Strategy Showcase: I, We, You

Where did I hear about this strategy?
The New York Times recently published the article Why Do Americans Stink at Math? In the article, Elizabeth Green discusses the ubiquitous “I, We, You” instructional strategy, and I thought it would be good to test my Ten Questions on a strategy with which I have mixed-feelings. In fact, I don’t really like this strategy at all, but instead of just ranting about why I don’t use it, I tried to just answer the questions.

How does the strategy work?
1. The teacher demonstrates the skill/procedure to the class.
2. The teacher follows student input to replicate the procedure on a new problem.
3. Independent or small group practice with teacher circulation.

Elizabeth Green presents an illustrative example:

“Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

What preparation does this strategy require?
Pick a bunch of problems that tackle the same skill/procedure. Decide which examples will be used in each phase. Simple enough to be done routinely.

Will my students want to do it?
Some … sort of. Some students like direct instruction because the straightforwardness and predictability aren’t cognitively demanding. They like watching television and taking naps too. But most find it boring and either tune out or act out.

How will my students be thinking mathematically?
During the “We” and “You” parts, the students have to show some fluency with the procedure/skill, but …

How deep of an understanding do my students need or demonstrate in this activity?
… this mathematical thinking reflects a surface level understanding if any at all. Just like the Chinese room thought experiment (see also), we cannot say they understand mathematics just because they can replicate a procedure. Do they retain the skill? Can they explain it? Can they use it to solve unfamiliar problems? I have serious doubts.

What content is this strategy trying to teach?
This strategy could be used for almost any mathematical procedure, but is it the best approach for any mathematical content?

Does this strategy make math accessible by allowing for a low-floor, high-ceiling, language support, and accommodations/modifications?
I’m sure there are several tweaks to adjust this strategy for student needs. Scaffolds can be built into the notes, practice problems get harder towards the end, and so on, but all students are sitting and listening to teacher explain one skill at the same time.

How does this strategy create a need for this content?
The students need to complete the exercises because the teacher said so, and I think that is the least satisfying of all possible answers to this question.

Can I pull this off?
Not really. This strategy requires that the teacher do a whole problem on their own in front of their students. My classes are rarely-if-ever quiet for that long, and I am not interested enough in what I have to say for me to talk for that long; I already get it. I want my students to be doing math as often as possible, and I often use a variation of this strategy where I skip the “I” and go straight to the “We.” Sometimes I even start with “You,” but in doing so, I’m really using a different strategy altogether.

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