Calculating and Reasoning

I have been reading a really inspirational book, called ‘The Art of Changing the Brain’ by James E Zull. The part that struck me today was the fact that when we do mathematical calculations, we use the front cortex of our brain and when we do estimation or comparing, we use the upper back cortex. Why is this important?

To set the scene of my epiphany this afternoon, I must add that we have recently had some wonderful professional learning with Michael Ymer, a maths curriculum expert. One of his main thrusts, is that teachers need to frame maths problems in a ‘story’. This of course helps with students engagement. If they can relate with the story, they have more ‘buy in’ with the problem and are more likely to persist with a solution. I made a connection with Ymer’s mantras and stuff that I learned about the brain today.

A popular complaint from teachers, especially in the maths sphere, is that students often rush problems and do not often check that their answers are plausible. If students are immersed in real life problems or even better, problems that students can relate to, they will be more likely to check that the answer is in the ball park.

Enter my new brain learning today. When students are mindlessly completing sheets of algorithm work, they are engaging one area of the brain, the front cortex. However, if students are using the same skills to solve problems that are in an engaging activity that they believe is worthwhile, they are then forced to use extra areas of the brain, where comparisons and estimation is required i.e. the upper back cortex… to check that their answer is in the ball park!

Moral of the story – the more often teachers can engage different areas of the brain, the more effective the learning is and likely that neuron networks are firing to produce lasting changes in the brain!

Indiana is using his upper back cortex

Being able to explain something with ‘Explain Everything’

We have such inspired tools at our fingertips now. I’ve been really enthused about an app by the name of, ‘Explain Everything’ this year. Our year 5 ‘one-to-the-world’ students with iPads have this app in their arsenal, as one of the core “can’t-do-without” apps. And if you start using it, you’ll see why. There are many apps that do this sort of thing, but we have been introduced to Explain Everything and like it’s functionality.

My 7 year old daughter is starting to explore different strategies to add up big numbers (2 digit plus 2 digit). Until recently, she would have been seen this task as a little intimidating. We explored the method by which you use a number line and start with the larger of the two numbers. We broke up the second number into it’s parts (tens and ones). We jumped by tens, because its easy to count by tens and then we jumped the corresponding number of ones. She liked this method because it breaks a big task into smaller easier tasks.

Exploring strategies like this is one thing, but retaining it is another. “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand” never gets old on me. I invited my daughter to the ‘Explain Everything’ app on the iPad. Well of course, as soon as I mention the iPad, she’s all ears. I put it to her that she could make an instructional video of her new strategy. Well, making a video really gets her attention! Then I put it to her that if the video is any good at explaining her number line method, that we could upload it to YouTube, so that the world could learn from it. Well, now we have a very excited little girl!!

When a student knows there is an audience, especially an authentic audience, they seem to rise to the occasion. Writing this number line strategy into a workbook that is seen by the classroom teacher, and possibly seen by mum or dad when it’s parent/teacher interview time, is not a large audience. When my daughter saw the potential of how many people could benefit from her instructional video on YouTube, instantly she has real purpose and enthusiasm. I said that some people from my school might want to watch it, to see how to add up 2x 2 digit numbers. Authentic audience.

The learning around this particular number line activity didn’t stop there. The next day, I observed my older daughter watching the same YouTube video with her younger sister, the ‘author and director’. They were watching it again and this was reinforcing the concepts that she had explained in her video.

How does the app work?

On the surface it looks like another way of putting a PowerPoint presentation together. But when you start to use the record button to narrate, and the laser pointer tool to highlight the parts of your presentation, now you have a video that really brings your audience in. You can draw, narrate and highlight all in real time, so that your presentation comes to life as it progresses. Here is another one of my favourite application types that start with a blank canvas, and is only limited by your imagination.