As a school that’s only in its second year, LiHigh School is still on the small side. We have a total of seven students in our general education program and another six students in our one-on-one therapeutic program. Being such a small school, resources can be a bit of a challenge (though of course, every challenge can be overcome).
One of those challenges is helping our general-education students develop their math skills. Because we’re a project-based program, we believe that the best way to provide our students with quantitative reasoning skills is through embedding them in larger projects. For example, if a student is interested in American pioneers, then we might them advise them to develop a project that includes a graph of the population trends of European colonialists as they spread across North America in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
The challenge is that when the student asks how they would actually go about compiling such a graph, I don’t always have the right answer. I am not a math guy. I’m an English and writing and history and science and technology and anthropology guy. But I’m not a math guy. So the question is: since I’m the only advisor currently working at the school, where do we turn for help?
In the past, we’ve tried bringing in math tutors, but that didn’t work out so well. The students reverted to the passive recipients of knowledge that you see in most traditional schools, and they basically just waited the tutor out. They knew the tutor was here for an hour, so they bided their time, then got back to working on the projects that they actually cared about. So we stopped bringing in the tutors.
We tried directing the students to The Khan Academy, which is a fantastic, online resource for education. If you’ve never heard of it, the Khan Academy aims to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” You go to the site, choose your category, choose your subject, choose your topic, then choose a specific video to access the lesson (for example: Humanities -> History -> U.S. History -> Bay of Pigs Invasion). Each video is about 10 minutes long, and it’s basically a highly-qualified teacher doing a voice over while writing on a digital white board.
The problem with the Khan Academy is that it can be kind of boring. At the end of the day, it’s still just a teacher droning on about a semi-complex topic and writing on a glorified chalkboard. It’s great if you’re highly motivated to learn about the topic, but if you’re not, it’s incredibly easy to space out. And as you might imagine, it’s easy to space out during a 10-minute video on linear inequalities. So, as great as it is, the Khan Academy wasn’t working either.
A couple of weeks ago, I hit on an idea. The Khan Academy, along with the videos, has a series of exercises that allow you to practice your math skills in various areas. They lay out the exercises in a kind of space map, showing you how your skills in one area build toward skills in another area.
Now, as I’ve said, I’m not a math guy. So here’s what I did. I had each of the students pull out their iPads, load up the Khan Academy, and navigate to the space map. I then told them that I want us all to reach trigonometry on the map. There are a couple of different paths one can take to get from addition and subtraction to trigonometry, so I told them they could choose whatever path they wanted, as long as they got to where I needed them to be.
Then I told them that I’d be doing it too, and that, whenever they got stuck on a group of problems, to let me know, and I’d try to help. If I couldn’t help them, then we’d ask someone else in the class to help us. And if no one in the class knew how to do it, then we’d all stop, take 10 minutes to watch the Khan Academy video on the topic, then run through a few exercises on our own to make sure we all understood.
And wouldn’t you know it, it worked. There was an air of enthusiasm in the room as we all went through the problems, accompanied by sighs of frustration as they quickly learned what it is they don’t know. Finally, someone raised their hand and said, “How do you simplify a radical?” Well, I had no idea. Another one of our students thought she did, so she tried to explain it to the rest of us, but it wasn’t quite working. So off we went to the video, and voila, 15 minutes later, everyone in class was simplifying radicals correctly.
What made it different, what brought the air of enthusiasm, was that we were all in it together. They know I’m not a math guy, so I think they liked it when I said, “Hey, we’re all gonna do this. We’re gonna learn math together. If someone knows how to do something, and the rest of us don’t, then that person can teach us. There are no teachers or students here. Or rather, we’re all teachers and students here. We’re all in the same boat.”
So now, every Thursday, for 45 minutes, we learn math. Together.