Adaptation #1: Much more careful scaffolding (UPDATED)

Today, I’d like to begin a series of blog posts called “adaptations”–these posts will try to capture some of the things that I have to do (or that I will do) differently because of my new environment and/or clientele.

Adaptation #1: I have to be much more deliberate and prescribed at setting the stage for to students to successfully complete a task.

At my college, I routinely assign tasks that are ambiguous, require multiple steps, or require collaboration to my students. They are an amazing bunch and usually complete these kinds of tasks with no problems. I tell them what I want, why I want it, give them the necessary content knowledge to do the task, but usually I don’t have to tell them much about how they are to go about doing it. I knew that I couldn’t do the same thing at high school, but I didn’t realize the degree of scaffolding that is required for teaching high school students. I still probably don’t fully understand yet.

Here’s an example. This morning, in my third period Algebra 1 class (which is now stuffed with students, many of the faces being new) we spent most of the period working on a task from the CPM Algebra 1 textbook involving naming points on the coordinate plane. The task is built around a moderately elaborate story problem about a farm and trees. The trees are arranged in a grid and students are asked to refer to specific trees using (x,y) coordinate notation. Before the activity, I reviewed some terminology relating to the coordinate plane (x-axis, origin, coordinates, etc) and we did a few examples of naming and locating points on the plane.

Students struggled with the activity, but not with the math so much as with reading and following instructions. I thought I had given enough scaffolding for the task by going over the necessary mathematical content knowledge, but I didn’t realize that I would also need to guide them on how to read and follow instructions. Frankly, I think there were too many words on the page and many of them just didn’t want to read or didn’t know what to read. Most of the time, students asked “What do I do?” I had to constantly tell students to read some specific part of the handout and that I would return when they could ask me a more specific question.

Students also frequently answered “Yes” when I asked them if they had read the instructions, even though it was clear through their questions that they had not read the instructions. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t know how to read something carefully or if it’s that they are looking for me to just tell them what to do.

I think what I should have done was to explain, before handing out the task, that there would be instructions and that the instructions should be read carefully before doing the problems. Perhaps I should have asked a student to read the instructions aloud so that students with reading difficulties could at least hear it once. Perhaps I should have demonstrated what careful reading looks like (underlining important words or phrases, rereading a sentence until it makes sense, referring to a figure or diagram when it’s mentioned in a sentence).

If I remember to do this in my next class, I’ll try to report if that made a difference.

UPDATE: During the next class period, I modeled to the class how I expect them to read instructions. I emphasized that reading something mathematical is different than reading a Harry Potter book. It seemed to work as the students seemed to be much more successful on the task this time. I still had some students who were not on task and wanted me to just tell him what to do, but I was firm and made them read the handout to figure out what they needed to do.

2 thoughts on “Adaptation #1: Much more careful scaffolding (UPDATED)

  1. Sorry it has taken me so long, but I’ve finally figured out where the blog is 😛

    Your point about demonstrating “careful reading” real hit me as it is part of something that I have always taken for granted, but come to realise in my time teaching undergrads is not actually that widespread…I’m not actually sure what to call it, but I’ll elaborate with a story. In my first year at high school we went away on “camp” but instead of it being all about having fun and going canoeing or whatever, it was about “learning how to learn”. We had what I now realise were college/uni-style lectures on learning techniques. Things like how to read text books effectively, how to take notes in a class, how books are structured and why (for example why does my math book have 50 questions on the same thing), mindmapping, structured bullet points…all that kind of stuff. I now realise how useful this was, especially when you talk about it with someone who either still doesn’t know about these things, or who learnt about it in their first year business lectures or something.

    So I guess, the point is I know the pain and this is something that I even struggle with when working with undergrad math students, especially engineering math students who really have no idea why we made them pay $150 for a copy of Adams or Anton Calculus!

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