Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Just Instructions

It's true, the worksheet I gave in class today was a little more text-heavy than usual. The first bit of text was almost four sentences long and contained important mathematical information. The general format of the worksheet was this:

-Approximately four sentences of text reminding them what we did yesterday and explaining how the picture below is a picture of what we did yesterday.
-Problem #1, asking students to draw triangles on the above picture
-Problem #2, asking students to write down relationships they noticed between the triangles they just drew.

I am not sure exactly what was confusing about this layout (I spend a lot of time thinking about layouts and formatting that make the content more accessible), but something told the kids, "It's okay, you don't actually need to read the questions." I think that in math classes in general, kids are used to seeing problems where they just know what they're supposed to do. They see an addition problem and they add it. They see a multiplication problem and they multiply it. They see an equation and know they have to solve for the variable. So it's a paradigm shift when they see a page where numbers and processes aren't clearly laid out for them. Because my students work in groups 99% of the time, the synergy of four students usually is enough for one person to ask, "Wait, what are we supposed to do?" Then someone realizes that they could figure this out by reading the instructions. It also helps (or doesn't help, depending on who you ask) that I answer at least half of their questions with, "Well, what did you read in the instructions? What does it say you need to do? Read it back to me. What does that mean you're looking for?" I even prompt every group conversation to start by someone asking, "Who wants to read?"

Getting back to today's worksheet, in 6th period (Lettuce) I came across one group that had skipped drawing the triangles and trying to answer the question about the triangles. Although I cannot say for sure, I'm pretty sure they skipped the reading part too. I checked in with them, asking how they could notice relationships between the triangles when they hadn't actually drawn any triangles on their paper. All three students in the group stared at me blankly.

Student: "What are we supposed to be drawing?"
Me: "What did you read? What does it say you need to draw?"
Student: "Where does it say we need to draw something."
Me: "In question 2. What did question 2 say?"
Student: "Oh, we skipped that. We thought it was just instructions."

Interesting. The fact that the text in question 2 was "just instructions" was exactly the fact I was trying to point out to them.

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