Educators’ Collaboratory 2016: Students as Teachers

At The Number Lab, we believe that more is caught than formally taught.

“Let’s break up some numbers,” educator Kevin Moore tells a group of fifty math teachers, all gathered at Austin’s AT&T Conference center for a week of professional development this July. Only, let’s not call it professional development (this is The Number Lab, after all, and we do everything differently). This is an Educator’s Collaboratory, a Piagetian meeting of the minds, where the constructivist method is taught in the only way it can be: by doing.

So the teachers get to work, using vertical number lines, explaining and defending their thinking, placing importance on language in the very same way their students will when school bells ring again this August. At the end of the prompt from Kevin, one teacher comes to the front of the room to defend her answer to the group. This is where the real learning happens: the teacher has made a few “mistakes” (oh, how we love mistakes at The Number Lab). Collectively, the group helps her retrace her steps, and in doing so, a lively debate over various strategies ensues. Everyone applauds when the final answer is reached, a shared celebration of minds at work.

“Could you feel her learning in that moment?” Lisa Zapalac asks. “It was beautiful. Take those moments and let them reframe the culture of your classroom. We lift up learning, not performance.”

Bringing in the real teachers: our students.

The theme of originality touches everything we do at the The Number Lab, which is why we decided to try something rarely seen before in professional development. We asked our students to join us.

Seven students between 2nd and 4th grades were escorted to the Collaboratory by their parents, allowing the teachers to observe a typical lesson facilitated by Kevin Moore. Some of these students had worked together before, others were meeting for the first time. The children sat together on foam cubes on the floor of a conference room beneath the watchful eyes of fifty teachers perched in stadium seating. They were being introduced to a brand new concept: division. No pressure.

Luckily, at The Number Lab, it’s about the learning, not the performance.

“Today, we are going to have a conversation and then try something new,” Kevin informs them. “We always start with something you already know, and then grow it. In the end, you’ll understand something in a new way.”

“You should really tell our parents to quiet down,” one of the students replies.

Learning is both a serious and fun endeavor at The Number Lab. We set the tone: engagement is necessary. As Kevin scaffolds from fractions, a notion the students were familiar with, to division, the students construct their own understanding of this new idea. The floor of the conference room becomes a house for Socratic discourse, with hands raised, ideas challenged, language elevated, thinking defended.

Dissecting the lesson: “What does it feel like to say, as teachers, ‘Let’s inspect each other’s teaching?'”

After our brave students left, a dialogue was opened up. “When we talk about our work as teachers together, there are protocols you can follow. Develop ways you talk about your work, so that the language is observational instead of attaching a judgement to it,” Lisa Zapalac encouraged.

And so ensued a positive, forward-thinking conversation about what had been observed. “I was so amazed by how quickly the students were able to transfer their knowledge,” one teacher says. “I had a hard time keeping up with them!” When asked what might have facilitated that skill, another educator responds, “They obviously have a deep understanding of how to build a number.”

The educators noted how important trust was within the setting, how scaffolding was employed, how quickly Kevin needed to decide which teaching points to elaborate upon, and which were best left for another day. They discussed practical ways of transferring this methodology into their own larger (or younger) classrooms and talked about how the lack of distractions (like paper and pencil) lent itself to a higher level of engagement.

“You’re not looking for every student to give a verbal response,” Kevin Moore emphasized. “You’re looking for engagement. And how do you measure engagement? It looks different for every student.”

Teacher takeaways: “Nothing beats seeing students in action.”

The educators came from a variety of settings, including local schools like those within Austin and Dripping Springs ISD, St. Gabriel’s Catholic School, Regents School of Austin, Hyde Park Baptist, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal. National presences, like Teach for America, and international representatives from Himalaya Monterrey and The American School Foundation from Mexico also attended.

The Number Lab is thrilled with the feedback we have received from our colleagues who joined us at our 2016 Educator’s Collaboratory.

A selection of participant feedback about involving young students within professional development includes:

      I think it's just mere proof that these notations and thinking processes work for children. Their minds can handle more conceptually than we give them credit for.

      I witnessed the power of discussion and how important it is to take away the paper and pencil.

      Hearing and seeing students work through challenging problems, while supporting each other was powerful. The climate was so flexible and understanding.

      It was great getting to see the concepts we are learning about being taught. Through the lesson, we are able to see how these concepts actually play out in a classroom setting. It's also helpful to see the specific questions that are being asked which probe students to think critically.

Contact us at The Number Lab for more information about our year-round professional development opportunities.