Simple steps toward real learning.

Today’s adventure: The Golden Arches Challenge.

After 10 years of teaching, it should come as no surprise to me that kids are expert at gaming the system to their educational disadvantage.  They commit to memory exactly and only what they need to for a test.  When it comes to applying knowledge in new and creative ways, students often stumble and don’t know where to begin.

This is a huge problem with math education, and much of the blame lies with over-paced curriculum, over-committed kids, and teachers, myself included, who have historically enabled this behavior from students by giving assignments and assessments with lower-order thinking skills and predictable questions.  In my own classroom, I am working to change this and Desmos has been an invaluable tool in this pursuit.

Where can we make changes?  The pace of curriculum is often only minimally negotiable, given that math courses build on the knowledge of previous courses, and that course content is often driven by decisions made much higher up (CCSS, for example).  As for over-commitment, I cannot influence how many outside activities my students engage in, nor do I want to.  I genuinely value the time my students spend pursuing interests like acting, singing, sports, and art.  Add to that the need for time spent with friends, and it makes total sense that many students optimize their “math time” to memorize what is needed for the test and nothing more.

The main thing we as teachers CAN change, is the design of our activities and assessments.  We can quit enabling memorization-style learning by crafting creative assignments that require students to engage with the material on a much deeper level.  Desmos is an amazing tool to make this happen more often in the classroom.

Here’s one recent example from my classroom.

Golden Arches ChallengeThe last week and a half, I worked on function transformations and piecewise functions with my students. We did some Desmos activities that were tied into what we were learning, some notes, some worksheets, a little of everything.

When  the quiz came, the students were ready.  But they were in for a surprise, because after the quiz, I gave them another tiny, but graded assignment: The Golden Arches Challenge.

The beauty of this assignment is in its simplicity.  It was easy to make and it’s a big enough step outside of quiz-style questions that it really made the kids think.  All I gave them was a Desmos-ified version of the McDonald’s arches with no grid behind it.  Their job was just to make as close a representation to this shape as possible.

Holy cannoli, the panic!  I’m exaggerating a teeny bit here, but some of the same kids who successfully navigated really difficult transformations problems on a quiz were asking questions like this minutes later:

“I don’t know how to get it to graph a curve!”
Why don’t you look on your review assignment, I’m sure you had some curves like that on there. 

“I don’t know how to move it over there”
Didn’t we learn how to shift functions? 

Those panicking students absolutely had all the tools to do this, they just didn’t believe they could.  So I gave them a week.  And you know what? A week later, the kids came up with awesome looking graphs.  Once they figure it out, it was kind of fun for students!  These are the sort of activities that move students out of their comfort zone and into the realm of real learning.

BTW: Marbleslides is an awesome set of activities that encourages thinking outside the box for transformations.  Check them out!



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