Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

March 19, 2010

There’s No ‘I’ in Team

When I was working for a different company, I had to go to an all-day training seminar. A co-worker, also a buddy of mine, sat next to me. At the end of the seminar, we were given a fun little throwaway exercise to complete: a word-search puzzle filled with the “buzz words” we’d been learning about all day. Whoever finished first won a prize.

Now, I am good at word search puzzles, so I was excited. So a little while into the exercise, I was surprised to learn that while I may have been good, my buddy was really good. He had already found twice as many words as I had. Because we were friends, right then and there I started thinking of us as a team. I realized that if I started looking for the words he hadn’t found yet, we’d finish the puzzle in half the time. When I found a word, I’d nudge him with my elbow and point at my paper. He’d nod, and circle the word on his own sheet. I have to admit, in a sea of people with their heads down and their “eyes on their own work,” it felt a bit like cheating. But the leaders hadn’t specifically instructed us to work alone, so I knew we hadn’t done anything wrong. A minute or two later, my friend put down his pencil and raised his hand to signal “done.” Someone came down the aisle, checked his answers, and announced, “We have a winner!” She handed him the prize:a $5 gift card to Blockbuster. So we had ourselves a movie night, complete with microwaved popcorn. Victory was sweet.

But There is a “Me”

But it got me thinking: why is it that when we were handed that puzzle and asked to solve it–in no particular way–we all had the same instinct to hush up and work alone. Dr. Peter Gray may have partially answered my question with his recent post, “Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education.” Sin Number Three is “Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance.” Dr. Gray explains:

“We are an intensely social species, designed for cooperation. Children naturally want to help their friends, and even in school they find ways to do so. But our competition-based system of ranking and grading students works against the cooperative drive. Too much help given by one student to another is cheating. Helping others may even hurt the helper, by raising the grading curve and lowering the helper’s position on it. Some of those students who most strongly buy into school understand this well; they become ruthless achievers.”

It’s a real shame that traditional School methods haven’t been able to adapt with the times super well. When we first imported these methods from Prussia at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, they were perfect for training the next generation of lever-pullers and widget stampers: You definitely should NOT talk to your neighbor in those cirucmstances. You might lose a limb, which would cause the widget line to back up, which might damage some of the machinery, which would totally dent the company’s bottom line. However, modern employers seem to value teamwork skills.

Collaboration or Compilation?

In response, most curricula these days include some group project assignments. But I posit that this is a pale substitute for actually working with other people. In every group project I have ever worked on (with one notable exception), the class is divided into two reactions: the students with low GPAs go, “Great, someone else will be able to do most of the work.” The students with high GPAs go, “Great, I’m going to have to do the work of four people by myself. AGAIN.”

So where are the influences of Schooling? Let’s unpack.

-Again with the ranking. After a few years in school, people know what category they are in: “smart” or “dumb.” And then they behave accordingly. People tend to relax into their assigned roles, unable to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from and help others.

-There is very little real ‘teamwork’ to be found. Generally, these groups meet twice: once to figure out who is doing what, and again before class so they can staple all their sheets of paper together. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it seems that most group projects are merely a compilation of individual work, not real collaborations (which seems counter-productive, somehow). After so many years of being told not to chat with neighbors, we don’t quite know what to do when we are told to work with them.

Consequences for Today’s Employee

These attitudes carry over into the modern workplace (which is why my fellow trainees were so eerily silent). The competition continues as well, but we fight over limited numbers of promotions instead of grades. We become so preoccupied with making ourselves look good that we can’t take the risk of making a co-worker look better. Hardly anyone seems to be able to “do” the teamwork thing properly, so those who do find themselves increasingly in demand. (See Keith Ferrazzi, who is slowly building an empire based on his skill of combining relationships and business.)

If we would stop training our children to believe life is a competition and happiness is a finite resource, we could open our minds to a better way. What Chris Guillebeau means when he talks about “expanding the pie.” What Steve Pavlina means when he talks about “creating value.” What Rumi meant when he wrote:

“The small man builds cages for everyone he knows. While the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low, keeps dropping keys all night long for the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.”

March 12, 2010

Math Anxiety

I had a funny realization this weekend at my second job as an SAT preparation tutor.

I realized that the students I was tutoring knew just as much about math as I did, if not more. I was on the “slow track” for math in school: I did make it to pre-calculus in my senior year, but I have completely blocked it out (are there diagrams involved in calculus? I seem to vaguely remember graphing things). I also never took a math class while I was in college. I had only gotten about as far as they had: junior-year algebra. And yet when they faced a difficult math problem in the homework or on a practice test, they brought it to me and I could usually figure it out without finding the answer in the back of the book.

I couldn’t understand why, if they weren’t able to do these problems, I was. It wasn’t because I had done the problem before–I’ve only taught this course a few times, and there are so many practice problems, I hadn’t even begun to work my way through them all. It wasn’t because I am instinctively good at the SAT style of testing math, the way I am with the SAT style of testing reading and writing. In fact, my own SAT math score was so low, it almost disqualified me from being hired by this tutoring company. When I do figure out how to solve the problems, I can never quite believe I did it. It always surprises me. I wondered what could possibly account for the ability gap between me and my students?

How Math is Tested on the SAT

In order to understand the disparity, you have to understand a few things about how the SAT tests math. If you’ve taken the SAT, you may remember that the easiest questions come first, with each subsequent question getting harder, until you reach the end of the section, where the highest difficulty questions are. Surprisingly, the highest difficulty questions are solved using the same basic math skills that are used to solve the easy questions: no need to know trigonometry, calculus, or game theory to answer these questions. The only thing that makes them “harder” is that there are more steps–more chances to trip up, to make an error, to get confused.

Another surprise is that there are often little tricks and ‘hacks’ built into each problem. I tell my students that if they’re looking at a problem and thinking, “Oh man, this is gonna take forever to solve,” they are probably missing something. See, the SAT rewards those who think flexibly about numbers. If the test designers really wanted to evaluate math skills, they wouldn’t let students bring calculators. Especially when you get into more difficult questions, SAT math is all about strategy and how you think about math. If you can figure out what they’re asking for, and mentally create a mathematical map to find it, you can solve the problem. How you approach the problem is the key.

What Are You Trying to Prove?

I have the luxury of approaching the problems with an open, curious mind. I even look forward to the challenge of solving an unfamiliar high-difficulty problem. I know that if I can’t figure out, I’ll just look it up in the back of the book and walk the student through the book’s explanation. All that my students are able to think about is the effect their SAT score will have on their college admissions, or how disappointed their parents will be if they get a low score. They believe that if they can’t figure it out, the implicit judgement will follow them around for the rest of their careers.

It became very clear to me that other people’s expectations of us affect our performance, for better or for worse. When I look at a difficult test question, I generally think, “Oh no…this one looks really tough. Maybe I should just flip to the explanation in the back now.” But then I take a deep breath and remember: I am the teacher. I am supposed to be smart enough and capable enough to figure this out; that’s why this company decided to hire me. So even if I feel confused or intimidated, that vote of confidence gives me the motivation to put pencil to paper and muddle through. It gives me the courage to try, and keep on trying until I get the right answer (or at least several wrong ones).

My students, on the other hand, are approaching the problem from a very different perspective. First of all, while I know that I am there to help, my students know that they are there to be helped. This may encourage them to view themselves as, well, helpless. Secondly, the process of being tested puts students in the uncomfortable spot of having to prove their own intelligence. When they get to the high-difficulty questions, the test is whispering to them, “Here’s where we separate the smart kids from the dumb ones. So go ahead, see if you can solve it. Which pile will you end up in?”

Brain Freeze

In his book How Children Fail, John Holt talks about the tension we experience when we are trying to finish something without making any mistakes. He realizes that some of his students are making mistakes on purpose to break the tension.

“Worrying about mistakes is as bad as–no, worse–than worrying about mistakes they have made. Thus, when you tell a child that he has done a problem wrong, you often hear a sigh of relief. He says, “I knew it would be wrong.” He would rather be wrong, and know it, than not know whether he was wrong or not…When the paper was turned in, the tension was ended. Their fate was in the lap of the gods. They might still worry about flunking the [test], but it was a fatalistic kind of worry, it didn’t contain the agonizing element of choice, there was nothing more they could do about it. Worrying about whether you did the right thing, while painful enough, is less painful than worrying about the right thing to do.”

I think this same relief of tension manifests in SAT takers when they leave an answer blank. Whenever the student brings their question to me, the rest of the problems may be marked up, with their work written out, but the difficult problem is always spotless. I admit I haven’t been doing this very long, but I have never seen a student get stuck in the middle of one of these math problems. When I have faced really difficult problems in my student years, it always felt like some kind of mental paralysis: I’d try frantically to figure out what to do, but all I could think was, “I don’t know. I just don’t know!”  I couldn’t figure out where I was going, how to get there, or even how to begin.

Solving a difficult SAT math question hinges on approaching it properly: you have to look at what the problem says, what it asks for. You have to think about how to use the information given to get from point A to point B. You have to clear your mind and let the numbers and figures speak to you. If you can’t get to that open, curious, relaxed-yet-alert state of mind, you won’t be able to figure out how to approach the problem, and you’ll be sunk. You’ll hand me your paper, saying helplessly, “I didn’t know where to start.”

Thawing Out

I think the only thing that really helped me out of my math anxiety was knowing that I’m no longer judged by my math skills or lack thereof. I’ve relaxed enough to be able to treat them as intriguing challenges, fun ways to stretch my mind. I hate that I can’t give my students the same permission not to worry about it so much. Also, since I haven’t prepared the problem ahead of time, I can’t really “lead” the student through it. I kind of turn the problem over and over in my head, and then once I’ve got it, I hand it to the student and say, “There.” I don’t think that’s really the eye-opening learning experience they need.

Have you suffered from math anxiety? Have you ever helped any one through it? What are your strategies for helping students move from fear to curiosity to delight?

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February 27, 2010

Another “Wake-Up Call” for Education?

Nicolette over at Richer Dialogue has posted the trailer for a new movie called “We are the People We’ve Been Waiting For.” She also wrote up a synopsis of the film. Go ahead, check it out- I’ll wait. :)

Now, when I watched the trailer, I thought that it seems like a lot of the same old rhetoric: we need to spend more on computers, because that’s the only way they’ll be able to compete with developing nations (to be followed shortly by articles in the Times proclaiming, “If you kid is awake, he’s probably online! They’ll probably be stupider for it! ZOMG!”)! kids are the future! be all you can be! More of a snooze-fest than a wake-up call, really.

I found it especially ironic that Sir Richard Branson was up there saying “There are only two ways to learn entrepreneurial skills…either get out there in the jungle and get them, or (pause for dramatic effect) teach it to them in schools.” As massively successful as he is, which method did he use? Considering that he was a notoriously poor student in school and only holds honorary university degrees, I think it’s safe to say that he didn’t waste any time sitting around in a classroom.

Higher, better education for all is an admirable goal in theory. However, education was never designed to be the great equalizer. Why else would we have professors who only give out a certain number of As, regardless of the quality of the students’ work? The way we rank students, from A to F, is competitive by design. Grades are inherently meaningless: they only have value if there are “winners” and “losers.”

And I also found it really funny that they were showing footage of deforestation and global warming while talking about the need for more education to conquer these terrible things. Do they not realize that the CEO of the company who has hired the lumberjack to cut down those trees is probably college educated, several times over? As well as all the CEOs and managers of companies whose factories and/or products CAUSE global warming. Whereas we didn’t have wholesale destruction of the planet before the institutionalization of education. To quote an old friend, “I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.”

However, Nicolette told me that the film uses a lot of the resources and arguments that she used to write her thesis on deschooling for ecoliteracy, which sounds a lot more radical. Maybe whoever put the trailer together for them just didn’t “get it.” She hasn’t seen it either, so I guess we’ll reserve judgment until the movie comes out.  What did you think of the trailer?  Or if you’ve seen it, do you think it proposes some new, exciting solutions?  Or is it just a rehash of the same old rhetoric?

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