The Secret Sauce of Great Lessons

A constant thought that came to mind in every session I attended at the 2018 NCTM Annual Meeting & Exposition was, “how am I going to be able to take everything I’ve learnt and actually use it to improve my own practice?”. The short answer, I feel, is that I’m not going to be able to, but that’s not going to stop me from trying!! This is my first post about what I learnt at the conference. It’s possibly the most important one for me.

A common theme throughout the entire conference was this:

The teacher plays a critical role in orchestrating meaningful learning opportunities for students.

This is what I call the “secret sauce” to great lessons, and it has to be homemade. That is, the teacher has to make the task, lesson, or activity their own through the way they teach. Dan Meyer shared a John Mason quote, which I feel captures this beautifully:

            “It is the ways of thinking that are rich, not the task itself”

In Dan’s session, we looked at the possible reasons behind the mixed success people have had with the popular task, Barbie Bungee – a task that I have run multiple times with students from Years 7 to 11. I could really resonate with the sentiments that prefaced the direction of Dan’s talk, as I would often question whether my students walked away with the mathematical learning I had intended them to achieve for that lesson. Engagement was never an issue because I mean, who doesn’t like playing with dolls?

The more Dan unpacked the type of thinking students were required to do in the task, he encouraged us to strip it back and “un-compress” the task. An MTBoS-er absent from NCTM this year, Fawn Nguyen (@fawnpnguyen), indicated that she loves the task and generally has great success with it each time. She mentioned that at the start of the task, “take away the math… for now”. Doing this allowed students to immerse themselves in the problem first and bringing in the maths throughout the task, enabling the task to be a “full stack” lesson. Framing this type of lesson as a worksheet and handing to students can, as Dan described, compress the lesson, overwhelming the students. Without all of the prompts being handed to the students at once, the teacher can help students build the learning experience progressively, supporting students to more effectively question, estimate, err, recall, compute, verify, undo, and repeat. See below for images Dan used to help explain this:

What I really took away from this was the importance of making tasks work for your students and, perhaps even more importantly, work for you. This is what I think makes great lessons – a teacher’s ability to provide their students with truly rich learning opportunities through adaptive pedagogy and a strong commitment to pursuing the curiosity of their students. Said in many forms in most of the sessions I attended during the conference was the notion that if a student can say it, you don’t. Implying that you shouldn’t steal an opportunity from a student to lead the learning of the classroom. Being strategic about when and how you use students’ thinking to help develop the understanding of the entire learning community in your classroom is a critical part of this.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that this is the secret sauce of great lessons. The more often teachers do this, the better the sauce becomes. It has to, however, be homemade. My own pedagogy, although initially inspired and impacted by Dan Meyer, has elements of many other teachers as well as my own personality and relationship with my students.

To take the analogy to the next level, one cannot just assume the sauce will make all dishes great. A task, I feel, is like a known combination of ingredients. Making the ingredients into a meal trough the facilitation of a task can can be good, however, I argue that it’s the sauce that makes it great – what brings the potential flavour of the meal to the next level. What I mean to say here is that although a task can be handed to a teacher to teach, it takes a deliberate and intentional effort to bring the students’ thinking to the floor through purposeful questioning and listening. I’m increasingly becoming aware of the important role I play in ensuring students are getting the opportunity to drive the inquiry and the different ways I can become more successful in fulfilling this role.

In real life, when people have a secret sauce, they can’t resist putting it on everything! This is what turns good tasks into great learning activities. Like facilitating a class discussion about a Which One Doesn’t Belong problem, running a class debate on a Would You Rather scenario, tactically pausing students’ screens on the Desmos teacher dashboard to show a graph overlay, or even to share responses to an Open Middle problem. A teacher’s ability to use students’ thinking to drive the learning in the classroom and create a community of learners is something worth bottling.

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