Using Tools

Teachers use a lot of tools. We use physical tools like copy machines, scissors, and staplers. We also use educational tools like math manipulatives, websites, textbooks, and assessments. Recently, I had an experience with a tool which was new to me and I would like to share some thoughts about that experience.

At the AIMS Center, we have developed a tool which is designed to give teachers a picture of students’ understanding of mathematics. This tool is quite different than any student assessment I’ve ever used before. We refer to this tool as an Initial Interview, and it is based on the work of Dr. Leslie Steffe. Specifically, it is designed to reveal where a student is in regards to the stages of development he describes.

As I began using the tool with first-grade students I was focused on the tool itself. It took all of my thoughts to be sure I asked the questions just right, used the correct materials, and followed the sequence of questions exactly as directed.

I’ll pause here to make a connection to my past experience as a woodshop teacher. When I first learned how to use a tool like the bandsaw, I was only focused on the tool. How do I turn it on? How do I make it cut? How do I not hurt myself? How could I ever teach kids to use this thing?

However, with more training and experience I was able to shift my focus and mental energy from the tool to the result. No longer was I focused on the machine and how it worked. I could focus on the project itself. I realized that there are different things a bandsaw can do, and I could alter my cutting technique based on what the project needed. Furthermore, I could begin to picture how I might share these techniques with others who wanted to learn to use the saw.

In the same way, with training and experience in assessing first-graders using the Initial Interview, I have become more flexible with the tool. I can now focus on what students are telling me about their mathematical understanding, and I can be flexible with the tool, altering questions or the sequence of questions if needed. The focus has shifted from the tool to the students. Furthermore, I can begin to picture how this tool can be shared with teachers who want to use it to gain greater insight into their students’ thinking.

This is a continual learning experience for me, and I know that I will only become more proficient with the Initial Interview tool as I have more experience using it. Furthermore, I am excited to share it with fellow teachers and together see all of the great mathematical understanding it can reveal in students.

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