Monday, January 31, 2011

Class 4: 1/31- Back of the Envelope/Students with Disabilities/Math Quiz

Today Dr. Petrosino began class by showing a video from CBS Sunday Morning called “Finding their voices: Overcoming Stuttering.” This video depicted youth with stutters and how they were working to become more comfortable with themselves. Afterward, he discussed with the class that as teachers, we do need to think about these kinds of issues that students may have. Typically, when a student has some sort of challenge or disability, there are two options: special education or mainstreaming. Many students who need more attention to help with their needs do not get it, and as teachers we need to be sympathetic to their challenges in the classroom. It is important for UTeach students to recognize that beyond any kind of moral or ethical responsibility they feel toward meeting the needs of individual students, they also have a legal responsibility to carry out accommodations provided by the district as best they can.

There is a lot of talk about differentiated instruction as a tool to meet the individual needs of students ranging from special education to gifted and talented. Some of the talk about differentiation is based on the pseudo-science of multiple intelligences and it does not have a great basis in science, but the idea is worth discussion so long as we avoid the popular press depictions.

Differentiation is based in the fantasy that we can make accommodations for all students, and that a teacher can orchestrate this type of classroom where all students are learning in an ideal modality. This places a large responsibility on the teacher. Many teachers approach gifted education in one of two ways- either giving the students more work, or giving them work of the next grade level. Many of the things we will talk about in PBI have been shown to have great efficacy in a gifted classroom and are not debated as strategies for advanced students, but the issue of whether or not it can be done with “normal” students is a hot-button issue.

Dr. Petrosino noted that it is in some ways difficult to help successful university students learn to be good teachers because to a large degree school was easy for them. Even if it wasn’t easy, UTeach students have likely bought into the idea that education is the route to success. This is fine when teachers have students like themselves, but most teachers will also be teaching students who for whatever reason have not been encouraged and welcomed by education, and who harbor negative feelings about school. It is difficult to deal with that tension when you are not from that background.

Today we also did two activities. First, we did “back of the envelope” problems (also called Fermi Questions) that require students to perform quick calculations based on rough estimates to answer a question. The class was split into three groups, and each group had a different question: How many golf balls fit into a school bus? How many years would it take for McDonalds to sell a mole of their hamburgers? How many miles of roads are in the US? The groups struggled initially with their inability to use any resources, but ultimately each group arrived at a reasonable answer and presented it to the class.

Dr. Petrosino discussed afterwards that these kind of questions call upon many different strategies on the part of the student, and could be very frustrating if done on one’s own. The students observed that these types of questions could be very illustrative of critical thinking skills, but would not make good standardized test questions. Dr. Petrosino shared with them that Bill Gates asked these types of questions to potential employees when staffing Microsoft, and raised the idea of what true 21st century skills are. There is a great deal of rhetoric about teaching these skills in schools, but these are not the types of things we are assessing. There is an inconsistency between the rhetoric of 21st century education and the reality of the classroom.

Before leaving, the students took a short ten question quiz over basic mathematical and astronomical facts, the results of which will be used in the next class meeting.

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