The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Step by Step Instructions

Far too often in education, we make sweeping assumptions about what our students know and are able to do, often based on our own past experiences or our nostalgic beliefs about past experiences. As a result, we sometimes assume that students already know how to do something when, in reality, they have never been taught.

This is true for social behaviour just as much as it is for academic skills. (I have blogged recently about social behaviors several times, including here, here, and here.) I have been reflecting on the need for step by step explanations that are free of assumptions as I have begun teaching my students the fourth grade math standard of identifying and measuring angles.

It is far too easy to assume that, given a protractor, a ruler, and a worksheet with with practice problems, students will be able to quickly figure out how to use the tools they are given to accurately determine the size of an angle in degrees. What I have learned is that this is far from the truth. In past years, when I have given students protractors and a pre-assessment, I have had students construct arcs instead of angles, measure the length of one ray instead of the distance in degrees between angles, or just left the page blank with a giant question mark over it.

So this year I tried something new. I made no assumptions at all. I began the very beginning and walked my students through each step, slowly and methodically. We had a lesson on plane figures, so they knew what points and rays were, but we reviewed anyway. We constructed the angle one piece at a time: first a point. They a ray pointing in one direction. Then we examined different kinds of protractors. Then we placed the protractor on the paper with the ray pointing at 0. Then we noted the 90° mark and drew a dot on the page at the right spot. Then we used the straight-edge to construct another ray. We labeled the parts and then used a different protractor to see if we got the same measurement.

Repeat with 30°, 45°, and 180° angles. These are our benchmark angles. We know what they look like, so we know that a 135° is much larger than a right angle, so when we look at the protractor, we are looking at the bigger number, number the smaller one.

In taking students through the steps one at a time, there were still some who were confused. There were still some who didn’t quite get what we were doing. But there were many more who did get it, who understood the process, and who realised that they could use any size protractor to identify, measure, and construct angles.

And sure, there were some students who already knew how to do it. But even they were patient and took their time to make sure they didn’t make any mistakes. They also helped others, because we are a classroom community and, as a colleague is so fond of saying, a community is a group of people who work together to help each other. Step by step.

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