Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
If you are an avid follower of my blog, you know by now that content isn't something that I talk about often, if ever. It's not because I don't believe content is important. Students should be able to add fractions, know what a plant requires for growth and survival, and be able to locate China on a map. These things come up in real-life. But all a 21st-century student has to do to find out where China is located is pull out their phone and look it up. They don't need me for that.
What students need from teachers, in my experience, is guidance in developing 21st-century skills. I am an experiential learning and project-based learning educator. These approaches to learning are built around the idea that you acquire content knowledge by using these important 21st-century skills. It is the process of acquiring content knowledge that makes an impact, not the content itself. You learn about plant physiology by making observations, asking questions, problem-solving, making mistakes, trying again, accepting feedback and reflecting. Students discover the content by communicating and collaborating with community members, creating, and sharing using the latest technology, etc.
Applying this philosophy of learning to math is where I have always struggled. Let's put it out there right now. I'm not a math teacher. I have had to teach math because I'm a PBL advisor. It's part of the job description. Math is so content heavy and much of what we're required to teach, I feel, is irrelevant to the real-world. Not long ago a vlog series on Instagram caught my eye. A high school math teacher was posting videos on all of the ways he considers 21st-century learners in his classroom. He is hugely talented at incorporating the latest technology into his curriculum, and his students seem to love it. Math!!! Right?! Who knew. So, I tracked him down and asked him to give us some pointers. Check out his thoughts below and head to his Instagram page (@geraciedu) for more videos and insights from a 21st-century math teacher.
Tony Geraci Bio: I am a fifth-year high school math teacher. I work at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT. I currently teach 3 sections of Algebra 2 Honors, one section of Foundations of Geometry, and one section of Foundations of Algebra. While finishing my degree and getting certified to teach, I worked in elementary schools as a paraprofessional and a substitute teacher. Until this year, I also coached baseball for 5 years and girls’ basketball for 10 years at the high school level.
Disclaimer: My perspective is as a secondary education teacher. The elementary and middle school classes, I think, are moving in the right direction. By nature, they deal with the whole child and not just the academic version. For some reason when they get to high school, teachers tend to turn to ranking students rather than developing human beings. I do not want to do the dirty work for colleges. I want to improve the child sitting in front of me. If that is not your cup of tea, then that is also ok. I just want everyone to reflect, and make sure that they feel what they are doing is what is best for their students.
What can you do as a math teacher to BEST serve 21st-century learners?
1. Don’t hide behind your content.
Teachers used to be the sole gatekeepers of all information. Before the internet, if a student did not pay attention in class they would have to deal with the natural consequences of their choices.
Fortunately, that is not the case anymore. The advancements in technology has made information readily available and at our fingertips. It is not fair to judge students solely on their retention of facts and procedures. As teachers, we get upset when students don’t ‘get’ what we are teaching, when in fact, it could be the least interesting thing happening in their lives. Whether we like it or not, there are many more things happening in their lives now than ever before. If the only value that you are bringing your students is your content knowledge do not be surprised if they tune you out. Only students who are compliant will be the ones that engage. I would rather have students who are empowered than compliant.
What I do:
On day 1 of the school year I tell my students two things that usually grabs their attention. One, I don’t care about the math I am teaching. Two, I don’t care about their grades. Heads that are down looking at cell phones or staring out the window usually perk up fast. Now that I have their attention, and hopefully yours, let me explain. I tell them that I am not naive, and I have checked my ego at the door. I understand the reality is that 95% of the students I teach Algebra II will never use what I teach other than in an academic setting. It is just a fact. I am not sure how many jobs require students to use the quadratic formula to find imaginary numbers. Be transparent with your students. They see through the bullshit and your ‘real world’ problems. By being upfront they respect you much more.
2. Create lessons and activities with the human in mind, not content objectives.
As recently as 5 years ago, I saw curriculum stored in binders in the math office. When I asked what I will be teaching they gave me a binder and said follow the worksheets. If you were lucky to have enough textbooks, then teachers would follow textbook content in the order they found most effective. Then teachers would focus on how to best teach the kids content. When test time rolls around, students perform poorly and teachers say, “They should know this. I taught them how to do it."
It is more of the same. Content standards have become the big focus. They have given teachers a macro outlook on what students will be taught and when. “I can” statements or lesson objectives have also been the flavor of the time. Everything is focused on the content and not the student. There are “lessons” online that teachers can borrow or pay for, and many of these lessons focus on teaching the content, not the human that is learning the content.
What I do:
Conceptually, I try to think of how I can engage the students by changing the focus of the activity from the content to the skill. I take traditional, unengaging class time and flip it on its head. Rather than practice mathematical skills with a partner all the time I have a couple of go to activities.
Don’t try to be like anyone else, just be yourself. I am not saying don’t borrow ideas from other teachers, but everything should have your own flair added to it. It should be based on what your kids need and what they enjoy. These ideas are meant to give you a framework. Tailor them to your content, but don't forget about the needs of your students!
3. Be in the present but keep your eye on the future.
It is well known that school was designed to produce factory workers. Listening to the teacher translated into listening to a boss. Following directions and being compliant in school translated into being compliant on the job. It was great for what it was designed for. Unfortunately, the world has changed exponentially, and education hasn't followed suit.
While changes and improvements have been made, it is still not enough. The world is changing too fast. We are at a crucial transition period. There is a younger generation of teachers that have new, fresh ideas that engage students in different ways, but there are still many veteran teachers that don’t want to let go of the power or change the way things have always been done. Additionally, the overall structure of education focuses too much on test scores. We test on material that is irrelevant to the success of students as people. The SAT does not test work ethic, creativity, collaboration skills, or most skills that are needed in the workforce.
What I do:
Be aware of what is happening in the world. We are in the prime of a technology revolution, very similar to the industrial revolution that education was designed for so many years ago. Technology is making our lives more convenient. Convenience is KING/QUEEN!! It is going to be a race to make our lives as convenient as possible through technology. Things we don’t even know we need will be created and introduced in our lives, just like current technology. Who knew we needed apps where you can order almost anything and get it in two days. Rather than focus on teaching students academic skills that will never be applied to their actually lives (example: factoring quadratics), change that focus to life and personal skills that can be applied to all aspects of life.
4. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
If you try something and it flops, then it flops. If you can reflect at the end of the day and feel comfortable with your effort and execution, then you should be proud of yourself. I have tried many activities to try to engage my students that they thought was terrible. It is what it is. Do not let anyone judge what you are trying to do. The only people that matter are the students in front of you. A couple times a year I give my students a survey to get a feel for what they like and don’t like about my teaching style. They are brutally honest. Those surveys remind me that I work for them, they don’t work for me. I need to keep them happy and engaged if I want my message to be delivered effectively.
5. Do things that aren’t in the curriculum that you know are important.
Regardless of the class I am teaching, I always find time to fit in financial lessons. With my Algebra II students it is usually during our exponential growth unit. We talk about saving money with compound interest vs. saving, mortgage interest rates, car depreciation rates, the stock market, taxes and anything else they ask about. At times, the concepts are well above their heads, but they appreciate that fact that I am teaching them something ‘real’.
I hope this post makes you reflect on your practices. Please don’t think I am here trying to tell you what to do. This is what works for me, my personality, and my students. If you can ask yourself a couple questions to get this reflection process going, ask: Why am I a teacher? What do I want students to take away from my class? If I saw a student ten years after they were in my class, what is one thing I would want them to say they learned from my class? I wouldn’t want them to say, “Yah Mr. Geraci, I never forgot how you taught me how to find the vertex of a quadratic”. I don’t think many of you would want responses to involve your content. Don’t we all want to have a lasting impact on the person? Then why don’t we teach like it?
Thank for reading! Check out @geraciedu on Instagram, and @GMath_LSM on Twitter. Click on any of the links below go directly to Tony's videos on Twitter and Instagram.
Video: Probability that we can hit the shapes on the board.
Video: Student Input
Video: Why I started vlogging
What do you do to serve 21st-century students in your math classes?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.