Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why I "Taught" Math in a Social Studies Class (Thank you PBL)

I used to be one of those people that loathed math. I was taught (like most kids) that math was a series of procedures and steps. Plug numbers into an equation, do some stuff the teacher said, and get the answer in the back of the book. One tiny misstep and the whole "problem" was wrong.

I never knew why I was doing the monotonous routines I repeated day after day. I never understood the concepts of dividing this number into that number, or substituting that variable for another. I just did what I was told. There was no room for debate (and boy do I like to debate) or creativity. This made math boring to me. This made math puzzling to me. It didn't help I received stupid grades for it, math class was always my lowest mark.

How I often felt as a kid in math class

While things didn't click in math class, I pored over statistics. My favorite statistics related to sports. I loved trying to unlock the numbers of performance. I obsessed over batting averages, E.R.As, and shooting percentages. I studied baseball cards and figured out career totals. I found the world of percentages astounding. What did a percentage mean? How did percentages relate to probability? What was the difference between statistics and probability? When I learned about the gambler's fallacy, my mind exploded.

Closer to the present, I started messing around with computer programming. I played around with geometry as an art form. I read how math is a beautiful and creative philosophical endeavor. I saw that math was all around me. I am no longer scared of it or intimidated by it. I just lack true practice.

I see some of my own struggles with math in my students. Math is taught to be a "different" way of thinking, a complete stand alone subject. We fool ourselves into thinking math is something you do for 50 minutes a day. We think there is a time for math. This special time usually comes with big textbooks and a multitude of "practice" worksheets.

I think project based learning (PBL) can help change this. Well designed projects are interdisciplinary by nature. To complete a well framed project, or challenge, students encounter all sorts of classic subjects working together. Their relevant learning adventures bring them into contact with the whole host of disciplines. Let me give you an example.

We spent a good portion of the year in my eighth grade Social Studies class on a community improvement project. Students grappled over the essential question of how they as citizens could improve local communities? Their mission was to identify a problem in the community that THEY felt needed fixing. Then the students created and presented realistic solutions to city council members and the community at large. The end result was inspiring, and one of the high moments for me as a teacher (blog post in the works). The students prepared themselves as experts, and our local councilmen were astounded by my students' expertise, composure, and professionalism. Through the process, a couple groups struggled with, wait for it, math.

Group 1: Unemployment rates

One group identified unemployment as a major problem in our community. The students told me they had family members who could not find work. The students also admitted to hearing a lot about unemployment in the news. As we worked through the problem of unemployment, it became very clear to me that this group was definitely engaged, but also having difficulties with the statistics they found. The students brought me research with state unemployment rates and community unemployment rates. Unfortunately, they had no idea what those figures meant.

"It's just a percentage," I would say.

They responded, "Ohh yes, of course."

I pressed them, "What does this percentage mean?"

"Ummmmmm, well, ummmmmm."

"How many people out of a hundred don't have jobs?"

"Ummmmmm, well, ummmmmm."

I have no doubt that many of the students in that group aced this math unit in years past. I am positive the math teacher explained the idea of percentages over and over again. But did it mean anything to them? Was there any context to the previous work?

No and no. The students probably learned some steps and some rules. They repeated those on a test. When faced with percentages in the real world, they were as indecipherable as ancient Greek.

So I became a math teacher. We worked through examples. We studied historical trends. We figured out how many people might be out of work if this percentage were true. When those students got on stage to present their ideas, they explained to the entire audience what an unemployment rate meant. They learned math through a social studies project.

Group 2 Mean and median income

Another student group started their work investigating how medical debt crushes families. Through their research another problem emerged. They discovered the horrifying nature of payday loans. I was so proud of this group and how the process of the project allowed for deep learning and iteration. As the students poured over their work, they noticed mean and median income statistics for various communities. They wanted to know what these figures meant. Why did some communities have high or low incomes? What was the difference between mean and median income? Was there a relationship between income levels and debt?

Once again, I know the students have repeatably gone over mean and median in math class. Mean and median is a repeating topic. Students seem to go over it every year. The issue is that they had never seen it outside of math class. Or maybe the students had come across mean and median outside math, but they didn't realize it connected to what they learned. I worked with the group to go over a bunch of examples. I gave them real problems, meaning students used conceptual knowledge to connect the dots and test solutions. By the end, the students were so enthralled by the relationships between mean and median income to other issues that they didn't want to end the project.

In the real world, problems do not come in prepackaged boxes. A mixture of disciplines and thinking is necessary to truly understand complex issues. Project based learning helps students understand this inherent reality. It breaks down the notion that math can only be done in math class, or social studies can only be done in social studies class. PBL builds interdisciplinary confidence.  PBL helps break down the notion that one is good at math or bad at writing.

Perhaps this idea would have helped a young kid who loved baseball statistics.

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