Students involved in a classroom experiment have decided they like the old way better—listening to a teacher in the front of the room, then doing the homework he assigns.
Students in Riley Gibbs’ precalculus class announced that verdict at the end of the first quarter in a new experiment in “independent pacing.”
In Gibbs’ experiment, students assigned themselves their own homework, took quizzes at their own pace, and traded the traditional lecture format for working more in small groups.
The changes came as Gibbs’ school, High School in the Community, seized newfound freedom as a teacher union-run “turnaround” school, part of New Haven’s ambitious school reform drive. Starting with incoming students, the 250-student magnet school is ditching the “factory assembly-line” model of learning and adopting a new system where kids have to show mastery of each academic topic in order to progress in school. All first-year students are now learning in this new “mastery-based” method; Gibbs is one of the first wave of teachers to try out the idea with upperclassmen.
Gibbs, who’s in his fourth year of teaching, opened the school year with a bold pronouncement: Students in his precalculus class would no longer receive homework from the teacher. They’d assign themselves their own work, based on their own pace of learning.
After the first marking period ended on Nov. 2, Gibbs had a long discussion with his students about the new paradigm. Students surprised him with a nearly unanimous request.
“Give us homework!” they pleaded.
Gibbs obliged. On Monday, he handed out the first official teacher-mandated homework—a worksheet on how to determine whether functions are odd (f(-x) =x) or even (f(-x)=-x).
Students returned Tuesday morning to discuss the answers not in small groups, as they had been doing, but in a more traditional way, as a whole class.
Gibbs fielded questions from the group, elicited answers, and wheeled out an interactive SMART board to teach students about the graphical symmetries of odd and even functions. Even functions were easier to get: They create a mirror image across the Y axis.
To demonstrate the symmetry of an odd function, he projected a graph onto the SMART board using a computer program called GeoGebra. Then he grabbed a virtual parabola with his bare hands and spun it around the origin by 180 degrees, producing the same image he had started with.
“It’s beautiful,” he declared.
The lesson met positive reviews from among the 17 juniors and seniors in the class.
Senior Chastity Berrios welcomed the return to a more traditional class set-up.
“It’s way better,” she said. “We’re all on the same topic.”
“I think it’s better,” said Solanlly Canas. She said she found it “overwhelming” when she had to assign herself her own homework and work more independently in class.
Solanlly and Chastity (pictured) said the self-pacing method may make more sense for freshmen, but seniors are already used to a traditional style of high school. They’re more focused on college applications than on reinventing high school.
“Why now?” Chastity asked.
They said in students in their class came to a clear consensus: “Everybody just wants to get homework.”
The 80-minute period was not entirely given over to a traditional whole-class discussion. Students spent the latter part of class in the computer lab using a website called KahnAcademy to practice some algebra skills they needed to brush up on.
Solanlly and Chastity worked together on distributing and combining the like terms in the algebraic expression: -7(12K+2) - 4(1 +5K).
They typed in their answer, -104K-18, and applauded when the computer informed them they got it right. They said they don’t mind working independently on topics they’ve already learned, but they need their teacher’s help on new material.
At another computer, senior Carlton “CJ” Heath said he welcomed the return to a more typical high school classroom style.
“He’s giving more lessons,” CJ said. And “he finally gave us homework.”
When kids were supposed to assign themselves their own work, CJ said, “I didn’t know what to do. I just disregarded that class and did other classes.” He said he agreed with his classmates: “You giving us homework would actually help us learn.”
In the first quarter of the year, Gibbs did give students guidance on what work to do at home. He asked them to work on specified problem sets in small groups in class, then continue working at home based on where they were. But kids didn’t see this as “homework” in the traditional sense.
CJ said he feels like he’s fallen behind the first semester because of the school’s experiment in independent pacing. “In their head it was a perfect plan, but it wasn’t presented well enough,” CJ opined. Teachers had to find their own way to implement it in each classroom, he noted.
CJ also had another complaint: When Gibbs was helping students working in small groups, “only parts of his class received his attention.”
Gibbs said that observation—real or perceived—seemed to have stemmed from the new classroom style, which involved less learning together as a class. Gibbs heard the feedback and changed the seating, scattering students throughout the class, so everyone is now mixed together. Last week, he started devoting more class time to traditional “lessons” where he stands at the front of the room.
Not everyone saw the need for that reversal.
“A lot of kids don’t like” independent pacing, said junior Kurt LoPresto (pictured). He said he thinks students are resistant to change. “They just want the old way back.”
Kurt, who likes math, said he “quickly progressed with factoring and functions,” finishing the unit faster than his peers. He didn’t end up speeding far ahead to new topics, however. “I helped other kids catch up.” Heading into the next quarter, he said, “we’re basically on the same page.”
Shannon Dickey (pictured), a senior who transferred to HSC in mid-September from Milford, said the new style of learning had been a bit of a shock.
“When I came here, it was like a whole different ballgame,” she said. “We were basically teaching ourselves.”
With self-pacing, “I’m lost. I feel like I’m going nowhere,” she said. “Honestly, I hate it.”
“I need homework assignments and tests to get what he’s teaching,” she said.
She applauded the return to normalcy this week. “I’m being taught. I’m understanding the work. I’m making progress.”
“I really like it better,” she said.
Gibbs said he’ll continue looking for the right balance in the classroom.
“The biggest thing I realized,” Gibbs said, “is they just need a bit more of a structure to follow.” He said he can see where his students are coming from: After three years of direct instruction, “to switch to an independent mode of learning in their fourth year of high school is especially frustrating.”
Students will get a traditional grade of A to F—not 1 to 4, according to their level of mastery, as originally planned—on their report cards, because seniors “need traditional grades this time around to put on transcripts being sent to the colleges they’re applying to.” However, students are still graded on a scale of 1 to 4 on quizzes and homework.
And “I’m still looking for ways to try to give people opportunity to move through the material in their own way,” he said.
For example, on the homework, Gibbs offered three different ways to answer the questions, based on the level of mastery required. Most students figured out if a function was odd or even by plugging in numbers, while Kurt tried plugging in negative X.
Gibbs noted that on Monday, after he obliged the pleas to assign homework, “a lot of kids did not do it.”
But from now on, they’ll be getting their homework as they wished.
“Even if the [first marking period] was a wash, even if they all hated it,” he said, in the least his students learned an important lesson. Now they can say, “We see why you give us homework. There is a value to that, and we do learn from that.”
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”