revolution by the seat of my pants: today, we learned.

Last night I watched some TED videos. I needed inspiration. I needed to slide back into my teaching sweet spot. I wanted to see something truly innovative.

I found this video:

Watching the video, I was captured by the wonder and intrinsic motivation that seemed to sweep the children away into a new style of learning. But Mitra was working with children that had barely ever seen a computer. My students would yawn at the technology that had enthralled the kids in this study.

So how could I take Mitra's work and make it meaningful to my own students? How do you amaze and dazzle kids that have technology literally at their fingertips 24/7?

Today, during a typical math lesson, I decided to give it a shot.

We've been working on strategies for solving word problems for a while now. Nothing amazing; I introduce a method for working through a problem, they practice it together, then they do some work independently. By now, they are fairly confident when working through a problem, but they still make mistakes and don't really take the time to think about whether or not their answer is reasonable. As long as an answer is found, they seem happy. I rarely witness any true wonder or joyful curiosity.

Today was different.

After spending about a minute to review steps that can be used to solve a story problem, I placed this problem on my document camera:

Following Mitra's lead, I gave them the following rules:

  • Everyone will work in a group.
  • If you feel your group isn't working for you, find a new group.
  • Feel free to switch groups as often as you like.
  • Use whatever resources you have to solve the problem.
  • You can look at what other groups are doing, and report back to your group to help each other out.
  • You may not work alone.
  • Everyone in your group must agree on a final answer and be able to explain in detail why you are 100% confident it is correct.
  • Once your group is in agreement, find another group and make sure you agree with them.
  • Everyone in the room must agree on the correct answer.
In the beginning, it was quiet. Groups worked together, just like any other day. Within minutes, they started bringing their math journals to me -- as they always do -- seeking affirmation.

"Does everyone agree with your answer, and are you all able to explain why it's correct?" I asked.

I had more than a few angry glares and exhausted sighs as the kids shuffled back off to work.

After a little while, things began to heat up. I roamed the room and watched them work, smiling and encouraging them to keep working. It didn't take long before two major groups formed. They battled wits, arguing about why each group was right.

There were some tears. I stepped in and modeled appropriate and mature debate language. We continued.

Lightbulbs began appearing. Kids abandoned groups. Reformed. Abandoned. Asked questions.

They stopped coming to me.

No, dude, seriously. They stopped coming to me!

Remember, this is all work on one single math problem. After more than an hour of debating, calculating, and rethinking, a single answer started to find its way around the room.

They beamed at me, proud of their work.

"But... how do you know?" I asked.

More glares. More sighs. More shuffling back to work.

They wrote diagrams and tables and all sorts of things. They checked and rechecked. They talked it over with their groups. They checked with other groups.

Meanwhile, I roamed the room snapping pictures and taking short video clips of their work. I won't lie: I was in heaven.

Finally, we were ready to discuss our work.

Someone from each group came to the whiteboard and showed, in implicit detail, how they found their answer. They talked us through it, making sure we all understood every step they took.

Every group had come up with an entirely different method.

Every group found the correct answer.

I am stunned by the ways they solved this problem. Having little to no background knowledge with long division and decimals, they invented color coding systems and charts that were the stuff of genius.

After every group shared, I modeled how to write about what they had done. I told them writing two sentences that they had added or divided or "worked it out" wasn't going to cut it anymore.

With my word processor up on the projector for everyone to see, I talked them through my 2 page explanation of how I solved the problem.

And then they wrote. For minutes and minutes, word after word after word, pages upon pages, they wrote.

I couldn't be more proud of them. Although it was frustrating and uncomfortable, they kept plugging away.

All because of one 17 minute video watched late on Wednesday night.

Today, we learned.

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