Thursday, 10 December 2015

Making sense

I mentioned before this question about the age of the teacher:
Last year all 30 children in my Year 4 (Gr 3) class gave me a numerical answer to it.

This response seems so amazing to me that I was determined to do it again this year.

But first of all, yesterday, we watched the famous Asch conformity experiment:
It's now a classic psychology experiment, as Zimbardo says, and I was interested in what the class would make of it.
The experiment is so simple, that children this age can appreciate it, and the design really appealed to the class. We talked about what the results might mean

We talked about what might motivate people to just say what everyone else is saying rather than what they could plainly see. Most people thought they wouldn't do the same thing in that situation.

We talked more, and discussed how sometimes you really need to just go along with what other people are saying, even if you don't want to. Like when you want to play a game together at break time. You don't always get to play the game the others want to. But you want to play together.

We didn't really get to a conclusion, and I didn't add too much to what the class said. I would prefer the students had the chance to ponder this themselves and think their own thoughts about it.

So today I asked about the age of the teacher. I said, think about the question; if you want to, write something down. And... almost everyone wrote "30"!

Here they are:

Afterwards, I told them that I didn't think what they'd written was reasonable. They hadn't got the information to write a number down. Why should there be a link between the number of tables and chairs and the age of the teacher?

While the children had been answering on their whiteboards I'd overheard J saying, "But it's not true", before he wrote down 30, so I asked him now what he'd meant by that. He said he hadn't thought the question made sense. "Why did you write 30 then?" I asked. "Because I saw everyone else doing it and thought I should write something." Quite a few people sat up at this. There was some laughter of recognition. M said immediately, "It's just like that experiment with the lines."

I asked if others had thought like J who had thought that the question didn't give them enough information to have an answer. About six put their hand up. One said they didn't want to leave their whiteboard empty, and subtraction and division gave numbers that were small, and multiplication gave an answer that was too big.

As before, I told them that most people answer like this when they're given this kind of question, even older children. As a debrief, I showed them Robert Kaplinksy's video, How Old is the Shepherd?
They liked this, and I think it made them feel a bit better.

What do you think? Is there a place for this kind of mini-lesson?


  1. "Is there a place for this kind of mini-lesson?"
    These are undoubtedly the kinds of experiences that students remember when they look back on their Y4 as adults. It's am invaluable mini-lesson and a testament to teaching as developing people, not just teaching content.
    Bravo Simon!

    1. Thanks Mark. I'm not averse to a bit of social proof myself. I'd really love to think that people will remember these lessons - I'm not going to test them on anything, but I'll be looking out for signs that some of them at least have thought about it.

  2. Simon, what a treat to listen in on your class discussion! Thanks so much for including it. Absolutely there is a place for a lesson like this. It will be interesting for you to see the implications for your class moving forward.

    1. Thanks Joe. There are more and more discussions in my class these days. I still need to work on finding ways to include the 3 or 4 who often don't participate. (Short number talks are great for this, where students don't feel so exposed.)

  3. A lot of thoughts, but I'm in a rush today, so here's my top idea:
    I'd like to combine this with the information masking idea from the beginning of GF & MW's talk at NCTM Nashville: Get your model on. I bet that, if students are given the question first (how old is the teacher), then they will more comfortably reject the data as being useless.

    This could give them a good strategy for dealing with this form of bias: look at the question first, then go back. FWIW, this is a standard strategy for attacking reading comprehension standardized tests that served me well as a student.

    1. I love the notice and wonder approach - getting rid of all these confusing questions that teachers throw at kids, and getting the kids to start from where they are. However they will meet these kind of questions, so I was OK to throw that curved ball at them - to say, I suppose, watch out, make sure you understand the situation!

      And besides, life throws all sorts of non-questions, false dichotomies, and bogus choices at us - and we need often enough to unask the question.

  4. This is a fantastic read. There is such a need to help students realize it is OK to think for themselves and defend their opinions. I love what you did and would LOVE to have a conversation about this with my class.