Tuesday, June 28, 2016

My thoughts on SWBCA vs. SWBAT and why curiosity is not a fluffy word

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Image from Annie Fetter’s Ignite Talk
Over the last month I have watched Annie Fetter’s Math Forum Ignite talk, “An Alternative to SWBAT” several times over. (Please watch, it’s only 5 min.) In this short talk, she makes an argument that when planning we should consider learning objectives statement that read “Students will be curious about…” rather than the all-too-familiar, “Students will be able to…”  She states that we need students to understand that they have ideas about every problem and that “students can do an awful lot of math if they explore the questions they ask”, rather than just doing math for the sake of doing math. This idea resonates with me in a big way. 

Let me start by explaining my aversion to the letters SWBAT. The sickening feeling these letters evoke is a result of countless hours of lesson planning and professional development sessions where I have been required to boil down whole units and courses into a series for insular, and lifeless objective statements which only address what my students need to do. We are urged to let these SWBAT statements drive all lesson activities and assessments. We are encouraged, in my case required, to post these learning objectives on our front boards and communicate these goals with students at the start of each lesson. This, I think leads to a problematic perception of learning. I found myself shouting at the computer, “Yes!” when Annie says, “If all we care about is that they can do...things, then they think just the doing of those things means they are succeeding.”
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Annie nicely illustrates the point that students can and will be able to divide fractions without knowing hardly anything about division or fractions. I could go on and on about the problems with SWBAT, but I’ll save that for another time and focus on why I think SWBCA is the bee’s knees.

I have floated SWBCA to a couple of teachers and the response has generally been: What a cute idea! Yes, curiosity is a good thing...Blah, blah, blah...You go for it Aaron. Yes, I agree that most acronyms/initialisms used in education are usually gimicky and good in theory, but in actuality not that important. I also think that the word, curiosity, is generally something everyone can get behind as being good for kids, but in the end, to “be curious” seems fluffy, not urgent, and a luxury that we cannot afford when our students are “so far behind”. Sigh...

Ok, here is why this is more than a cute idea…

SWBCA drives content more completely than SWBAT.
When planning the content of my lessons I ask myself this question:

How do I get my students to know/understand _________ so that they can ________?

“Students will be able to” only addresses the second part of my question and takes the knowing and understanding for granted. Starting with a SWBCA learning goal requires teachers to first think about how they can get my students thinking and wondering about the fundamental, underlying concepts of the lesson. Essentially we are making it a goal that students CARE about the why and how something works first before they do what it is we want them to do. Curiosity, in this sense, is important and should drive the content of our lessons.

SWBCA inherently addresses investment SWBAT does not.

In addition to caring about content, I spend the bulk of my time planning lessons around the this other question:

How do I get my students to care about ___________ so that they can ___________?

In the end if my students do not care, they will not invest the time or energy to do whatever it is I am having them do. Yes, I think some students come to my class with a disposition to care about school work more than others, but in my experience, as their teacher I have a great deal of control in this matter. The following is my attempt at a flow chart summing up what the different ways I can get students to care.
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In my first years of teaching, this was my go to method of getting students to care. I can get 99% of my middle schoolers to buy into an activity or exercise with competition. Even with the most mundane tasks, the only thing necessary for investment is to present the idea to students that they could be considered the “best” doer of this task and reap all of the impending glory...or a piece of candy. There are many pitfalls to competition. Perhaps the most significant problem being that it usually only motivates students to get done with things and to do so faster than anyone else. It rarely promotes sense-making, because in the end it is about winning.

Carrot and Stick
I think this is the most ingrained source for motivation with my students. Teachers are given the most tools to implement this method for getting students to care. I think for many, being a teacher boils down to being the deliverer of carrots and sticks. I am not trying to make a case for no grades or no systems of consequence. I understand that extrinsic motivation works and is what drives kids and adults alike. However, when it comes to getting students to care, carrots and sticks always come up short. For students who have grown accustomed to failing, grades are no longer a motivating factor. More importantly, most carrots and sticks are given when students either do or don’t do something. It very rarely requires knowing or understanding.

Curiosity leads to the ideal form of caring, because they are caring about more than doing. Students are asking why and how and therefore are inclined to explore and do the work involved with sense-making. This leads to arguments, discussion, reflection, and the revision of ideas, all led by students. Curiosity, I think is the common denominator to all of my lessons that I walked away from thinking, ‘Man, I am a rock star, that was awesome!”  This blissful experience in a math classroom is certainly difficult to consistently produce, but should be at the very least our initial goal when planning lessons. Addressing a SWBCA learning objective requires us to do the important work of addressing how we get our students to care in a meaningful way.

So there you have it. I’m not hitting on anything new here. I’m just organizing and solidifying some thoughts I have had for a while so that I am able to act on them with more conviction next school year. Thanks Annie for such a wonderful ignite talk.


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