Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Finger on the Pulse

This is the seventh part in a series based on this cost/benefit analysis.  Here you can find Part 1:Scoping out the SequencePart 2: Making the GradePart 3: UnschedulingPart 4: Why DIY?Part 5: Race to the Finish and Part 6: Do Over.  Next I want to talk about this "plus" for us in letting go of our math textbooks:

  • I have a better handle on the actual, individual progress of each child and I can individualize practice not only to the specific topics each child needs to review, but to the frequency with which each needs to review.

I talked here a little bit about the spreadsheet that I use to track what the kids have learned and what we still need to cover and here about how I track what each kid needs to review and with what frequency.  (And, because I haven't mentioned it in a while, I want to reiterate that none of this was an original idea for me.  It is entirely based on the Math on the Level concept.)  So my intention here is not to re-explain the mechanics of the process, but just to share what I'm enjoying about it!

We already discussed here and here how having a separate system for keeping track of mastery and review enables me to un-link record keeping from the textbook scope and sequence.  And I wrote here about why I like being able to make up the problems myself.  All of that is facilitated and made possible by having a closer eye on individual progress.

In a textbook, topics are reviewed at some recurring schedule.  I haven't been observant enough to figure out what the schedule is.  Probably more complex things are review more frequently, because it seems like there are multi-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems on most every page.  But it was commonly the case that I'd skip over massive amounts of review material on each page in the textbook, either because I didn't think my child needed to do so many problems in one day, or because I didn't think they needed to review that topic again so soon.  The spreadsheets help me to make informed choices, not just hazy guestimates.

Also, at a certain point, I realized that we could make our review more efficient by thinking about all the processes that go into a problem.  For example, in completing a multi-digit long-division problem, you are:

  • dividing, obviously, but also ...
  • multiplying
  • subtracting
  • regrouping/borrowing/carrying or whatever you are supposed to call those strategies these days
  • using place value concepts
  • comparing numbers
  • rounding
  • estimating
  • possibly dealing with remainders, decimals, repeating decimals, fractions and/or dollars and cents
Add another layer by putting it in the context of a word problem and you could be ...
  • averaging
  • converting between units of measurement
  • dealing with percentages or rates
  • reducing large fractions
  • calculating measures of sides or angles in geometry
  • and probably lots more I haven't thought of!
So, give a long division (or other multi-process) problem and check off review of lots of concepts.  In the reverse, however, if a child continues to struggle with long division (or another complex-process problem) break it into pieces to determine where the difficulty may occur.

In a couple of cases, I've realized that I could add something to the review line-up that a child hadn't officially come across in her textbook because she grasped the concept.  In another case, I realized that even though a child had moved through a concept in her math book (and had completed problems accurately), she didn't grasp the concept well enough to be able to work confidently with it on her own.  I wanted to drop back and explore/experiment with it more before putting it back in the review rotation.

Another big "win" was in tracking (by color-coding) the difference between "needed to go back and correct this" (in yellow) and "needed help knowing how to do this" (in red).  In my mind, a student who can find and fix his own errors has a different place for growth than a student who needs help completing the problem.  The first one may need encouragement to work accurately, but he grasps the concept.  The second student may need that concept moved from review back to something we can investigate further.

Finally, I am hoping (though this is completely untested as my oldest is only ten) that this system will help us to know when a student is ready for algebra.  Between the beginnings of math discussion to the completion of pre-algebra, there are 146 concepts that need to be covered.  Of course, part of preparedness for algebra is a developmental maturity.  But seeing how we are progressing towards mastery of the concepts and how strong the understanding is retained through review should (I hope!) give us some clues in that direction.

Oh, and did I ever mention that I love spreadsheets?  Yea, that's just an added personality-match bonus for me.  A friend told me yesterday that she and her brother joke about spreadsheets being their "love language".  If that is a thing, then I think it might just be one of my things!

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