Last Friday, my PreCalc/Trig classes debated two topics: polar vs. rectangular coordinates, and radians vs. degrees. I set these debates up a bit differently than normal, in that students were told the topics in advance, but were not told which position they would be taking, or even which topic they would be debating. I wanted to give them some opportunities to debate topics which I thought would be a bit easier, especially with the time to do some research in advance. Then I set up Hangout on Air events so they would be caught on video and saved to YouTube, so I could review when it came time to grade, and if there was good material on there, could save it for later use (sharing with other teachers, presenting on math debates, etc.). I did the right stuff – tested the day before, made sure video saved, and everything I thought I needed to do. But on Saturday, when I sat down to watch the videos, I opened my YouTube channel, and there was nothing there except the previous day’s demo. This was twice as unfortunate, since I didn’t bother to take notes during the debate, since, well, why would I? There was going to be a video. But, there wasn’t. Well – in some ways, that’s probably for the best, since I didn’t anticipate just how much of a train wreck this debate was going to be. Students who otherwise are very thoughtful, well prepared, and insightful during both more formal debates and informal class discussions either froze up or descended into trivial arguments that fell far astray from the main topics. Not that it wasn’t a fun experience – students really did have a good time with this debate format, and any time students enjoy their time in my classroom I consider it time well spent. But when the debate over rectangular vs. polar coordinates descended into whether there were more squares or circles in the classroom, despite some moments of hilarity. (One comment that resonated – “The Earth is a circle, and probably one of the most important ones in our lives. Because, you know, circles.”)
It seems that doing this semi-formal debate didn’t really accomplish my goals, so the next round of debates, I’ll stick to my formal ones. They take a little more time, but not too much more time, and they result in significantly better student understanding. I really thought that by this time of the year, things would have gone more smoothly without the structured preparation, but it’s clear I was mistaken. It’s easy to forget how intimidating it can be to think on one’s feet, and let’s be realistic, at this time of the year, a lot of students just weren’t going to prepare outside of class if it wasn’t a “required assignment”. There’s too much late work for them to try to catch up on to do some research on a topic that they already sort of know well.
Next debates, then, early September. I’m not positive of topics yet, but I’m thinking about these:
- Algebra 1 – Should we always use the letter x as our variable?
- Geometry – Is math an art?
- Trig/Precalc – Are linear or quadratic models more common in real life?