Tuesday, September 24, 2013

If it doesn't turn you on ...

After my childish little rant yesterday about kids and the multiplication tables playing hard-to-get, Sue left a comment on the post:
If it doesn't turn you on, why would you focus on it? I just read The Book of Learning and Forgetting, by Frank Smith. He makes a sharp distinction between memorizing and learning. I think knowing those multiplication facts is vital to doing lots of interesting mathematical work, but students will only know them if they felt engaged by the ideas at some point. 
If it hadn't been written by SueVH, I'd have been tempted to toss it into the Idiot Pile and shrug my shoulders muttering "What the ... " under my breath.  Sue's right, of course, but I shudder at what a parent or new teacher or student might take away from this.

Here's the problem.  Statements like "If it doesn't turn you on, why would you focus on it?" and "students will only know them if they felt engaged by the ideas" can lead to a dangerous impasse in the classroom.

Students in elementary school, more than at any other level, are influenced by the attitudes of their teachers. They can be convinced or even be taught (or manipulated, or brainwashed, if you want to be cynical and stupid) that math is fun and easy. They can memorize so many things at this age - they're memorizing words, symbols, mores and morals, culture, ethics (to the point they can understand them) - they're a mental sponge. They will absorb everything just because someone said so.

If the teacher takes the approach that the students need to be engaged before they can learn math, then she has lost another generation because she doesn't get turned on my math, won't focus on it, and will teach the children that it's not for their pretty little selves. Her biases and fears and trials and troubles with math become their biases and fears and trial and troubles.

If we are constantly offering the excuse of "They're not engaged" as a reason to blame the teacher instead of the students, why should anyone wonder at the poor results we get?

Motivation is the responsibility of the student.


  1. I'm honored. (And glad I wasn't thrown in the idiot pile!) There is so much I disagree with here (along with a number of things I probably agree with), and I think we could have a very interesting discussion about it. Would you like to have a real conversation - on Skype or Google hangout - to consider all our differences in perspective?

  2. Here's the thing: if it's kept from being all drudgery all the time, children are actually pretty willing to memorize stuff that is the building blocks of later learning if motivated by an energetic teacher and practice methods that are varied. Times tables, irregularly spelled words, definitions, etc. Of course, the teacher frames these tasks with examples of what the students will be able to do once the material is learned, but s/he does not try to throw on sugar coating in the form of engaging activities every minute of the process. That would be underestimating the students. The result is that students (many, we hope,) arrive at truly difficult but unavoidable tasks like learning the verb tenses in Spanish or the vocabulary used to discuss road construction in Japanese with the intestinal fortitude to just do it.

  3. Some do.

    But I don't think real engagement is sugar coating. There are so many cool ways to think about multiplication, even. See Maria Droujkova's work, look at Waldorf methods, ... And that's the one thing I tell my adult students - if they don't have it memorized yet, don't feel bad, just take care of it. For them, I recommend flash cards.

  4. As a teacher myself I think that putting the responsibility of motivation on the students is a massive cop-out. While it is true that a student does have they final say on if they will engage or not I have seen so many math classes that are so dry it is painful!!! That is not the fault of the student. If there is a student who is not engaging I look at it as a great challenge to find the key to ignite their interest. Over the years there have been very few cases were I could not find trigger the fire inside. It can take a lot of work and creativity on my part but seeing the change in the student is totally worth it.

  5. I heard a math ed guru at an NCTM meeting once say, "While it is true, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink" it is our job to make them really thirsty." I think there are kernels of wisdom in both sides of this discussion. It is important for students to learn that math is important and the way to get better at math is to work at it. So many students decide they are "not good" at math and don't put in the effort or they are "good" at math and don't need to put in the effort. In both cases the students haven't been taught the relationship between effort and success in math. I also think there is much to be said for working to make math instruction engaging - that doesn't mean "fun" or a party, but it does mean that students see the relevance. They are children of the digital age and it doesn't matter how clear or explanation is if the students are not paying attention.

  6. Merry Christmas, Curmudgeon! :)