So today I introduced my class to the 3 Act Lesson.  I am now instructing a wide range of age levels in my room, so I decided to start with a lesson that I felt would be easily accessible for all of my students.  The choice of my lesson was also influenced by the fact that I received a shipment of LEGO EV3 robots yesterday, the lesson was Bubble Wrap by Dan Meyer.

The first issue that came up was the image of Dan himself.  Like my many comments on Andrew Stadel’s striped Monster’s Inc. sweater, students had to make comments about Dan’s appearance and facial expressions.  The good thing is that their attention to details really brought out great conjectures about the problem.  After we worked through the problem, I had my students answer a reflection question not based on the problem itself, but the lesson format compared to a different one they are used to.

Consider the 3 Acts lesson we just did in class and what you would consider a typical mathematics lesson.

Which did you prefer? (Provide specific details)

Since I work with high risk teens, a lot of them are used to a program called Accelerated Math.  It is a program that is highly student specific in content, but proper teacher support is a lacking area.  Typically students get too comfortable or familiar with the curriculum and attempt to manipulate it in order to do as little as possible.  Creativity points to these students, but we really need to break them of these habits in order to ensure they are being challenged appropriately and are learning new content instead of practicing concepts already mastered.

Here is a few of my student responses to the reflection question.

These responses are typical for ~85% of the students I see.  They do not want to challenge themselves in their work, they only want to do enough to get a passing grade.  Many do not even care what grade level they are working at, some even consider the grade levels as a way to judge social status.  They want to be given worksheets, with bare number calculations.  They want to use a calculator to find the answer to basic math operations performed on single digit numbers.  Asking students to compare, contrast, communicate their ideas is something that is “too much work, it makes my head hurt.”  Typically I find these students to be more concrete, and seeking established routines to follow.  Consider your students, and look at these responses.  How many of them are actually sitting in your classroom right now?

There are also the students who can’t make up their mind, those that like learning, but at their prerogative and speed.  Consider these reflection statements.

They enjoy being able to explore the mathematics and find their answer, yet they also like being handed all the information for manipulation.  How can this be?  From what I have observed recently, I am starting to get a good idea why.  These students are ones who enjoy learning- but only when you catch them in the “right mood.”  This typically means they do not see a large value in school overall, it is something they have to endure until they are old enough to be out on their own.  They want to be busy, because classes can be boring if there is nothing to do.  They want class to be safe, they don’t want to have to invest themselves in learning or their teacher (though not all the time, they do show you brief, amazing flashes).  When you hit that good mood, invigorating hook or great topic they become so engaged they forget everything- you see incredible thought, work and communication.  They remember how fun it is to be able to explore things and find answers.  Ride this wave as long as you can, because something as little as a look from a peer can cause the student to shut back down into mediocrity.

Of course, there are the few who want to be challenged.  Consider the following student responses.

Giving students the opportunity to learn through a different experience while making use of prior knowledge really impacts their learning and outlook on math.  It shows students that they have more skill in an area they have labeled themselves as “bad” in.  They can talk with peers, provide critical details, reason scenarios out and find solutions without asking the teacher if they are doing things correctly.  It builds connections in their learning that will reach out from the simple application of answer finding in class, and will encourage students to come to you about classroom project or curriculum proposals.  I know we all feel that our schedule is so loaded that we can’t deviate from this grand master plan we have for the year, but I have found student suggestions about upcoming lessons engage the students in a way that a week of planning can’t.

Is 3 Acts the savior of mathematics?  To this I would say not yet.  I am starting to think of Math instruction like food (typical American thinking I know!): everyone likes a variety of food, and everyone has their cravings.  Craving the same mathematical practices every day will be like eating chocolate cake for every meal- it may provide short term energy to the classroom, but will not fulfill your student’s need for a wholesome teaching approach.  3 Acts is something I feel is very important in class, just don’t abuse it’s effectiveness.