Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Problem with Problem Solving?

A common area of focus for schools right now is “problem solving in math”. Math has been identified as a problem in the province, as even though our PISA scores and EQAO assessments are comparatively high, there is a trend of decline in recent years.

I had the pleasure of attending the Ontario Education Research Symposium last week and was present for two presentations by Francesco Avvisati of the OECD, the body who oversees PISA testing. In both presentations the issue of ‘problem solving’ came up. What was most interesting about this was that it was never framed as a math issue. As obvious as it sounds, problem solving is a skill unto itself, not merely something we engage in with math concepts. Many examples were shared of how higher performing jurisdictions focus on problem solving outside of math, and then look to transfer these skills to the math context, but they never look at problem solving just in the context of math. The OECD has also noted that there is no correlation between socio-economic status and the ability to problem solve, but strong correlation between socio-economics and math, another indicator that they are different skills. This all sounds very obvious, but served as a great reminder that in our work with schools who are focusing on problem solving in math, we really are having two very distinct yet related conversations.

These presentations reminded me of the thinking that went in to deciding which apps we would pay for centrally to go on the almost 1000 iPads we distributed to our elementary schools this past September. One of the apps that generated the most discussion was “Where’s my Water?”.

Where's my Water?

Our rationale for including this app was exactly the type of thinking presented by the Dr. Avvisati during his presentation. Students who use this app must solve a problem (the crocodile needs water) by guiding water through a series of obstacles to the shower plumbing. Engaging in this requires students to plan a course of action, respond to the lessons they learn along the way and learn from their mistakes, and, more than anything, persist to reach a solution. They need to come up with often creative and imaginative solutions, to follow a course of action to its conclusion, and to reflect on the efficiency of their choices.

Linking back to the work we are doing in schools, it left me to reflect that when we say “problem solving in math” is an issue, are we saying the main issue is problem solving or is it math? How are the students at solving problems outside the context of math? Is their ability to problem solve holding back their ability to show their mathematical understanding, or vice versa?

Dr. Avvasati shared a story about one of the highest scoring countries they work with. They have developed a period of time every week they call “integrated learning”. During this time students are required to work on projects based on improving their local communities. The conclusion was that this was a major factor in supporting students’ ability to problem solve. They are seeing great success and correlation between the students’ ability to problem solve and their success throughout their learning.

How are you looking at developing problem solving skills with your students? How do you do this both inside and outside the context of mathematics?


Student Leadership Project – OERS

It is my pleasure to this week present the work of my board in our “Student Leadership” project as a poster presentation at the Ontario Education Research Symposium in Toronto.

The materials displayed at the symposium are linked and shared below:

GECDSB Student Leadership Poster

GECDSB Student Leadership Leaflet

LNS Student Voice Monograph

and below is the summary video of the project.

A Context for iMovie

In common with most school districts in the world, mine has been struggling with how to support iPads in a shared environment of a system level. We have also made considerable efforts to ensure that the use of technology in the classroom is embedded in the curriculum and student learning experience, not merely an add-on or a flash new toy. The SAMR model continues to be valuable tool in guiding this conversation.

One of the benefits of the iPad in the classroom has been the ease of use, and nowhere is this more evident than in iMovie. This is my preferred “introduction to the iPad” app during PD session, simply because it gives novice users a sense of how to handle the iPad, how to use the camera features, and the confidence surge at the end in terms of how professional the finished product can look. I also make it very clear that simply making a movie is not necessarily addressing curriculum, and that a lot of context and conversation is needed to take this from being a fun to use app to being an app that positively impacts learning outcomes. Teachers understand this and we often move quickly to a conversation about how movie trailers support that same strategies we look to develop in our readers. For example, it is very difficult to make a movie trailer without summarizing a bigger idea, and implying certain details. At the same time when viewing a movie trailer, we engage in prediction, inference, and visualization.

At this point the search is on for “context”. By this I mean a valuable link to curriculum, or a defined purpose for the trailer (which addresses expectations around purpose, form, and audience from the media curriculum). I have seen many great examples from our system of iMovie trailers based on books being studied in literature circles or class novel studies, to create previews or summaries of units such as Medieval Times in grade 4, or to promote events within the school such as the Eco-Team, intra-murals, or extra-curricular clubs.

This week I was sent two great examples from Anderdon Public School. These student-created videos were made for Kindergarten open house and show not only the professional-looking product the students are able to make using the iMovie app on the iPad, but also the quality of work they can produce when given a meaningful context for their media creations.

What are the ways you use iMovie linked to curriculum? Feel free to share in the comments!

Focusing on “Next Practice”

I spent two days this week attending the London West Regional SIM (System Implementation and Monitoring) sessions. As is often the case, the conversation and debate at these sessions had a direct parallel with our work with integrating technology.

My team spent the first day of the meeting pondering school and system monitoring, and what it looks like when it is done well. The same as when we have this conversation about technology integration, the goal always seems a long way off, and the route to get there paved with hurdles and uncertainty. For the most part, these conversations lead to participants trying to define “best practice”. The work of Steven Katz is an essential anchor to conversations like this, as “best practice” really shouldn’t be how we define a plan, rather focusing on “next practice” to make the steps more manageable and to ensure that at every step of the process we are acting upon what we learn, rather than continuing to pursue a “best practice” vision devised at a time when we knew less about the work. The second day of our meetings was a lot more introspective and focused on the question of “what will I do next now that I know this?”. This allowed my team the chance to turn our lofty conversations into a realistic, focused next step. The continuum of “next practices” will take us to our “best practice”.

Steven Katz – Leaders in Educational Thought

The link I made throughout this was to technology use in the classroom. People always ask for examples of where things are “done well”. What is the impact of the classrooms, schools, or practices that we showcase? Do we sometimes hold up examples of “best practice” for people to aspire to and set the bar too high? Instead of encouraging people to visit places “where things are being done well”, should we be encouraging them to visit places where “we are learning about…”? Our choice of language is powerful, and as much as visiting other classrooms or schools can be inspirational, it can equally be intimidating. Do we focus on “best practice” rather than “next practice”, and if so does that set a standard to aspire to or make success seem so far away as to be unobtainable?

At the end of the second day, my team left with a very clear next step in the work that we do. There is an overall goal of being better at monitoring our work, but we are going to focus on our “next practice” rather than trying to define the “best practice”. Once we have done this, we will know a little more and then look again at our “next practice”. One day we will reflect on how far we have come and realize we have achieved what we set out to do, but until then we need to keep focusing on what we will do next rather than what we will do ultimately. There is a valuable lesson in this for all learning, and for leading and participating in change – a commitment to a cycle of continuous, incremental learning and reflection will get you further than aspiring to a lofty goal and trying to achieve it all at once.

Real-Life Connections to Math – Winter Olympics

We have all heard students who ask “why will I ever need to know this?” when faced with a math problem. Students strive to make connections between what they are learning in math and the practical application to the world around them. This month offers us a valuable opportunity to do this through an event that many of our students will follow very closely – the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Before we even think about the events themselves, consider the logistics of putting on an event of this magnitude. How many countries? How far did they travel? How large is their team? What would it cost them to fly to Sochi and stay there for the duration of the games? Which team travelled farthest to be there? How much gold, silver, and bronze will be needed to make the medals? How much will this cost based on current market rates? How many venues are there? What are their capacities? How many people will attend the games and how much will be generated through ticket sales? Could we organize a school Olympics?

Once we get into the events, there are even more applications for math. These may include:

Hockey – positive and negative integers for player +/-
Figure Skating – decimals, mean, mode and median
Bobsleigh – elapsed time, comparing decimals numbers
Curling – angles
Ski Jumping – measurement of distance
Luge – velocity, rates of change

I am sure if I knew the sports in more depth there would be many more examples!

It is important that we tie the learning in our classrooms to the world outside and show the students how it can be relevant in the world around them. Take the opportunity to look for the math at the Olympics and bring this into your classroom.