Thursday, April 21, 2011

Where do I turn?

Last week I attended the 2011 NCTM Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. On Thursday, I learned how to use technology to make my thinking visible. And on Friday, I presented with some colleagues our efforts to offer middle school math and special education teachers job-embedded professional development. But it was the trip down and back that provided the teaching metaphor I wish to share in this post.

I picked up my colleague and co-presenter, Esther, at her house. She had one of those talking GPS gizmos and asked if I wanted to use it. I assured her that I had looked at the directions and it looked like a pretty straight shot. "Besides," I said, "those things annoy me. I don't want to be told where to turn all the time." That is how we began what was suppose to be a five hour trip.

We filled the first few hours discussing what was happening in our classes. I shared my struggles in getting my preservice teachers to make their thinking regarding the Process Standards explicit. In developing their think alouds, metacognitive memoirs, and reasoning recounts, they often miss opportunities to highlight whichever Standard they identify as the focus. Much of the time they express frustration with having to add this information because it interrupts the flow of their thinking. Esther reminded me that this was new to them and that they would need demonstrations and support. I agreed and shared my hope that the NCTM sessions I had selected would help with ideas that I could share with them.

Having addressed this issue, we checked to see how much longer it until Indianapolis. My Maps App said 3 hours, but that didn't make sense since we had been on the road for 3 hours already. It then became clear that my "pretty straight shot" had a major turn that I had missed near South Bend. Esther was gracious about my error and we made the necessary adjustment (with the help of the nice woman in the GPS gizmo with the Scottish accent).

We used Emma (the name Esther's girls gave the voice of the GPS guide) on the way home. Yes, she was annoying at times, but her purpose was clear: She interrupted our mindless progress with important information at critical points in the journey. This is where the teaching metaphor comes into play. Emma was what was missing from my preservice teachers' attempts to make their mathematical thinking visible. A mechanism to interrupt learners mindlessly following a teacher's thinking in such a way that they would take notice of how an expert made important decisions.

Please, do not take this metaphor too far. I am not suggesting that teachers take on the complete persona of a GPS guide - directing learners what to do at every turn. But when teachers are sharing their own thinking, describing their own learning path, it would not hurt to interrupt the flow of the lesson at critical points to ensure that learners do not miss an important point. Don't be afraid to be direct and annoying every now and then. It might help, though, to use a Scottish accent.


  1. Interesting that you should use the GPS metaphor like this, David. I've used navigating as a metaphor for intervention in teaching as part of CPD for some years now, and posted about it back in September 2010 (
    What you are describing is a little different from my metaphor, though. To me it seems more related to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and is about how a change in focus or style of thinking can actually 'destroy' the process itself -- that in the act of observing something, we change it.
    It is, of course, part of good teaching methodology to register the little asides your internal GPS is making as you do something, the real challenge is knowing when those asides are important enough to change direction and intervene, and when you can just tell 'Emma' to "Hud yer wheesht!"
    (100% made in Scotland!)

  2. Interesting that you chose GPS as a metaphor here. I see it as being more related to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - in that, by observing something, we change it.
    Here you are asking people to change from description (think-aloud) to analysis (relating to outside thing) and so 'disrupting' the process.
    This is a perfectly valid thing to do, since our own internal GPS will make remarks and give warnings or directions as we are teaching. The challenge is to know when to respond to 'Emma' and when to say "Hud yer wheesht!"
    (100% Made in Scotland...)

    PS I posted back in September on maps/navigation systems as a metaphor for intervention... something I've used in training sessions/CPD for a few years now!

  3. This seems to me related to the idea of metacognition - by thinking about our thinking we can change the way we think. My colleague, John, identifies this as the start of a metacognitive migraine.