This

Let’s talk about THE question in a teacher’s life … the baleful, “When am I going to use this in my real life?”

Yeah, that one.

The honest answer is probably, never… and they know it.  Why else ask, if not to subvert and diminish your role and purpose?  They don’t really want an answer.  What they want ... is just to watch you squirm, or to hear what B.S. you might spit out.  Either way, your class is now off the tracks!

However, it is a valid question, in its essence.  What is our purpose here?  It is a fair question, and one that needs to be answered.  And don’t be one of those people that thinks all content is applicable to daily life … it is NOT, nor should it be.  The purpose of education is not to train kids for every possible situation in life, but to equip them with an education so they can adapt to any possible situation.  The purpose of education is the development of the mind.  Sometimes we learn tricky things for the same reason some accountants lift heavy weights at the gym.

So let’s talk about how to change the answer to THE question.  Let’s turn it on its head.  Let’s answer the question: When am I going to use this in my real life, it in a way that swings the pendulum back in your direction.  Let’s answer the question in a way that stops the division and animosity that fosters the question in the first place.

See, the reality is, when a kid asks that question, they’re doing you a favor.  They’re providing you with insight that perhaps you’re serving the wrong this.  And if you’re not, whatever purpose you serve is not apparent to that student!

Let’s back up and take a larger scope view of the situation.  Especially in today’s educational climate, teachers stay in the classroom to be of service to students.  That’s it.  Teachers are blamed for all of the woes of society, for the failings of education, called lazy, and everybody seems to know what they’d do to fix it, if they were a teacher!

That sentiment, why teachers stay in the classroom, is the gateway to changing the answer to THE question.  Teachers are only in the classroom for the benefit of the students.  And surely, a teacher wouldn’t take on the sacrifices they do to stay teaching only to waste the time of their students, right?

Well … no, but kind of yes, too.

Let’s talk about job pressures … failing percentages in your classes, average scores on “high stakes tests.”   Those are big deals!  The test results are used to evaluate schools and teachers.  Administrators can be rewarded or fired on the basis of such things!

After all, good test results must be the sign of a great school.  Bad test results, well, that is really the teacher’s fault!  Yet, if a teacher holds a standard aligned with test results, the class failing rate will be too high, unacceptable, and a sign of bad teaching.  There will be unpleasant parent meetings; counselors, and administrators asking what’s being done to help the student, as if the student is hapless, a victim of the inevitable.

What am I doing to help this student?  I don’t know … showing up to work every day with lesson plans, a warm welcome and words of encouragement?  Oh, and I tell him to pick up his pencil fourteen times an hour, that’s a start, right?

Through either threat or blarney, bean-counters and pencil-pushers outside the classroom press hard to ensure that the teacher is performing due diligence to achieve high test grades.  Parents hover, students object, and through it all teachers are led to one inevitable observation: this is not why I teach.

Do those test scores really matter for students?  Sure, maybe ACT or SAT, AP, IGCSE or IB tests matter.  But those are the culmination of years of work.  Does it matter, to the student, if they pass their local state’s Common Core exam?  Not one bit.

In my real life, everybody will be impressed that I got a 3 on my Common Core State Test in English.

The purpose of an education is not to be able to pass a test.  The purpose of education is the development of the mind.  An educated person should be adaptable, thoughtful, able to communicate and appreciate various points of view other than their own.  An educated person should have perseverance and confidence, creativity and curiosity about the world around them.

A person that is educated should have an enriched life as a byproduct of their education.

When am I going to use this in my real life?

Well, that depends on what you mean by this.

Are you, as an educator, teaching this to help kids pass a test, or get a good grade in your class?  Are you teaching this to help them to know how to do their homework?  If so, there’s no judgement or blame.  Sometimes you have to make concessions just to get through the day.  We want kids to be successful.  The problem is, what are we using as markers of success?

But what if you could make this align with why you come back every year?

If you teach students about factoring polynomials so they can complete a worksheet, and maybe pass a quiz, your this is not powerful.  That is not why you teach.  Why make it what you teach?

The trick is to devise ways to teach kids how to think, to encourage creative problem solving and develop communication … to give them an education, while they learn how to factor a polynomial.

Personally, I never want a student to say to me, “Mr. Brown, you’re the only reason I got through math class.”  That’s too low of a standard.  That is exactly the this that makes THE question so damning to our efforts.  I don’t show up every day so my students can pass a quiz or test, or get a minimal passing grade in math class.

I show up every day to provide a challenge to my students, so they can test themselves and be better tomorrow than they were today.  And by better, I don’t mean greater proficiency at rationalizing the denominator. I mean of better mind.

To me, the best compliment a student can give a teacher is, “You taught me how to learn.”  In learning to learn, all of the pieces of an education are there.  To know how to learn you must be a problem solver, a critical thinker, be reflective, confident, and resourceful. A student that knows how to learn is prepared for an unknown future.

Ask yourself:  By teaching this, what’s being learned?  Are you just rehashing the same old lessons, just giving the same information the students could get on Khan Academy?  Are you asking them questions that can easily be answered by PhotoMath?  Are you printing another worksheet off of KutaSoft?

Challenge yourself to raise the bar.  Forget the bean-counters.  They’ll be happy when they see the results because when a student that knows how to learn takes a silly test, they do well!  Not only that, they’ll stand out when compared with students who were taught the content of the course only.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been dragged to the point where you realize, this is not why I got into teaching, and it consumes your day, you cannot answer THE student’s question honestly without using the word never.

You’re unlikely to find much guidance in the education industry that will change the this in THE question.  The industry sells books and professional development designed to get students to pass the test.  Their livelihood is generated from keeping the this we don’t want in THE question.

It is on us, educators dealing with students daily, to change the this.

The next time a student asks THE question … ask yourself, why?  Why did they ask?  Which this am I serving, the one designed for test scores, or the one educating students?

The Smallest Things Can Cause Huge Problems for Students




preemptive


Pre-Emptive Explanation

It is often the case,
for the mathematically-insecure, that the slightest point of confusion can
completely undermine their determination.
Consider a beginning Algebra student that is learning how to evaluate functions
like:





f(
x
)
=3x
x
2

+1




f(
2
)



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qaaiaadAgadaqadaqaaiaaikdaaiaawIcacaGLPaaaaaaa@43D9@


A confident student is
likely to make the same error as the insecure student, but their reactions will
be totally different. Below would be a
typical incorrect answer that students will make:





f(
2
)
=3(
2
)

2
2

+1




f(
2
)
=6+4+1




f(
2
)
=11


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4rNCHbGeaGqiVu0Je9sqqrpepC0xbbL8F4rqqrFfpeea0xe9Lq=Jc9
vqaqpepm0xbba9pwe9Q8fs0=yqaqpepae9pg0FirpepeKkFr0xfr=x
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ymaaqaaiaadAgadaqadaqaaiaaikdaaiaawIcacaGLPaaacqGH9aqp
caaIXaGaaGymaaaaaa@4F4E@


The correct answer is
3, and the mistake is that -22 = -4, because it is really subtract
two-squared. And when students make this mistake it provides a great chance to
help them learn to read math, especially how exponents are written and what
they mean.

Here’s what the
students actually read:





f(
x
)
=3x
x
2

+1




f(
2
)
=3(
2
)
+
(

2

)

2

+1


MathType@MTEF@5@5@+=
feaagKart1ev2aqatCvAUfeBSjuyZL2yd9gzLbvyNv2CaerbuLwBLn
hiov2DGi1BTfMBaeXatLxBI9gBaerbd9wDYLwzYbItLDharqqtubsr
4rNCHbGeaGqiVu0Je9sqqrpepC0xbbL8F4rqqrFfpeea0xe9Lq=Jc9
vqaqpepm0xbba9pwe9Q8fs0=yqaqpepae9pg0FirpepeKkFr0xfr=x
fr=xb9adbaqaaeGaciGaaiaabeqaamaabaabaaGceaqabeaacaWGMb
WaaeWaaeaacaWG4baacaGLOaGaayzkaaGaeyypa0JaaG4maiaadIha
cqGHsislcaWG4bWaaWbaaSqabeaacaaIYaaaaOGaey4kaSIaaGymaa
qaaiaadAgadaqadaqaaiaaikdaaiaawIcacaGLPaaacqGH9aqpcaaI
ZaWaaeWaaeaacaaIYaaacaGLOaGaayzkaaGaey4kaSYaaeWaaeaacq
GHsislcaaIYaaacaGLOaGaayzkaaWaaWbaaSqabeaacaaIYaaaaOGa
ey4kaSIaaGymaaaaaa@4E85@


A confident student
will be receptive to this without much encouragement from you. However, the insecure student will completely
shut down, having found validation of their worst fears about their future in
mathematics.

There are times when
leaving traps for students is a great way to expose a misconception, and in
those cases, preemptively trying to prevent them from making the mistake would
actually, in the long run, be counter-productive. Students would likely be mimicking what’s
being taught, but would never uncover their misconception through correct
answer getting. Mistakes are a huge part
of learning and good math teaching is not about getting kids to avoid wrong
answers, but instead to learn from them.

But there are times
when explaining a common mistake, rooted in some prerequisite knowledge, is
worth uncovering ahead of time. This -22
squared is one of those things, in my opinion, that is appropriately explained
before the mistakes are made.

 

Math Can Not Be Taught, Only Learned

Math is something that cannot be taught, but can be learned.  Yet, math is taught in a top-down style, as if access to information will make a student successful, and remediation is rehearsal of that same information.  Earnest students copy down everything, exactly like the teacher has written on the board, but often still struggle and fail to comprehend what is happening.  I argue that if copying things down was a worthy exercise, why not just copy the textbook, cover to cover.  Of course such an activity would yield little benefit at all because math is a thing you do more than it is a thing you know.  Math is only partly knowledge based and the facts are rarely the issue that causes trouble for students.  I’d like to propose that you, either parent, student, administrator or teacher, considers math in a different light and perhaps with some adjustment the subject that caused such frustration will be a source of celebration.

There are many things that cannot be taught but can be learned.  A few examples are riding a bike, playing an instrument, creative writing and teaching.  Without question knowledge is a key component to all of these things, but it is rarely the limiting factor to success or performance.  Instead, the skill involved is usually the greatest limiting factor.  I argue that to learn these things a series of mistakes, incrementally increasing in complexity, must be made in order to learn.  Let’s see if this will make more sense with a pair of analogies.

First, watching someone perform something that is largely skill-based is of little use.  Consider driving a car.  A fifteen year old child has spent their entire life observing other people drive.  And yet, when they get behind the wheel for the first time, they’re hopelessly dangerous to themselves and all others on, or just near, the roads!

Second considering learning to ride a bike.  Sure, the parts of the bike are explained to the child, but they have to get on and try on their own.  The actually learning doesn’t really occur until the parent lets go (letting go is huge!) and the child rolls along for a few feet until they fall over.  Eventually they get the hang of the balance but then crash because they don’t know how to stop.  After they master braking they crash because they don’t know how to turn.  And then speed, terrain, and other obstacles get thrown in the mix.  Each skill must be mastered in order.  Preemptively explaining the skills, or practicing them out of context does not help the child learn to ride a bike.  They must make the mistakes, reflect, adjust and try again.

What a math teacher can provide is the information required, but more importantly feedback, direction and encouragement.  If a student understands that making mistakes isn’t just part of learning, but that a mistake is the opportunity to learn (and without it only imitation has occurred), and a teacher helps provide guidance, encouragement and feedback, then both parties will experience far greater success.  When a math teacher completes a problem for a student it is similar to an adult taking the bicycle away from the child and riding it for them.  When a student gives up on a problem, it’s as if they stopped the car and got out, allowing the adult to drive them home.

The job of math teacher is perhaps a bad arrangement of words.  Coach, mentor or sponsor is perhaps more appropriate.  There is no magic series of words, chanted under any circumstance, that will enlighten a struggling student.  The frustration making mistakes should be cast in a different light, a positive light.  The responsibility of learning is entirely on the student.  They cannot look to teachers, friends or tutors for much beyond explanation of facts.

In a future post I will explain how too much direction and top-down teaching of math promotes failure of retention and inability to apply skills in new applications.  But for now, please consider that math cannot be taught.  A teacher cannot teach it, but can help a student to learn.
Thank you for reading,

The Bearded Math Man