Monday, May 18, 2015

Things we Need You To Stop Saying, part two

"If we taught reading the way we have traditionally taught math, we would need to teach kids to read each individual book separately."

"A school board member said to me a while back:
Scott, I hear what you’re saying about active, hands-on, project-based learning. But I got to tell you, when I’m driving over a bridge, I want to have confidence that the people who designed and built it knew what they were doing. So if that takes a lot of practice on worksheets until students know their math and science, so be it.
I responded:
I agree that I don’t want the bridge collapsing under me either! If we want graduates who know how to build solid, long-lasting bridges, we absolutely can have them do a bunch of practice problems on worksheets until we think they know the math and science and we’ll hope that they will remember it later.
… (pause) …
Or we could have them build bridges.
… (pause) …
Who do you think will be better bridge builders?
How do we help our communities understand that authentic learning is possible?
from Scott MacLeod,

I have to ask a couple of questions.
  1. Are all of my students going to be building bridges? 
  2. Do the specific techniques of building bridges really translate to all of the "not yet invented" jobs of the 21st Century? 
  3. Isn't raw, pure math authentic, too?
The first two are silly questions, of course, because the setup and the response are in the form of a parable, never meant to be taken specifically ... usually. The third is something that far too many people refuse to acknowledge as true simply because they have little understanding of the topic.

Can I ever get specific in high school math?

Should my job be to provide the students with as broad a foundation as possible, with as few specifics as possible, or should I bring my engineering knowledge to the classroom and demand that everyone understand mathematics from the perspective of a mechanical engineer trained before the wide-spread and use of computers in classrooms, before the internet, before smartphones and smartboards, ... and if you ask some of my students, Before the Flood, too?

I am often reminded of this question when people tell me to bring the "RealWorld questions" into the classroom and the students, with varying degrees of certitude, tell me that "I'm never going to need to know that."

1 comment:

  1. Well...

    1. It seems like engineering is one possible context for introducing the relevancy of math to students, no? There are numerous other possible contexts, as well. Whenever possible, aren't finding opportunities for students to do math within more 'real world' contexts likely methods for combatting the 'why should I know / care about this?' and 'what relevance does this have to my current or future life?' questions that we hear all the time from students?

    2. As math educators we can take the position that raw, pure math is beautiful, important, worthy in its own right, etc. And that's fine. But that doesn't mean our students are buying it. And there's a lot of evidence that seems to indicate that they don't, isn't there?

    Not picking on math here. This is true for almost any subject that we teach, because we usually do so in fairly decontextualized ways, which leaves students struggling for meaning and relevance. Can't we do better, at least some of the time?

    Thanks for the thoughtful pushback (as always).