Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Planning in the Problem-Based Classroom

By Saler Axel, RME Research Assistant

Problem-based classrooms provide natural learning opportunities for students by giving them the latitude to explore at their own pace. This type of student centered learning helps encourage exploration and in turn enhance comprehension. Many teachers though struggle with successfully implementing problem-based learning into their teaching because the approach is often very different from what they were taught.

Implementing a problem-based curriculum takes time and patience. When teachers plan lessons within this framework, it is imperative to remember that pre-planned lessons may not always follow a formal time table. Lessons need to be tailored to the students’ needs and fulfill the curriculum objectives, which doesn’t always allow for the rigidity of a schedule.

John Van de Walle offers teachers nine steps to successfully planning problem-based lessons in his book Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally (2013).

Step 1: Begin with the Math! Consider what you want your students to learn by thinking in terms of mathematical concepts instead of skills. Students will better comprehend and retain new information when you approach your teaching in this manner.

Step 2: Consider Your Students. Begin by thinking about what your students already know. Consider what background knowledge they need and whether they have enough to begin or whether they will require a review. What do you expect may cause your students to struggle? How can you best present mathematical concepts to match your students’ prior knowledge base?

Step 3: Decide on a Task. Use Van de Walle’s book to help you compose a task that will best match the lesson and concept you plan to teach. Remember, not all tasks need to be complex or elaborate; simple can be better!

Step 4: Predict What Will Happen. Predict what your students will do with the presented task. Make sure that each student has the opportunity to participate and benefit from your lesson. Students may approach tasks differently, but it’s important that each student learns new skills. If you feel unsure about whether your task will benefit everyone, reconsider. Does the task help accomplish teaching the concepts you set out to teach?

Step 5: Articulate Student Responsibilities. For almost all tasks, students should be able to tell you:
  • What they did to get the answer. 
  • Why they did it that way. 
  • Why they think the solution is correct. 
Consider how you expect students to share the information above. Consider asking students to answer in several different formats throughout the year. Be clear that everyone will be expected to provide this information when their tasks are complete.

Step 6: Plan the Before Portion of the Lesson. It is important to prepare students for the task at hand by first encouraging them to quickly work through easier, related tasks. This can better familiarize students with your expectations of each task and refresh their memories of past-presented information.

Step 7: Think about the During Portion of the Lesson. Consider your predictions. What types of accommodations or modifications can you provide in advance for students that will likely need extra help? What types of extensions or challenges can you offer students who finish before their peers?

Step 8: Think about the After Portion of the Lesson. Determine how your students will present their. Consider the best way to assess your students’ learning. How will you be assured of their comprehension and ability to retain any new material?

Step 9: Write Your Lesson Plan. Now that you have considered your lesson in such detail, this step should come easily! Below is a possible lesson plan outline format:
  • The mathematics or goals. 
  • The task and expectations. 
  • Materials needed and necessary preparation. 
  • The before activities. 
  • The during hints and extensions for early finishers. 
  • The after-lesson discussion format. 
  • Assessment notes (whom you want to assess and how)

Summing It All Up
When planning lessons in a student-centered, problem-based classroom, remember that your students’ needs and learning styles should heavily influence what tasks you implement in the classroom. Take some time this week to plan a mathematics lesson using these nine steps.

What tasks will best meet your students’ needs?

Van de Walle, J. A., Karp, K. S., Bay-Williams, J. M. (2013). Elementary and middle school mathematics: Teaching developmentally. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

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