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Transforming students from passive to fully engaged learners!

Year 2 teacher, Lene Voorn from Baldivis Primary School shares her experience with the Alcoa Champions of Maths program.

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Hi everyone, I am Lene Voorn, a year two teacher at Baldivis Primary School. 

When I was approached to be part of the third year of the Alcoa Champions of Maths program, I was excited. It was the first time in many years that I was excited about learning new strategies to teach mathematics. When I found out more about the program I realised it wasn’t just about teaching, it was also about thinking, discussing and using mathematics with purpose. It had me hooked. 

My year twos are a great group of students who have moved from being passive learners to passionate, engaged and motivated learners. 

One of the first steps was to ensure our classroom was a safe place to take risks, have a go at something new and engage in the task. We worked a lot on how to work in a group, sharing your thinking process and extending yourself and your peers. Being part of a randomly assigned group was an important aspect of the process. To make randomly assigned groups with my students, we used names on pop sticks, find your match symbols and a group generator on the computer. By making it truly random, the class accepted their assigned group and worked well with very few problems.

Selecting the right task is vital to the success of your lesson. This process of thinking and planning the lessons made me feel like a new teacher again. As a result of changing the way I think about the lesson I am about to teach, I had to flip my thinking and anticipate how the students would respond and think about the task. I also had to link it back to the students’ prior learning.

So, for one of my first lessons, I wanted the students to use mental maths strategies to solve a problem by adding single digits. I chose the problem of ‘Bubbling Cauldrons’ by Issai Schur (1916).

The Problem: Your goal is to place as many numbers in the cauldron as possible, but these cauldrons are unstable! If two numbers in a cauldron add to a third number in the same cauldron, they will bubble over and explode! Placing numbers one at a time consecutively, how high can you reach before the cauldrons explode?

The Process:  On the large white board easels, the students had two cauldrons and counters numbered to thirty. They were very eager to begin! And in teams, they started randomly filling the cauldrons until they exploded.  As I was monitoring, I saw they were repeating the same steps over and over, until one group started to keep a record of their attempts. Stopping the lesson for a moment to have this group explain what they were doing lead to most groups coming up with a method to keep track of attempts. There was a lot of chatter and excitement in the class as the students began to reach higher numbers. Mental maths strategies were happening as part of the problem-solving with the students sharing and discussing their thinking about the placement of cauldron numbers. Some of the groups even got 10 numbers in the cauldrons!

The Discussion: During the lesson, I selected three groups to present their work to the class. Each of the groups had different methods and outcomes which I asked to be presented in a specific order.

This lead the direction of the discussion.

I asked the first group: “When did you decide not to use a number in the cauldron?”

They responded: “We decided when we worked out the numbers that added together.”

My next question asked them to explain how they added the numbers together.

“We all did it so we could check it was right. We counted on.”

The next group was asked to explain: “Other than trial and error, which strategy was most efficient?”

“We wrote down which numbers we put in each cauldron so we could keep track. And when a number didn’t work, we knew it had to go into the other one.”

For the last group I asked: “What maths did you use in this task and what did you need to know to have success?”

This group had a quick side discussion and then responded with: “We used adding and counting…and writing it down in a table….To do this one you need to know adding two numbers together using of ten…or counting on and I used near doubles.”

The rest of the students listened to the groups share the process they used. I used the questions to connect ideas from each group. In this lesson, most of the questions came from me. However, this is slowly changing as the semester continues. The students are starting to ask each other questions such as: “How did you work it out?” or “Why did you do it that way?”

We have completed a range of tasks this semester and it has been so wonderful seeing the students get excited when the big whiteboards come out. All of the students are having success with this process. There has been a move from focusing on the correct answer to instead focusing on the process and methods. The very capable students are learning to explain their mathematical thinking while the other students, who are challenged by maths, are exposed to different methods and reasoning that are not just from the teacher.

“A mathematician can explain how they get the answer. Tell me what you did.” I have asked.

Recently, one of explained: “I bridged to 10 and then added the left over so nine and five is the same as 10 plus four so it’s 14.”.

As a teacher, how exciting is that?! The students are sharing their thought processes, ideas and methods with each other. Also, for those students that find conventional lessons taxing, the oral aspect of these lessons are the perfect starting point for them.

The in-class work is only one aspect of the Alcoa Champions of Maths program. The group workshops have been a wonderful way to learn. They allow me to share the process with other teachers and develop a great new network of teachers to work and develop ideas with.  The meetings and coaching sessions have provided me with invaluable feedback highlighting the good, the developing and the areas of focus. Not many programs offer such an opportunity to professionally reflect on your teaching practises.

The parents have also had a role in this journey. With the students eagerly sharing the lessons at home, parents are involved and interested in the Alcoa Champions of Maths program.  The parents have shared our successes and helped build a positive mindset about maths and its role in the community.

At this point in time, I am looking forward to the upcoming semester and am excited to see where this journey takes us.

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