CAMT & Tackling a Wicked Problem

July 31, 2019

A couple weeks ago, I presented at the Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching (CAMT) in San Antonio, TX. I have spent the last several years going to this conference because it gives me the opportunity to not only visit Texas, where I lived for 13 years, but also to learn from presenters from across the country. You never know who you might get to hear at one of the keynotes or concurrent sessions. This year I had the opportunity to hear many amazing math educators talk about providing all children access to high quality mathematical experiences. One talk in particular resonated with me and I would like to share the connections I made to this presentation and my work with Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP).

Zack Champagne, a math educator and award winning teacher, shared the presentation, Who Gets Access? Teaching the Mathematician Not the Mathematics. I was very excited to listen to his ideas on this topic because it is something that I think about as I work with preservice teachers. I think that all children need to have opportunities to engage in authentic mathematical thinking and I am always looking for other perspectives about how to think about this work. What I didn’t anticipate was all the connections I would see between Champagne’s talk and the course Tackling a Wicked Problem.

He shared many ideas that helped me to consider my interactions with the students in this first year course. I wondered much during this presentation about what I am doing to support the students in doing the challenging work of acting on a wicked problem. For instance, Zack shared the following quote from a recent EdWeek blog.

These words from Jal Mehta connected for me to TWP and Cluster Pedagogy. At Plymouth State, we are focusing on providing all students the opportunity to engage in Cluster Pedagogy. This pedagogy includes several of the elements outlined above– project-based learning, interdisciplinary learning, and open education. As we work through this change on campus, we are having tough conversations about this work and how to provide this to all students through the General Education program. This work is not easy and sometimes we may see this as being reserved for only certain groups of students (ie. juniors and seniors) because of this challenge. But we know that with the right support and facilitation all learners benefit from this type of rigorous thinking. For instance, PBL Works has many examples of young children in kindergarten and first grade engaging in rigorous project-based learning.

Another element from Champagne’s presentation that sparked my thinking about TWP was related to his discussion about Crystal A. Kalinec-Craig’s work related to the Rights of Learners. Kalinec-Craig identifies four rights of learners in the mathematics classroom and outlines these ideas in a 2017 article in Democracy and Education. According to this piece, students have the following rights:

  1. The right to be confused
  2. The right to claim a mistake
  3. The right to speak, listen and be heard
  4. The right to write, do, and represent only what makes sense

I wonder how I might use these rights in my classroom with the students in TWP. Would this help us to develop a community of students that felt comfortable making mistakes and taking risks? What would these rights look like outside the mathematics classroom?

The right to be confused. In TWP, we are asking students to grapple with a wicked problem. These societal issues are complex and have many different influences. As students try to understand the problem they may confront information that challenges their current understanding or perspective. Students may not understand the complexities of the problem at times. To me, confusion is part of the learning process, but we often do not provide time or space for students to grapple with these uncertainties. Because students are unfamiliar with having space for confusion within a learning environment, I would like to be explicit about this right with the students in TWP and my hope that this will help provide more authenticity to the work of the semester.

The right to claim a mistake. Because of the challenge of understanding the wicked problem, there will be times when students might share misconceptions or misunderstandings. Sometimes in learning environments, the role of the instructor is to point out these “mistakes” and then help the students to understand the “correct” information. The challenge with this approach is that the instructor takes over the power of learning from mistakes. I see this being critical part of TWP. How can we as a learning community develop our understanding of the wicked problem and have the flexibility to change our thinking when we find counter examples to our current thinking? I think this starts with the type of feedback I provide to students as well as how I help students to share their thinking during class activities. Is there space for mistakes and for students to reconsider their thinking?

The right to speak, listen and be heard. This element is really important to consider as we build our learning community in TWP. What structures or routines do we have in our classroom that will help each of us to share our thinking when we are ready and to truly be heard by the community. This will take work from all of us in the community. We need to consider how our perspective or listening lens might influence how we interpret the message. This is important because although we want to listen critically, we do not want to be closed to ideas that do not align to our current thinking. Kathleen Fitzpatrick talks about the idea of generous thinking in her book Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. She describes generous thinking as

“a mode of engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, collaboration over competition, and lingering with ideas that are in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go” (p. 4).

If we could foster a community as described by Fitzpatrick of listeners and thinkers, could this influence our work of understanding and developing possible solutions to the wicked problem?

The right to write, do and represent only what makes sense. For this element of the Rights of the Learner, I am considering the ways in which I will ask students to share their thinking about the wicked problem and the process they use throughout the course. Where might I introduce more student choice for how to represent their current understandings? How might students start with what they know and then use this to build knowledge or develop a skill? I think that the learning community will help to consider these ideas and we will work together to develop ways for that makes sense to the students.

Thank you Zach Champagne for your wonderful presentation and sharing a perspective that allowed me to consider my interactions with the students in my TWP class and how I might develop a learning community that will be more supportive of the challenging work that we will do this semester!