Competition in the Classroom continued…

It’s pretty easy to spot an engaged classroom of teenagers when you see it: there is a certain hallmark hum of energy, students are uniformly on task, and there is an earnest eagerness pervading the mood of the room. No matter how much of a content area specialist the teacher may be, without student buy in and engagement with the concepts taught, no true learning can happen.

        So how do master teachers successfully foster engagement on our campus?

        I’m going to be taking a look at four veteran teachers, myself included, and examining the pivotal nuances that bring light and life into their classrooms. Specifically, direct instruction, collaboration, and competition are three key teaching strategies that, when employed intentionally, can have a profound impact on the classroom environment and students’ ability to reach the edge of the zone of proximal development.

        Miss Miklos, an OLu alumni with 14 years classroom experience, was awarded the prestigious Christian Educator of the Year award in 2014; her Hy-Flex Pre-Calculus class is a flipped classroom that approaches math from a different perspective than you or I probably encountered as a student. In her flipped classroom, students watch her lectures at home via videos: this enables her to free up class time for a deeper dive into difficult problems through collaboration and competition.

        A full hour of the class block I observed was devoted to a group competition with tangible rewards on the line: like a 100% on a previous quiz. Having an actually winning group created greater student buy in, and demonstrating proficiency on the difficult problems presented warrants a slight grade boost. Students worked in small groups to answer difficult questions on a white board, revealing their work and answer simultaneously.

        Miss Miklos allowed the students to select their own groups of three; I have found that in classes that are fairly homogeneous in terms of student ability it makes sense to let students self-select their grouping, but it more heterogeneous mixed classes or freshmen level classes it might make things go more smoothly if the teacher pre-selects the group, selecting a strong student for each group to function as the team leader.

        Before the competition started, I loved how Miss Miklos took time to carefully articulate the rationale for why they were focusing on these key concepts before she even explained what they were doing; explaining the WHY before the WHAT is a key step to ensuring students are fully invested in the competition.

        During the game, there was clear scaffolding of two types of questions and answers: easier questions where everyone’s answers were accepted for points, followed up by more challenging questions when only the first two correct answers were awarded points. This mix encouraged all students to keep trying, but allowed the quickest thinkers to ultimately rise to the top and claim the final bonus points prize.

        Miss Miklos roamed around the room the entire time while students worked, and after each problem was presented and students had submitted their answers, she actually worked through the math and explained her own logic via her iPad. Through this increased mobility she was able to troubleshoot and correct errors in logic, and she encouraged questions by amplification – she would repeat the student’s name and question in a positive light before answering it. Since Miss Miklos was working through all of the questions with the students, she was also able to explain the steps and tricks that she as a mathematician takes to overcome difficult problems.

The focus of the lesson as a whole was on skills rather than rote memorization; the entire period was organic rather than repetitive, with students able to use all available resources – calculators, past quizzes, notes on their iPads, their peers – in order to arrive at the right answer, best mirror problem solving in the real world.

        In addition to the math skills learned, probably the best thing I saw about this kind of collaborative competition was the development of key Emotional Intelligence skills: students were focused on problem solving and creative thinking, learning to communicate effectively and work with their peers, demonstrating time management abilities, all while displaying grit.

        Every student was engaged for the entire hour, and clearly enjoying themselves in the process. A testament to this style of teaching is the fact that I, an English nerd and complete math novice, was able to follow along and understand the concepts employed by the second or third question in the series.

How you can use competitive collaboration in your classroom:

In English:

  • Reviewing grammar or vocabulary
  • Instead of a quiz over the reading – a chance to review plot and characters as well as deeper concepts like symbolism or themes

In Social Studies:

  • Reviewing the key concepts in a chapter instead of a lecture
  • Practice before a test with bonus points for the test as the prize

In Science:

  • Practicing difficult equations
  • Applying and reviewing core concepts from a chapter

In Math:

  • Practicing problems with a quiz at the end of the period instead of the beginning, with a free 100% on the quiz as the prize
  • Reviewing a chapter before a big unit test

In World Languages:

  • Introducing a grammar lesson or reviewing unit vocabulary
  • A chance for students to practice key verbal skills

In Theology:

  • Instead of a quiz over a reading of assigned Bible chapters
  • Reviewing key historical elements from a previous Old or New Testament lecture before a test