Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Lesson Planning in Tanzania - Poa

Collaborating at the Outpost Lodge

For the last post in this series on what I learned from my Study Abroad experience in Tanzania, I try to combine the themes from the previous three posts - resourcefulness, patience, and acceptance. In order to do this, I want to tell you a story about lesson planning in Africa. Each night, Sunday through Thursday, the teachers gathered to plan for the following day's lesson. The teachers were encouraged to collaborate, and the professors were available for consulting, if needed.

One night, a teacher came to me with a question about a log table.
She was teaching the Tanzanian students how to use the table in an upcoming lesson but she was unfamiliar with how to use this particular version. This made sense, since she had no experience with this type of log table. To be honest it took me a few minutes to understand how the table worked; it has been awhile since I did logs without using a calculator.

It would have been tempting to dismiss the table as ancient history and focus on applying logs in some real-life situation using available technology. I certainly have argued this before - making a point that "there's an app for that." In this situation, however, the teacher accepted that this was not ancient history for her students. They would be expected to know how to use tables like this for the national exam. And since the textbook was the available technology, she said "no thank you" (hapana asante in Swahili) to simply relying on our method of mindlessly plugging numbers into a calculator.

Another thing you should know is that there was only the single textbook for the entire class. Copies were difficult to make, so the teacher had to be resourceful. She took her hamna shida attitude (Swahili for "no problem) and began thinking about how we had come to understand the table. A breakthrough had occurred when we noticed the relationship between the log (2) and log (4). The teacher could write those values on the board and ask the students to consider how the table might be used given what they knew about the laws of logarithms. Then the students could share and critique the different ideas.

MO Snow Plow Convoy
Sure, the teacher could have sped up the lesson by focusing on the process (Skemp's Instrumental Mathematics), but we wanted to take it slow (pole pole). Making time for students to struggle and persevere with a problem is worth it. Recently, I heard someone share the term "snow plow parents" - people who make sure that no obstacles get in the way of their kids. In my opinion, teachers who focus on teaching Instrumental Mathematics are practicing the same principle and do students a disservice.

In this situation, focusing on what Skemp calls Relational Mathematics put logarithms into a context: reading a table. Sure it might be an out-of-date skill for us, but it was real for these students. Also, the students could use this experience of decoding the next time they had to understand something difficult in a mathematics textbook. We hoped that by combining all of these elements the students would experience a cool (Tanzanians might say, "Poa!") way to think about understanding the table and what it means to do mathematics. 

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