For many high school students, especially those whose prior math classes emphasized computation over deeper conceptual understanding, the challenge of solving an unfamiliar multistep problem can be overwhelming. To help students persist through higher-order problem solving, the math department at Harlem Renaissance High School began to introduce students to high-leverage problem-solving strategies aligned to the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. Alongside their work with students, the math teachers developed their own deeper understanding of the practice through Japanese Lesson Study, a collaborative process for exploring and refining instruction together.
With the support of the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, Eskolta Research and Design facilitator Emily Kleinman and reDesign coach Brianna Lafoon, the team created their own definition of one particular mathematical habit, aptly named “tinkering,” which involves ways of taking action when confronted with an unfamiliar problem to get closer to the answer. The team developed two lessons per trimester, and team members (all veteran teachers) looked critically at their own practices and used their observations of students to shape these lessons in a more responsive way. This has led to a unified focus on the concept of tinkering: students refer to tinkering strategies and use them regularly in classes.
As a result of this work, teachers have become more patient in allowing students to struggle and persist through problems, rather than simply telling students the answer when they get stuck, which has led to deeper learning. One teacher, Onida Cruz, has seen that in her classroom “the tone has been set—[students] have to play with a problem. They have to ask a question or say they tried something before asking me for help. The key is getting them to start a problem on their own without my prompting them, and that is where [this process] has helped.” Principal Nadav Zeimer says, “I’ve seen the students help each other more in the classes, even when they are not in groups.” He also sees “hope in the teachers,” with veteran educators testing new strategies and gaining a deeper understanding of their students’ learning processes. Zeimer anticipates using the insight from the lesson study process with other departments to build staff collaboration in the future.