches. The second rectangle is 18 inches by 26 inches.