In every class of students there is usually someone who considers themselves very good at maths. They are highly successful at getting the right answers to routine questions and are often very quick at answering mental maths questions. They consider problem-based teaching as “not real maths” and want to get on with worksheets full of algorithms. These kids often find problem-based teaching exceptionally challenging and can create all sorts of difficulties for teachers attempting to change the mathematics climate in their class. So… what do we do?
Firstly, understand that forcing students to do something that they are scared of and hate is counter-productive. Maths should not be seen as punishment or else students will create behaviour management issues and teaching will become more difficult than it needs to be. Instead, we need to change student mind-sets so that joining in with a problem-based lesson becomes a desirable outcome. We need a little psychology here…
I start by gathering a huge pile of worksheets – all routine questions but with different numbers. These are pretty quick to generate using various websites. They shouldn’t have anything challenging or any fun puzzles. The next step is to offer resistant students a choice – they can join in with everyone in the problem-based lesson or they can do worksheets on their own. Set them up at a desk away from everyone else (preferably with their back turned to the class), with the first worksheet. Your job now is to watch them like a hawk and then as soon as they finish the worksheet give them another one. Let them think that they have finished, and just as they turn around hand it to them. When they protest with, “but I’ve finished” you can respond with, “we are still working, so you need to too”. After the 2nd or 3rd worksheet most students decide that they want to join in with the rest of the class. What you do at this point is crucial to your long term success… say no.
Explain clearly that the worksheets they are doing are really easy and that the work that the rest of the class is doing is really hard, and they won’t just know all the answers. Then when they hesitate, give them another worksheet. After that worksheet they will usually come and ask again to join in… say no.
Explain that because they won’t know all the answers they will probably be wrong at least once and that they need to be ok with being wrong before they are allowed to join in. When they hesitate, give them another worksheet. After that worksheet they will explain to you that they really ok with being wrong… say no one last time. Explain that often in problem-based lessons the person who works it out isn’t the smartest at maths, and they will need to accept that someone else who they think of as not very good at maths might work out the answer when they are still stuck.
After this last worksheet I find that students are begging to be a part of the problem-based lesson and tell me that they don’t mind that the questions are too hard, or that they will be wrong, or that someone else might work it out whent hey don’t know how to do it. At this point they are ready to rejoin the class! And if you have anymore troubles… there is always the huge stack of worksheets still on your shelf in plain sight. 🙂