I've always been a fan of adopting sustainable patterns of change in my teaching practice. The rule of thumb I've always given myself is that I can change up to 10% of my teaching practice at any given time. The trick is that once that 10% is incorporated, it's time to try improving something else ASAP. I still believe in this. But some changes are so big that you can't just dip your toes in. Sometimes you've just got to dive off the cliff. Well, I'm standing on the cliff, getting ready to jump. Luckily, I've already got a couple friends who've made the jump and who are telling me, "Come on in. The water's warm!"
Spiraling through the Curriculum with Activity-Based Learning
I first learned about Spiraling when I met Alex Overwijk a year ago at TMC14. The basic idea is that you ditch traditional units and roll out the content of your course through activity-based lessons (with some fluency practice built in along the way, of course). At the beginning of the course, students engage in structured tasks that allow the teacher to 'unload' the content of the course. Some activities may span across several weeks while others may take a single day. The first time spiraling through the course, students are introduced to each topic but are not taught everything there is to know about the topic (like we do when we teach in units). Each time the class spirals through a topic, it is presented at a deeper level until at the end of the year, students are able to engage in activities that are more student-centered and stretch across multiple content standards - requiring students to select the mathematical tools and content knowledge that will best help them solve the problem at hand. Alex recently gave a talk at the Global Math Department on this topic which you can watch here.
This summer I kept bumping up against some research that backs up the idea of teaching through spirals rather than units. On the last week of the Park City Math Institute, we had a conversation with Dylan Wiliam in which he mentioned the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Let's say that you're teaching your students how to solve two-step equations. You present the lesson, give a quick formative assessment. Everybody understands. Awesome! You taught - they learned, right? Wrong! If this is the first they've worked on solving two-step equations, your students will forget the material almost immediately. Instead of being surprised by the fact that our students struggle to retain what we teach them, why not start designing our curriculum to account for it? Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve shows that the second time content is presented, it will stick a little longer. Even longer the third time and fourth time, until on the fifth introduction, there is practically no forgetting curve whatsoever.
When I first began working at my school, we had a much talked-about goal called 80/80, meaning that 80% of our students will master 80% of the curriculum. I was always uncomfortable with this goal. Exactly who are the 80% that we expect to achieve mastery? Does that mean that 20% of my students can master 0% of my curriculum and I can feel okay about that? Because I don't. The other issue I have is the use of the word 'master'. What exactly is mastery? If I teach my students something, quiz them on it the next day and they nail it, is that mastery? What if they forget it a week later? Is that still mastery? Dylan William would say 'No'. So would I.
The motto and catch-phrase at my school now is 'Show Me the Learning'. Those are words I can stand behind, but even that goal needs to be pushed a bit. At what point can I say my students have actually learned something? Not until it has been stored in long-term memory. When students are given the opportunity to learn something, then forget, then re-learn (a process known as interleaving), much more of that learning will eventually reside in long-term memory. Spiraling through the curriculum is the best example I have seen of doing this. And so I'm preparing myself to take the plunge.
Thankfully, I've had a bit of time to think about this and prepare. Inspired by this slide from Alex and Mary Bourassa's morning session at TMC15:
So there it is - my big giant goal for this year. Of course I have other goals like Debate in Math Class, Number Talks, Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces, Comments-Only Feedback, Music Cues and improving how I de-brief activities. I'm still trying to think through if/how I'm going to to do homework, how I can create extensions for students who finish activities early, and how I want to do warm-ups. But all of those goals and problems seem to be supporting actors to my main goal of spiraling my 8th grade curriculum. I have shared my plans with my administration and am grateful to have their support and enthusiasm.
Why am I sharing this? Do I expect you to join me? Not really; not yet. (Although if you'd like to join me, I'd love to chat with you about it.) It took me a full year of thinking and learning, collecting and organizing content-based activities to feel like I'm in a place where I can commit. And I'm only doing it with my 8th graders. Next year I'll be teaching one section of 9th grade Secondary I for the first time. I don't know the 9th grade content nearly well enough to take this kind of approach yet. I hope that some of the things I learn in my 8th grade courses I will be able to use with my 9th graders. And I hope that you will learn something and give me feedback to help me do this a little better.
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