I should blog more

I have been gone for a long time—it has been about a year-and-a-half since my last post. I want to start blogging weekly. I am writing this to hold myself accountable, although I understand that my plan for accountability might backfire. (although I don’t think that this is really an identity goal).

For now, let me just state how I hope my next evolution as a teacher will be: I want to introduce more play in my classes. I feel like I have taken a lot of the fun out of my classes (particularly in one of my courses for elementary education majors, which is terrible), and I don’t think that this is so great for learning.

I am starting this semester. I am teaching an Introduction to Proofs course for the first time this semester, and I have baked more play into the structure. I was strongly considering using some jiblm.org-style notes, but these seem too rigid to me (and I am trying to make things less rigid). This course has modest content goals, and the focus is on proof-writing. I figure that students can practice proving all sorts of things, so I am going to try to have them work on “play” problems as much as possible (I am also using Dana Ernst’s excellent notes to supplement these play problems).

One example of a “play” problem is a subtraction game that I gave my class at the beginning of the semester: two players start with n pennies between them, and take turns removing pennies for the pile. Each player needs to remove exactly one or exactly two pennies each time. The player who takes the last penny loses. What is the winning strategy?

This has elements of play, in that it is literally a game. This is good. However, it is not as open-ended as I would like—I know where the students will end up. I hope to give the students more open-ended problems as the semester goes on (I have a list, but I do not want to publish them yet).

As I plan my courses for next year, I will make play a priority.

6 Responses to “I should blog more”

  1. Robert Says:

    After the students present their solutions to the game of poison (the name of the game you are talking about) could you have them develop their own variations on the game and try to each solve their own variations? This potentially adds less rigidity.

    What are your thoughts on how much play can be included in different courses? Can you have more play in more advanced courses? Are you limited in the amount of play that can occur in courses with many content objectives?

  2. bretbenesh Says:

    My thoughts is that play is appropriate in every course, but the amount will vary. For instance, calculus is pretty rigid, so one would have to work hard to carve out time for play. On the other hand, a topics course could be almost completely play.

    I have heard some concerns about juniors/seniors being more ready for play than first-years/sophomores. I am not convinced by this yet, although I could be wrong.

    I like your idea of varying Poison. I might come back to that.

  3. Andy Rundquist Says:

    My first thought when I think about students playing is that they can discover some things that otherwise I’d just lecture about, and that seems like a worthy goal. But then invariably I think about efficiency of our time together and I get nervous. Play can help students engage, but can slow the class down. How do you navigate that?

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I think that you are right that some amount of “content” can be done through play, but not all of it. So you are asking the right question: what about all of the other content that you can’t really do through play?

      For instance, I don’t imagine that one can get to “the derivative of ln(x) is 1/x” through play when teaching calculus. Even if you can, I don’t think that you could do it for every single thing, since play (almost by definition) is less efficient.

      My solution comes in two parts:

      1. This is a long process. I hope to start with just adding a bit of play where I can. As long as I can make some progress in each course, I will consider it a success.

      2. Some content can be done outside of class through reading and videos. Some play can be done outside of class through, well, play outside of class. However, this is not a complete answer, since the amount of time the students can spend studying for any one class is finite.

      3. This is definitely aspirational, and we will see how I do this summer when I plan my courses, but: I hope to mercilessly cut down on content. Basically, I need to think about what is essential “content” in each course, and then not add other stuff (unless it comes up in play). One model could be: Do a lecture/videos/etc on Mondays to give them the “content,” and have them play on Wednesdays and Fridays (this model is just an idea, an much too extreme for me to begin with). That frees up time.

      We are also reconsidering our major. I am hoping that I can convince the department to cut down on the amount of required material for each class. I have some allies in that.

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