“Yes, but did it work?” & “How are you going to test us on this?”

Yesterday I did this activity in which, using sticky notes, as a class we built a histogram of random data that created a normal distribution. Overall I think that activity went well. It took a bit longer than I anticipated, mainly because it simply takes time for students to find the average of each of  ten sets of ten numbers. Next time I might assign this piece for homework, so that they come to class prepared to creat the histogram.


So we created the histogram and talked about normal data and everything went well. At least, I think…

While reflecting two things occurred to me. First, I began to wonder, did this activity “work”? Did it accomplish what it was set out to do? At first blush it seems that it did. Everything went smooth, students appeared to be engaged, and I’ve put an anchor in their mind that I can draw back to for the rest of the unit. I then realized that there are some lessons/tasks/activities that have results that are not immediately seen or are quite subtle. It may the quiz next week where I see this pay off. It might be tomorrow in class discussions. It might be in four weeks when a kid is reading Time magazine and sees a graph similar to this and thinks “hey, this looks like normal data…” My sincere hope is that it helps them in the rest of the unit and in life, but if it doesn’t help some students then at least I gave them a visual they can relate back to. At least I didn’t begin the unit by saying “Today we are going to learn about z-scores…”. The benefit of some math tasks may not be immediately seen, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be utilized.

The second thought I had was while I was reflecting on a comment a student made during this activity. She asked, “Mr. Cresswell, how would you test us on this?” My response was simply that I wouldn’t test her on this directly, but that the concept we were about to discuss would be valuable. This student seemed to believe that anything that happens in math class should be directly assessed on the test. If it wasn’t going to be or couldn’t be, then why is it happening in class? I suppose I realized many students believed this during my first year of teaching, but occasionally it comes roaring to the front of my brain. Many students believe school is about passing tests and getting good grades. Assessment is viewed as an end, not a means to an end in which they learn and become better thinkers. We need to continue to try to shift this paradigm because, I believe, students will buy into these types of tasks if they’re viewed as a piece of the learning process and not something that is irrelevant because it isn’t going to be tested. (Sorry the wording of that sentence wasn’t great…)

What do you do to to help shift that paradigm?