Attending to Precision

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Last week I read through chapter five of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had.  Reading this chapter made me wish that school was still in session.  There were times when I was reading that I stopped and reflected on how I manage expectations in the classroom.  Specifically, I thought about how I emphasize the need to be precise during math lessons.  More often than not, the precision aspect is related to computation mistakes as well as issues related to missing or incorrect units.  I address this so many times during the year.  So many that I can’t count the amount of times that it’s mentioned.  I think most math teachers have been there.  In most cases I’ve observed students being able to show their understanding of a particular concept, but they don’t show it on assessment.  A label might be incorrect or a one-digit calculation completely changes an answer.  I see this all the time with adding units related to linear, square, and cubic measurements.  A student may get the answer correct, but the label doesn’t match.  I have issues when students place cm^2 when the label should be cm^3.  There’s a big difference there and it has me questioning whether the student understands the difference between area and volume.  There has to be a better way than just reminding students to check for errors or make a reasonableness check.

A couple of the examples that were showcased also emphasize using precise language.  Avoiding the word “it” and being specific are highlighted.  I find myself repeating certain phrases in class.  Not using “it” to describe a particular unit would be on my repeat list.  Instead of using that devil of a word, teachers can emphasize and have students label the ambiguous “it” into something more accurate.  Incorrect labels are a killer in my class, so this is something I continually emphasize.

Estimating can also play an important role in attending to precision.  My third grade class uses Estimation180 just about every day.  We made it all the way to day 149 last year.  We were pretty pumped about that much progress.  It was a productive struggle and heartening to see how much progress was made.  As time went on students became more accurate with their estimates.  That thought process transitioned to other aspects of math class.  I asked the students to have reasonableness checks before turning in an assignment.  The check doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s a golden opportunity.  I’ve had some students use a checklist to record whether they’ve estimated first to see if their answer is reasonable.  Again, it’s not always used but I believe it benefits students.

Games can be great opportunities for students to be reminded to attend to precision.  Some games are great for this, others aren’t and bring an anxiety component to the table.   I was reminded of the negative impact of timed tests and elimination games.  I’m not a fan of timed fact tests in the classroom and haven’t used them for years.  More recently, I’ve used timed Kahoots or other elimination games.   Some students are more engaged when there’s a competition component.  This chapter brings awareness to how emphasizing speed can be damaging.  Most of the time these games are low-risk, but they do bring anxiety and can cause some students to withdraw.

Guided class activities like pattern creation can be helpful in reminding students to attend to precision. Using student-created patterns ( ___, ____, 56, ____, _____ ) to develop unique solutions can be utilized to show understanding of numbers.  Students can create a multitude of patterns with this.  It also challenges students to find a pattern that no one else has.  I’ll be keeping this in mind as I plan out next school year.

It seems that students will always need to be reminded to add correct units, review their work and attend to precision.  Having strategies and tools available to address this will be helpful moving forward.