I’ve been learning to juggle since I was in elementary school, and I’ve been teaching it almost as long. I’ve seen other people teach it, and I’ve read Seymour Papert’s description in his book, Mindstorms, each time nearly identical. When I taught some soon-to-be fifth and sixth graders this week, however, I broke from tradition, and what resulted amazed me!
By rethinking what juggling is, and what it takes to get started, I was able to provide my students with an almost immediate sense of success, and a feeling that they were jugglers. I try do the same for mathematics.
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This video is the perfect example of juggling “pedagogy,” in which the student learns to throw a single ball, then two, and finally three, at each point focusing on the technique needed to perform the three ball pattern. This sort of makes sense, because the three ball pattern is seen as the starting point for jugglers, so until you’ve worked your way up, “you’re not really juggling.” Build your way up to three, and then you can start to try the really fun, tricky stuff. Sound familiar?
Over the years, I’ve told countless students that the little two ball handoff thing they were doing was not juggling, or that they’re doing it wrong. But I’ve thought a lot this summer about juggling notation, and I’ve come to the realization that two ball juggling is perfectly legitimate! I’ve even found some really beautiful patterns. So when I taught these kids, I gave them two balls each and started with that little hand off trick I had so often called “not juggling.”
They loved it!
Many quickly nailed the hand off and tried other little patterns and tricks of their choosing. They essentially skipped the partly boring “skill building” phase and went straight ahead to the exciting and personal “trick creation” phase. Even better, I think these happened at once, because the two-ball domain is immediately accessible and profoundly rich. By getting straight to the good stuff, these students had a real sense, right away, that they could do it. They could juggle. One proud fifth grader said, “if I get some juggling balls, I’m just gonna get two!”
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Reevaluating what it takes to “be a juggler” allowed me to bring these students in to that experience straight away. Juggling ed revolution or not, it reaffirmed some principles for me.
If you want to get kids into something (math, juggling, or otherwise) get to the good stuff. Show them they can do it. If it’s immediately appealing and the class knows they’re doing the real thing, then they are likely to dig in.
Secondly, we can do away with the standard build up to really juggling or doing real math, since both are possible from day one. There are many paths towards expertise and advanced ability, so instead of correcting a student for their first attempt (a two ball hand off), find success within it and let them go from there.