Monday, February 6, 2012

Creating Balance: Complex Instruction

Sorry. Another long post. The next one will be shorter.

At the Creating Balance conference I went to the Complex Instruction strand. I went through the strand with Sue VanHattum who has blogged about it previously. Bree lead a separate session on it. If you don't know what CI is at all start with those because I'm going to skip over the basics. I breezed through the section of Sue's post labeled "Smart in Math" the first time, but facilitators said that expanding the definition of what it means to be smart in math was the most important part of CI. We observed three high school classes of different levels and then sat in about 3 hours of teacher-only sessions.

Things I found interesting:

What I most enjoyed was talking with the teachers at Mission High School. The teachers I spoke most with were named Carlos and Betsy. They were incredibly reflective about it and their journey to CI was pretty inspiring. It started with 3 or 4 teachers going to a workshop a few years back and eventually it spread to all 13 teachers. Hearing about all the work they do together made me have conversations like this with a math teacher friend from NY:

Me:"So....I kind of have a crush on this school."
Her:"Yeah, let's work here next year together. I'm not joking. I will do it."

Sue mentioned creating rich tasks as a major implementation problem for CI. The Mission teachers work together to create them. They have put curriculum binders together and include spaces to write your reflections and how you would change the task for next year. They set up the department so every prep will always have at least one teacher who has taught the course last year but the same teacher won't teach the same course more than three years in a row. I asked Betsy about this second part and she said they felt that you start to go on autopilot after a few years and you should always be looking at the curriculum with fresh eyes.

They worked out a schedule to observe other teachers. They felt this wasn't quite enough so they also worked out a schedule to get together and watch 5-minute clips of each other every month.

There was more. As a teacher who has always been too much of a lone wolf (both because of my personality and my situation) I spent half the day in a sort of daze.

As for Complex Instruction, three things stood out for me.

1. The lack of scaffolding.
2. The complete commitment to "learning together."
3. The focus on mathematical conversation

Sue shared this problem and we did it as well:
Image from Math Mama Writes
The problem was, "What would number 100 look like?" and "What would number -1 look like?"

If I had done this problem it would have started with number 5, number 6, ask for a pattern, etc. They jump straight to 100. For CI, the group is the scaffold.

For number 2 above, a lot of teachers commented on this both positively and negatively. The teachers all were very strict about enforcing that students work together. They had even installed "checkpoints" in their worksheets so that students couldn't move on unless the teacher had come over, asked a random student in the group to explain what they'd done, and checked them off. I don't think I saw a kid who was completely lost, which is rare in any class.

The flip side was seeing the same problems you see in a lot of group work. Certain kids would drag along other kids. A kid would go to the bathroom and the rest of the group would grind to a halt.

You can usually solve the "dragging a kid along" problem with good grouping and the Mission teachers were very attentive to that. I'm not sure what can be done about the bathroom problem.

Maybe its because I'm used to middle school kids but I was impressed with the amount of mathematical talk that came out of the students mouths. The teachers all did occasional participation quizzes and focused far more on how students were working together rather than the correctness of the answer. In the pile pattern problem above, Carlos said that the -1 question is really what he cared about because, "That's where the really good conversation happens."

Things I haven't resolved in my head yet:

I had written more but before I finished writing this post SciAm posted an article titled, "The Power of Introverts." We spend a lot of time in groups in my own class but if I were to give the students something like the pile problem I'd always ask them to try to think about it on their own first. I know I need quiet time to think first.

(Update: I feel the need to point out that whenever I see something that says classrooms have too much groupwork. I.....don't see it. I mean, I know people talk about groupwork, but I've been in a lot of classrooms and most of them are still teacher in front and students in rows the whole period. I think there's still too much of that but I feel negatively about all groupwork all the time. "Creating balance" was the name of the conference.)

Betsy arranged her class so that Mondays looked like traditional school. She'd mini-lecture and kids would read the textbook or do worksheets. She said some kids just needed that individual time. (Like I said, reflective group at Mission).

The other thing I struggle with is anytime I need to "teach behavior" or norms. I just never know when I'm teaching something universally valuable and when I'm imposing some sort of "cultural other" upon them. Am I teaching kids how to work together or am I teaching kids to copy an image of what I think kids working together should look like? What am I asking students to give up in order to be academically or socially successful in my class?

I read too much into this. Perhaps this is why I'm an awful classroom manager.


  1. Thanks for a fabulous post. I'm going to have to read this again - these are the parts of CI I haven't thought about...

  2. A month later, I am still thinking about your thoughtful post. My colleagues and I were introduced to CI a few summers ago and we had 2 years with well guided periodic follow-ups, "studio lessons" the second year, and then the funding went away. I am impressed at their commitment to keep up the collaborative work. It is so hard for us to walk away from all that stuff in our classrooms waiting to be dealt with and sit down and work together on some rich group work that offers multiple entry points, is intrinsically interesting for kids, and will develop students willing to persevere and think through the crappy questions on the EOC in May.