Many moons ago myself and Clint Hamada, @chamada, discussed how we could better prepare our middle school students for high school mathematics and other lucky disciplines that use it. The Algebra unit was finished and we were moving on, as you do, to the next unit. However, you know deep inside as you move on that some had not mastered the skills or the understanding, that more time would have really helped. Pacing and the differentiation of mixed ability classrooms has many challenges. We wanted to reach all the kids and ensure that they felt they had the mathematical muscles for high school.
The key, I believe, is algebra, the language we use to solve problems. Not so much being able to do a ton of problems, but to understand how it works, why the notation is helpful and not actually awful. If kids can do some algebra and apply some correct notation, then problem solving becomes easier. The different strands of mathematics also become more approachable. Those wily letters confuse students and have for an eternity. The little letter x can cause early heart disease.
Salman Khan explains it best, in his TEDtalk, with his bicycle anedote. This is the problem we were trying to fix, the Swiss cheese gaps of maths:
Salman: “… imagine learning to ride a bicycle, and maybe I give you a lecture ahead of time, and I give you that bicycle for two weeks. And then I come back after two weeks, and I say, “Well, let’s see. You’re having trouble taking left turns. You can’t quite stop. You’re an 80 percent bicyclist. “So I put a big C stamp on your forehead and then I say, “Here’s a unicycle.” But as ridiculous as that sounds, that’s exactly what’s happening in our classrooms right now. And the idea is you fast forward and good students start failing algebra all of a sudden and start failing calculus all of a sudden, despite being smart, despite having good teachers, and it’s usually because they have these Swiss cheese gaps that kept building throughout their foundation. So our model is learn math the way you’d learn anything, like the way you would learn a bicycle. Stay on that bicycle. Fall off that bicycle. Do it as long as necessary until you have mastery. The traditional model, it penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but it does not expect mastery. We encourage you to experiment. We encourage you to failure. But we do expect mastery.”
Watch the TEDtalk to see that The Khan Academy is now so much more than video tutorials. It has interactive exercises including hints and teachers get detailed data on their students. It’s like the worksheets, tutorials and thatquiz.org that was used to create the Algebra on Demand wiki, that my blog is named after, but slicker, prettier, better. It’s really exciting to see it come to life. Salman Khan says that games are coming too, which is all that Algebra on Demand tried to deliver. Clint has set up Google accounts for all of our Grade 8 students and I am using it with my IB Diploma Mathematical Studies students too.
The kids log in with a Google or Facebook account and then nominate a coach. My Diploma kids were first, before our Christmas break, so they have nominated myself and Clint so we can both follow them. They can nominate their parents and tutors as coaches too. When our kids move on to the next grade and teacher, they nominate them and the data follows them. Can it move from one Google account to another? I don’t know. This is a question for Salman and Bill Gates and Googlers. When international kids move on, they lose their old school email, so how they keep their data? These emails are the user names we use for Khan Academy Google accounts.
Homework for Grade 8 this week: watch the TEDtalk with their parents.
At first when my Grade 8 kids went on I wanted them to do the exercises on linear equations, but most started at addition, right at the beginning and then followed the concept map routes. Now I am very happy they did that. The Swiss cheese gaps are being filled. An all too common problem in international schools. I went to a lot of schools as a kid across hemispheres and continents. Having a birthday right in the middle of the year meant that changing schools was rarely linear with grade level progression. Grade four was a lot of fun, but there was no maths, grade five didn’t really happen and I missed half of grade six. I still HATE my eight times tables and don’t mind telling my students that. Perhaps I can utilise the Khan Academy too. My boyfriend does. I’ve told other mates about it studying post-graduate courses facing what they believe is the horror of mathematics again. I’ve been a fan of The Khan Academy for some time, but now it’s supersonic with more on the way. Free self paced education for those with access to a computer. Hooray for Salman Khan. And he used to do evil maths – hedge funds.
Will it replace what we do in the classroom? Impossible. Investigations and projects need a different structure, but I don’t see why we can’t provide a regular time slot to help prepare middle schoolers for high school and beyond. My work is done and I didn’t even do it. Nice!
Here is the wiki that came about from the early days of Algebra on Demand: http://algebraondemand.wikispaces.com/
Now I need a new name for my blog.