Adventures with Jasper and Math

I had never heard of “The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury” series before this week’s section on Anchored Instruction, and while the videos are out-dated and would not necessarily appeal to students in classrooms today, I can certainly appreciate the inquiry, abstract thinking, and collaboration that the series promotes for students. While we have programs today to support these skills, many math lessons/classes continue to look more like the traditional math lessons/classes of the past with some new approaches mixed in. As was brought up in numerous posts this term, two major difficulties are the lack of teacher knowledge about programs like Jasper that could be integrated into the classroom, and the lack of training to enable teachers to integrate new programs and digital technologies. As the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992) point out, “…mathematics classrooms need to shift from an emphasis on the teacher imparting knowledge to one in which students attempt to use their current skills and knowledge to approach problems to be solved (e.g., Charles & Silver, 1988; NCTM, 1989; Schoenfeld, 1985, 1989; Yackel, Cobb, Wood, Wheatley, & Merkel, 1990)” (p. 67). Rather than having teachers transfer knowledge, students must be given the opportunity to explore more abstract concepts through their own observations and experiences, allowing for a more student-centred, constructivist approach to learning. As Hasselbring et al. point out, all students “need to acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to figure out math-related problems that they encounter daily at home and in future work situations.”

I worked for eight years as a learner support teacher in a secondary school setting. For the majority of the students I supported, the most difficult subject was math. I believe this was true for a variety of reasons. To begin with, many of the students had never been able to master basic facts fluency, which of course meant they were struggling with basic computational skills before they even started the abstract concepts covered in secondary math courses. Hasselbring et al. (2006) discuss the fact that “the research on computational fluency suggests that the ability to fluently recall the answers to basic math facts is a necessary condition for attaining higher-order math skills” based on the fact that “all human beings have a limited information-processing capacity.” Secondly, math was the subject that we found the most difficult to support with strategies and technologies to help students find success. For example, in English courses, if a student struggled with reading, we could use a reading program, like Kurzweil, to read texts to the student and we could access thousands of texts through online databases like ARC-BC, allowing students to have access to the same texts as their peers through digital devices. Similarly, if a student struggled with written output, we could set them up with a program like Dragon Naturally Speaking, or another voice-to-text program, to allow them to record their thoughts on paper, providing them with the ability to work independently alongside their peers. However, when students struggled with math, we often felt at a loss about how to support them, past sitting beside them and working through problems step-by-step. Gersten et al. (2009) identify many areas of concern for students with learning disabilities including “word problems, concepts and procedures involving rational numbers, and understanding of the properties of whole numbers such as commutativity” (p. 1233). When I worked in learner support, every student in Math 10 (in B.C.) was required to take a provincial exam – this was required to pass the course. The only accommodations we could offer students with learning disabilities were additional time and a calculator for all sections. Additional time is only helpful if it can be used effectively; a calculator is great for computation, but is no help at all if procedural or conceptual knowledge is what the student struggles with.

As I learned about the Jasper Woodbury series, I kept thinking back to my time spent in learner support and about what I could do differently now, as an elementary school teacher, to help prepare my current students for secondary math when they reach that level. One thing that really struck me was the fact that I think I tend to “coddle” my students due to the difficulties they have (I have many students with learning difficulties, learning disabilities, and from very low-income homes where basic needs are often not met before they arrive at school). As I read the articles and studies, I found myself thinking about how I could incorporate more structured learning if I were to use the Jasper series (much like the structured exercises presented by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992) in Figure 1, p. 75); however, it is pointed out that “it is suspected that ‘structured problem-solving’ (Model 2) will lead to excellent mastery of the solution to the specific Boone’s Meadow problem. Nevertheless, observations of classes of students using these worksheets makes it clear that, even when students sit in groups (with one worksheet per group), the interactions among them are minimal and are confined to fact finding and computation” (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1992, p. 76). In thinking more about this, I began to consider the fact that mathematics is going to be overwhelming for many students at some point in their lives. So why not give students the opportunity to adjust to this feeling of being overwhelmed in a safe, elementary environment, and to understand that they have the ability to use their individual and collective knowledge to problem-solve their way through a series of difficult, multi-step math problems, rather than over-scaffolding at an early age only to have that scaffolding suddenly removed as they get older.

While I found the videos engaging, I would be interested in finding out how students with auditory processing difficulties did with understanding information and instructions given through the videos. For myself, I found the videos that discussed topics I was familiar with (i.e., swing sets, sandbox, graphing height) were videos I could follow relatively easily. However, some of the videos that discussed details of “Rescue at Boone’s Meadow” I found myself re-watching to try to figure out the procedure. I am a very hands-on learner myself and I have difficulty with following instructions given orally. When I watched the whole “Rescue at Boone’s Meadow” video, I found there was an incredible amount of information that students would have to identify although they could replay the video as often as needed which would certainly help. However, the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992) pointed out that the story was linked to “realistic problems” which would make the information “easier to remember,” “more engaging,” and would “prim(e) students to notice the relevance of mathematics and reasoning to everyday events” (p. 69). In addition to this, they highlight the fact that the video format of the series is “especially helpful for poor readers, yet can also support reading” (p. 69). Perhaps I need to stop worrying about how hard the students would find the assignments, and concentrate more on how to support them in their journey towards successful problem solving!

Today, I can certainly see my students becoming more engaged in math class if videos of a similar style were created. If I were to develop a portion of my math curriculum to align with the Jasper series, I think I would actually have students create their own videos in groups to deliver to their peers. I would create two (perhaps more) videos first to demonstrate and we could work together as a class on the first and then in smaller groups on the second. Students would then begin to plan and develop their own videos which we could rotate through groups so that each group had the opportunity to work through each peer group’s video. I think the fact that peers created videos would add to the motivation and engagement of students as they completed the problem solving each video entailed. By allowing students to experience abstract math concepts through “real-life” problem-solving situations that they had created, engagement and motivation would likely increase and students would be given an opportunity to work collaboratively with peers to address difficulties as a team, rather than as individuals.

References:

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1992). The Jasper experiment: An exploration of issues in learning and instructional design. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 40(1), 65-80.

Gersten, R., Chard, D. J., Jayanthi, M., Baker, S. K., Morphy, P., & Flojo, J. (2009). Mathematics instruction for students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis of instructional components. Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1202-1242.

Hasselbring, T. S., Lott, A. C., & Zydney, J. M. (2006). Technology-supported math instruction for students with disabilities: Two decades of research and development. Washington, DC: CITEd, Center for Implementing Technology in Education (www.cited.org). Retrieved from: http://www.ldonline.org/article/6291/

2 comments

  1. Hi Mary, Thank you for your post! It is obvious that you put a heap of thought into what you do, and I think your students are very fortunate to have you as their advocate. Sometimes, it is hard to NOT overthink things. I think that you should just give the Jasper approach a shot, on a relatively small scale, and then reflect on what went well and what could be adapted for next time. It is kind of like bringing in a new form of technology to your practice— it will likely not be perfect, but it gets the ball rolling, at least! With students who struggle with math, I think it is so critical to have them experience success, and that often means providing heaps of scaffolding. I would not want IEP kids just thrown into these multi-step, higher level thinking situations, without having a safety net below them. You don’t seem like the kind of person to toss them into the deep end, though! ~Dana 🙂

  2. Hi Mary,

    I find similar struggles when trying to find educational technologies that support students with learning disabilities in Mathematics. There are some good websites that work with the more rote skills in mathematics, but fall short when it comes to applied skills. When I find a students is struggling with a particular concept, the hands-on manipulatives come out off the shelves. For science, I don’t seem to have much of an issues finding videos or models online that demonstrate different concepts. It would be great if more software developers would create software to tackle some of the more common struggles that students face in these areas.

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