The following interview with Telannia Norfar, a member of BIE’s National Faculty and veteran high school math teacher, highlights the importance of utilizing Project Based Learning in math classes. This includes many of the key points made in her January 2012 webinar, which is archived on BIE's YouTube Channel.
As a math teacher, what made you turn to Project Based Learning in your own teaching?
In my former careers in journalism, advertising, and telecommunications, I was always presented with new problems on almost a daily basis. I had to solve those problems with very little guidance from my supervisors. Therefore, when I took my first teaching job six years ago, Project Based Learning was a natural fit for me. Project Based Learning was also an expectation in the first school in which I taught. However, on the first day of orientation we were only shown a video on PBL. So, without any formal training, I bought books about PBL. The Buck Institute’s PBL Handbook helped me to learn the design of Project Based Learning as I began to implement it in my own classroom. I really thought a movement in teaching had occurred that moved away from 20th Century education methods to 21st Century methods that promoted critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. It wasn’t until I moved to my second district that I learned this was unfortunately not the case!
Why do many math teachers initially resist integrating Project Based Learning into their classes?
Teachers tend to teach the way in which they were taught. Math teachers are no exception. We show the steps for how to solve a problem and we don’t generally think of adding the more challenging application factor. So we assume having students practicing problems twenty-five times is the only way to learn math. This is a difficult mindset to break. Practice makes perfect is the old adage, but what many math teachers don’t realize is that creating a Project Based Learning environment in a math class doesn’t require students to be “perfect.” Having students solve complex, real-life problems is actually asking students to complete open-ended tasks. These problems may not have one right answer, unlike the practice problems in a textbook. This can be a scary leap for math teachers to take and many students may be hesitant to take this leap as well. However, it is okay if there isn’t a clear answer. You can have parameters around a task, but the open-ended nature of PBL creates an authentic context in which the students will gain a deeper understanding of the mathematical concepts being studied.
How can integrating Project Based Learning into math class create a more authentic framework in which students can learn?
As mathematics instructors, we have a duty to expose students to the reality that math is all around us and in everything we do. Creating an authentic framework in which students truly learn math will help us to save our subject! Few students like math after the 5th grade and we have to start asking why this is the case. Math is the one subject that can change the lives of students. There isn’t just one way of doing things in the real world, so there shouldn’t just be one way of solving a problem. In fact, students can use formulas, but they aren’t really solving a problem. They are just answering a question assigned as homework. Formulas apply in the real world, but not in the nice, clean format provided by homework questions. For instance, the solution for the BP Oil spill in the Gulf came from mathematical concepts. The heart of calculus is about speed and change. How do you calculate the rate of the oil leaking into the ocean? Unfortunately, we don’t present math this way to our students. Maybe, if we did, we would see more students engaged in math and choosing careers that are focused on solving real world problems with which we, as a global society, are faced.
How does utilizing Project Based Learning create an improved context for preparing students to better meet the Common Core standards for Math?
Some of the greatest math students have no concept of the application of math. The Common Core makes the application process concrete and brings it to the forefront of the standards. The Common Core focuses on how math concepts interrelate and how they are applied. The term “modeling” is frequently used in the language of the Common Core. These standards are talking about applying math. Thus, math teachers must start to look into their subject area as more of an in-depth inquiry process, rather better than simply reducing it down to just the formula and practice questions.
How can math be integrated with other subjects in projects?
As a math teacher, I can’t help but use English in my projects. In real life we don’t separate subjects. As a former journalist I used science and history as research for my articles and I had to analyze numbers through data I gathered. Thus, any project you plan is authentic when you don’t see subjects as separated . Math should just naturally occur. In a math class, students should be required to communicate their solution in writing. This should happen in other subjects as well. But, please don’t feel like you have to become a math teacher! Lean on your math colleagues when you feel it is necessary and be proud of yourself when it isn’t!
What do you believe was the most important “take-away” from your webinar?
Being the only teacher or one of just a few teachers in a school to implement PBL can be difficult. You need a community of like-minded teachers with whom you can collaborate. You need support and encouragement. Don’t take this journey alone. Find online communities, such as the BIE Edmodo Community, to start a dialogue with others on PBL best practices and valuable resources. I know I would have been a lot further along in my own implementation of Project Based Learning if I had initially had a community of colleagues for support, rather than just reading books.
BIE National Faculty