Posted by: groupact | August 22, 2016

Compelling Lessons

Nicole Hansen had an intriguing post this weekend about what makes a lesson compelling.  I think she summarized the need for compelling lessons nicely in a tweet linking to her post:

I like that she focused not on the practical benefit of student engagement, but rather phrased engagement as what her students deserve.  I agree completely.  My students generally work quite hard trying to balance school, activities, and teenage life.  They deserve a course that is compelling filled with lessons that are compelling.

Of course the big question is how to make that happen, and that is why Nicole examines the question of what makes a lesson compelling which she breaks down by what “type” of lesson it is.  I will just add a few thoughts both to the general question of what makes math compelling, and to her specific framework…

  • Different people may differ on what they find compelling, but one can still strive to tell a story that most would find compelling.  I have the best chance of doing that if at the least I find the story compelling.
  • It also helps to know one’s audience.  I try to know my students’ interests in general, and their interests in mathematics.  I frequently ask them (both in class and through homework surveys) what they’ve found interesting or not so much, and what they’re curious about learning more about.  This is also one of the many benefits of the noticing/wondering framework.
  • Stories are compelling.  This is captured in the idea of conflict which Nicole quoting Daniel Willingham starts her post.  It is the idea of Dan Meyer’s  “Three Acts”.  It is also the idea of Graham Fletcher’s ShadowCon session: “Becoming a Better Storyteller.”
  • Fletcher in particular notes that the story structure goes beyond just an individual lesson, and extends to the progression of ideas across a year and even beyond which is why he encouraged everyone to read the progressions.   I  have had some success in making dimension a theme/thread that runs throughout my 9th grade math course which I believe help makes the course more compelling.  (I’ll note that Salvador Daliand Madeleine L’Engle both found the concept of higher dimension compelling).
  • I agree with Nicole (and Chris) that debatable questions can be quite compelling.  One source for that can be definitions.  For example, “Is a line parallel to itself?”  Students are shocked to learn that there is no right answer…it depends on how we choose to define parallel lines.  The real debate is over what choice to make, and that requires some discussion about  what is so important about the concept of parallelism.
  • That raises a factor that can arise in questions and problems.  Ideas or solutions that are surprising/shocking can be quite compelling.  An example of such a problem is the wheat and chessboard problem.

I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this more as the year progresses.  Thanks Nicole!



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