How do you keep high school kids engaged enough in math to sit through a double period of the subject — 84 minutes of it — twice a week?
That was the challenge for Jack Highfield, director of Parkway West Career and Technology Center, a vocational-technical school in western Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. About six years ago, he had instituted a block scheduling system that required students to take back-to-back periods of their academic subjects.
“It quickly became clear that 84 minutes is a long time to ask kids to do math problems or listen to a teacher lecture,” Highfield said.
Then, in 2000, Highfield volunteered his school to serve as a pilot site for the Windows-based version of Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor Algebra I software program, which he had seen demonstrated at Carnegie Mellon University in nearby Pittsburgh. An early advocate of computer-aided instruction, Highfield saw the Cognitive Tutor program as an answer to, as he puts it, his “84-minute problem,” and students were soon using it in the second half of their double math periods.
Shortly after piloting and then purchasing the Algebra I program, Parkway West implemented Carnegie Learning’s Algebra II and Geometry.
Initially, some teachers were nervous about students spending so much instructional time on a computer program, Highfield recalls. “They wondered whether advanced math concepts could be taught with a computer,” he says. However, he added that the teachers’ doubts quickly dissipated as they saw the benefits of the program.
“This year we didn’t get started with the Cognitive Tutor programs until late September,” Highfield says. “The teachers were clamoring for it. Now, we couldn’t pry it out of their fingers if we tried.”
Not that they’re trying. The reason: “It works,” says Highfield. “We used to have trouble getting the kids to go to math class. In the early years of those 84-minute math periods the kids were just dying; they didn’t want to go. But that changed within the first few weeks of getting up and running with the Cognitive Tutor programs.”
The program’s biggest benefit to the students, he says, is the fact that they work at their own pace and without fear of embarrassment. “The help function is extremely user friendly; it explains how they made a mistake and how to fix it. The student doesn’t have to be putting his hand up all the time and publicly asking for help. Teachers closely monitor the students’ activity and collaborate with them as they work with the software so they can step in unobtrusively to help also.”
Each curriculum combines softwarebased, individualized computer lessons with collaborative, real-world problemsolving activities. Students spend part of their class time using the software, and the balance of their time engaged in classroom problem-solving activities. Highfield adds that the real-life scenarios are particularly important for students in a vocational program. “It shows the applications of math to solving the kinds of problems that our students may be dealing with in their other classes, like carpentry or metal working or construction,” he says. “That makes math meaningful and relevant for the kids.”
Although the school has yet to formally assess the impact of the Cognitive Tutor programs on standardized test scores, Highfield says that the programs have made a big difference in student achievement. “There is a very detailed reporting system with these programs, and it tells us that the students are understanding key math concepts and moving through the curriculum at a very satisfactory pace,” he explains.
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