The Three Conspirators

Sometimes students find a way to deal with peers who aren’t pulling their own weight. The recent discussion on group work reminded me of a remarkable instance of this happening about two years ago.

I was working as a special education assistant, that period in a freshman math class. On this day the students’ write ups of an extended problem were due. In addition, three students were presenting their findings. These were three of the strongest students in the class.

The first student presented his findings. He was wrong. He made a passioned argument for his answer. Passioned, but lacking in any sound mathematical thinking. The teacher and I looked at each other across the room. We were both thinking, Oh well, everyone has an off day.

As usual, after the presentation, we asked if anyone had any questions or comments. Sadly, there were none.

The second student presented his findings. Strangely they were also wrong. Even more strange, he had arrived at the same incorrect answer as the first student. His rationale was simply, “I know I’m right.” Again, that glance across the room. This time, What’s going on?

Again, there were no questions. A few students started to change their own write ups.

The third student presented his findings. He too presented the same wrong answer. His justification was vehemently delivered. Again, lacking valid reasoning, but he worked hard at convincing his audience. It payed off. More students began changing their answers. At this point the teacher and I had no idea what was going on, but with a series of shrugs we decided to see what would happen.

Finally, one student asked a question. It was a good question. The three presenters shot him down. No mathematical reasoning, just “We’re right.” The lone dissenter didn’t give up. He kept asking questions. Finally he put his own work up on the board.

More students started to join the conversation. A heated debate ensued. By the end of the period, the class decided that the three presenters were incorrect. They didn’t give in though. They defended their wrong answer until the bell rang.

On the way out the door, the students dropped off their write ups. One of the presenters showed me his written answer before turning it in. He had written up the correct answer. I gave him a puzzled look. I’ll never forget his response.

We decided the lemmings needed to learn to ask questions.

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6 Responses to The Three Conspirators

  1. mathmom says:

    Great story, Jackie!

  2. Andy says:

    I’ll second that. Great story!

  3. Erin Remple says:

    What a fantastic story! Stories like this make me want to be a better teacher; how I create a learning environment that has students questioning what is put on the board?

  4. Jackie says:

    Yeah it was a great day. Working with this teacher was one of the best preparations I could have had. Two periods a day for a year – I learned more from him than I did from most of my education courses.

    Erin – I’m not sure if you’re asking a question, but here’s my brief response. Have students put up their work and ask an open ended question. Then wait. There’s a bit more information here. Sometime in the next week, I’ll write up more on specific questions I ask.

  5. Anand says:

    Absolutely lovely.

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