How do teachers improve their practice? This is a question I have been asking for my entire career (over 25 years). During the past year, I was involved with a group of high school teachers, coaches, administrators, and researchers working on how to scientifically study how to improve. In our case, the focus was on improving student engagement, specifically in Algebra 1. Since this is seen as such a gateway into high school mathematics, if we cannot help students to engage, we are narrowing their future opportunities. So we tried this new (to me) approach called a PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act). You set a goal, decide how you will measure your progress toward the goal, make some predictions, collect the data and analyze it, then revise. These are meant to happen in short cycles, 1 to 2 weeks.
What did we do?
My small group focused on student communication. Students often seem reluctant to share their thinking, so we devised a protocol called “Structured Math Talk” during which students were given a task to work on individually for a few minutes and then turn and talk with a partner. The partner talk was by turn and timed. One partner talked and the other listened and then they switched. This is our first PDSA form. It turned out to be quite challenging to gather this data. We were teaching under different circumstances: some of us had 55 minute classes that met every day, some had 80 minute classes that met every other day, and others had 90 minute classes that met every day. Trying to figure out the right amount of time that constituted that 1 to 2 week cycle was a challenge. (Plus, I often forgot to have students complete the exit slips.) But, it was clear that our students were compliant. We asked them to talk about math and they did. We were concerned, however, that they were only talking to each other because of the structure we imposed. Would they continue to share their thinking with each other even when we weren’t watching? This was our revision for PDSA cycle 2.
Our data was showing so much success that we questioned our entire process. Are we asking the right questions on the exit slip? Do our students understand the questions on the exit slip? Are we using the right kinds of tasks? Are we asking our students to engage in meaningful mathematics? So, we paused. We went to the ATMNE 2015 Fall Conference together. We read. We learned. We regrouped and refocused on the idea of productive struggle. That would feed the conversations, get our students to persevere, and push us to make sure that we were providing meaningful mathematical tasks.
What did I learn from this experience?
- It’s difficult to document the small adjustments that teachers make every day, all the time. It’s difficult to be scientific about those small changes that happen in the moment. It’s important to develop a mindset of doing this, however, because that is how we can help each other improve.
- I’m not sure we were asking the right questions. Not the right question to study, not the right questions of our students, and not the right questions to help us learn.
- My students are generally willing to engage in whatever task I throw at them. It was never a problem for me to get them to talk to each other or to try something that they had never done before.
- This process is an adaptation of Edward Deming‘s process cycle. My brother has done this work for 30+ years and is an expert in Lean management techniques.
The small group has expanded and we’re now known as the Better Math Teaching Network. Our first meeting is in July, a 4-day institute where I hope to share my new learning with others and learn better techniques for meaningful data collection. The trick, I think, will be to ask the right questions.