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You Want School Reform? Brace Yourself….

April 20, 2012

When am I ever going to use this?

Every teacher has heard it.  Every teacher has an answer.  As a mathematics teacher, I pride myself on my ability to point out connections between just about any mathematical concept and any career field or topic.  And when I get a little stumped, I go back to the tried and true “mathematics is a way of thinking” routine.  Or perhaps I’ll choose the “you never know what you’re going to be when you get older” speech.  If a student is really annoying me I’ll just tell them they’re right, there is no point because McDonalds has computers that add the numbers and count the change for you.  Just kidding.  Although it is tempting.

We just don’t think very highly of our children these days.  I love math.  I see the beauty in finding elegant solutions to abstract problems.  And the “mathematics is a way of thinking” line couldn’t possibly be more accurate.  The problem is that the way we teach mathematics is only truly effective for a small percentage of students.

Solving quadratic equations is not something 98% of people ever do after high school.  Understanding non-linear relationships, however, is extremely important everywhere.

And when was the last time any of you non mathematicians/scientists saw f(x) anywhere in this so-called “real world” we are always telling our students about?  More like f(u).  It is extremely important, however, to understand what qualifies a relation as a function and what exactly that means.

And trigonometry?  Talk about the most useful thing you never bothered to learn because any word with more than 7 letters triggers your brain’s emergency shutdown system.

But what does our educational system do?  We focus on linear systems up through 9th or 10th grade (actually, often right through graduation).  We drill it in their heads.  It makes sense, because there is a logical sequence – first degree functions, second degree…  Problem is, that after god knows how many years of having slope being jammed down their throats, an equation (or math teacher) that isn’t straight is more than our brains can handle.  And the students who figured out all that y = mx + b stuff back in 6th grade got bored and stopped paying attention three years ago.

The system is designed to fail.  Perhaps not intentionally, but it is.  Actually, it is designed so that we can compare American students to Korean students and then complain and get confused when we don’t measure up.

Our education system has made a giant mistake.  Why are math and English the most tested and stressed subjects in pretty much every school across America?  Simple; mathematics teaches us the logical reasoning, critical thinking, quantitative analysis and spatial relationships that exist throughout everything we perceive and do.  And English?  Well, everything we do requires some form of written and verbal communication – and there must be some defined structure to our language so people can have at least some idea what the hell we are talking about.

So, schools emphasize these two subjects.  As they transcend everything we learn and do in our lives, clearly it is important that we focus on them above all else.  They are the foundation of how we think, learn and communicate.  You can’t build a house without a foundation, right?  Of course you can’t.  So we spend even more time on fractions and slope and conic sections.  I used to buy that crap too.

Here’s the flaw.  Anybody building a house needs to start by building a foundation, but our system is teaching foundation building without ever teaching anyone what a house actually is.

Imagine you had no idea what a house was; say you had been living comfortably in a cave your whole life and never seen or heard of one.  All of the sudden, someone starts digging a hole in the ground and laying cement, electrical wires and plumbing.  They tell you that you need to know this so you can build your house someday.  Are you going to have a clue what he is talking about?  What the hell is a house?  “It’s a better place to live” he responds.  “What do you mean?  My cave is great!  It protects me from the elements and the animals.  I was raised in that cave by my parents, as they were by theirs.”  “But a house has plumbing.  It is more secure, has electric lights, it’s larger, and has more insulation.  You can have a living room to watch TV and use your computer, and a kitchen to prepare your meals.”  “What are those things?  Never heard of ‘em.”  “You will someday.  Just start digging.”

So over the next several years, all this foundation work is being taught, but there is no greater understanding as to what the end result is supposed to be.  The child is just taught to build all kinds of foundations – different sizes and materials and all sorts of crazy stuff that nobody can figure out. The real irony is that later in the day some other guy is teaching about electricity and another guy is teaching about other cultures who live in fancy caves made out of trees with wondrous things – but these teachers are all speaking completely different languages so most of us don’t realize until much later in life that everybody was actually talking about the same thing.

Some kids get pretty good at it, but most of them are more concerned with hunting for food and trying to find a mate.

Now some really good foundation builders will show the child pictures of houses; maybe even take them on a field trip to see a real one – give them some motivation and inspiration.  But even though that will help, they are still just learning how to build foundations.

Here’s the reality.  Foundations are important.  They are absolutely necessary.  But they aren’t the actual goal.  Math and English are not subjects.  They are simply how we understand and communicate every other subject.  (Stop and read those last two sentences again a few times until it sinks in.)  And the more we treat them as separate subjects, the worse things are going to get.

Have you ever read the mathematics and English language arts curriculum frameworks in your state? (For you non teachers that’s what the Board of Education tells us we should be teaching your children unless you can afford a private school.) Every item listed applies to every other subject our students already learn.

My suggestion: drop math and English from every school curriculum.  Yes, I am absolutely serious.  Mathematics and English as we know them should be fully integrated into every subject our students study, not taught separately.

Keep the specialists around to help with the tricky stuff, of course.  It’s likely that some students will want to pursue advanced foundation building – make it available, but as an elective – not the whole damn curriculum.

When you talk about the great depression, discuss finance and economics.  When you discuss population growth, show graphs and analyze the features (EVERY classroom regardless of subject, grade level, or anything else should be looking at and analyzing graphs on a daily basis).  When you teach art, incorporate geometry.  You get the idea.  And for ELA, well, have students write about everything.  Not just for the sake of writing, but so they can enhance their understanding and appreciation of the subject and express their own ideas.  Science classes will emphasize more formal and academic report writing.  Art classes will encourage creative writing.  History and social studies will allow students to read and practice narrative writing.

I know it is pretty standard practice these days for any math teacher to incorporate “real world” examples to help teach the content (I truly detest the term “real world” but that is another topic for another day).  It’s a fundamental aspect of my teaching.  But it’s not good enough.  I can talk about exponential functions as a model for population growth or decay all I want but wouldn’t it be more effective if, say during the lesson on the industrial revolution we stopped and started looking at population graphs and analyzed them in the proper context?  Mathematically minded students who normally don’t give a damn about history will see interesting and unexpected shifts in the patterns and wonder what is going on.  Students interested in culture and social sciences will actually want to know how to calculate future projections based on the data, and everybody will be learning and engaged.  And not one student will say “I can’t do this problem because it has a decimal in it.”

You can only lay a foundation for something once you know what you are trying to build.  Let’s take our cave dweller and let him just live in a house for a while – explore and investigate on his own, maybe with a few of his friends and someone to keep an eye on them just to make sure nobody gets hurt or throws a keg party.  They’ll eventually say “holy shit, I’ve been living in a cave my entire life!  I gotta get me one of these!  Where do I begin?”

When it’s time to lay down the plumbing, they will get it because they now know what running water is all about.  Hell, they’ll probably have some ideas how to make the system more efficient.

Teachers already get this.  In the last few years I have visited and researched dozens of schools.  Everyone has curriculum integration listed as a priority but when I ask about how it is being implemented, it is always “We’re still working on that.”  I don’t look down on them, these things require a coordinated effort, lots of work and time and often it means many great teachers with time tested methods and strategies need to make big changes.

Schools need to have the courage to let go of their math and English fetishes. This is what education needs to become.  Our students may not have the quadratic formula memorized when they graduate, but I promise you they will have the higher order thinking skills necessary to figure it out in ten minutes if they end up needing it.  And they won’t just be memorizing it, they will understand it – and explain themselves using complete sentences.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2012 8:50 am

    The house analogy is amazing! I am shamelessly going to use that as a counter-analogy of sorts when it’s brought up.

    Your viewpoint is an interesting twist from what I’ve normally encountered while reading about the subject of math curriculum reform. I’ll be following to hear more about it.

  2. April 21, 2012 12:55 pm

    Thanks a lot, I really appreciate that. Its funny, because when I came up with an outline for this post the house example wasn’t even in my head. I was just writing and that part was quite literally a spontaneous stream of conciousness.
    I was particularly eager to get some comments about this because I am in the process of writing a book about how subtle differences in the way we communicate – administrators, teachers, students and famlies – combined with a serious lack of trust are the underlying causes of almost every problem in our schools; especially in underperforming schools with large minority populations. Of course, it will include lots of funny anecdotes about my teaching experience to keep everyone’s attention as I know what short attention spans teachers have. This post was the first one I took from a draft of the book itself.
    So I really appreciate your continued readership and feedback, and I encourage you to use my analogy – just do me the favor of sending your colleagues to my blog!

  3. April 21, 2012 4:12 pm

    You have some great ideas for school reform. I agree about integrating subjects in school– it wasn’t until college that I realized how connected all my classes were. Now it seems silly to teach subjects in isolation!

  4. Linda S Wolfe, MS, RD permalink
    April 21, 2012 10:52 pm

    Brilliantly and beautifully stated. Thanks for applying so much thought and positive energy toward making learning both relevant and fun for your students (me included). Enjoyed the blog and look forward to the book.

  5. April 22, 2012 7:29 am

    Awesome! I agree that we do not need four years of English/Language Arts in high school, and I am an ELA teacher. I was part of a team that tried to use integration: ELA, Alg. I, and Science. However, the administration did not put the teachers together; just the students. We were given no time together to truly develop the idea. Then, the higher ups added Spanish I to the mix for some odd reason. The course has since disappeared.
    I have taught research skills and concise writing with science classes. I can easily teach a novel with a history class; I teach To Kill A Mockingbird and Animal Farm currently and share the historical context of both. Thanks for sharing and good luck with the book.

    • April 22, 2012 11:26 am

      I don’t have half your teaching experience but I’ve been around for a while, and visited or researched many schools – public and private, east to west coast and I’ve heard your story almost word for word every time. That’s why I say everyone knows what I am saying (even the administrators) but nobody has the courage to just go all out, drop everything and really do it the right way.

  6. April 22, 2012 7:31 am

    Reblogged this on thefreshmanexperience and commented:
    I agree with dropping ELA. I would rather team teach with science and history. I could cover the CORE curriculum in those classes easily. It would also allow our science classes to have more time for labs.

  7. April 22, 2012 11:08 am

    Thats my point exactly – note “language ARTS” not just grammar, form and usage. How much would you enjoy teaching if ELA was a part of every course, not a course unto itself. The creative possibilities are endless – poetry and creative wriring in science, historical perspectives of music… I’m so happy to get feedback from an English teacher, thank you.

  8. April 30, 2012 8:30 am

    Although I would not abandon the individual Math and English classes (I see a benefit to having a specific allotted outlet to explore both subjects more in depth), per say, I do firmly agree with your call for much, MUCH more cross-content curriculum. However, that seems like the antithesis of our current educational climate. The elephant in the room will continue to be our societies addiction of over-quantification.

    • April 30, 2012 6:12 pm

      What do you mean by math and English classes, exactly? When we see patterns emerge in nature or society don’t you think we will naturally want to look at them more deeply?

      Things like journalism, creative writing, British literature – those are certainly classes but English itself is not. How could you teach any math without a frame of reference – such as science, shapes/geometry, analyzing data, etc? How would you teach a child without fingers to count? From the moment our parents point out how many “little piggies” went to the market, we limit our mathematical minds. Eventually all the “piggy” rules change when we start to consider fractions and decimals.

      Take music for example. Does music theory exist without actual music? What do you think would happen to music if we taught pure music theory classes starting in elementary school – before children actually ever hear music? Sure, we could teach the theory, rules and such – even understand them – but what woukd they mean without actual music to apply it to?

      I hope you don’t think I’m trying to contradict you – in fact I believe we are thinking the same thing. I’m not trying to change the “math” and “English” that we teach, only the way we perceive and understand it. Even a deeper understanding of “math and English” still requires a frame of reference.

      • May 1, 2012 7:21 am

        I am referring to the “English” you are referring to when you state, “Things like journalism, creative writing, British literature.” I can see how my statement is vague. Your post lead me to believe that you wanted to remove English and Math classes all together (ie. British Lit would be removed and you would only learn “British lit” via a social studies lens).

        The things I would do to live in a society where music was so valued that we had our students take music theory classes starting in elementary school! There is unbelievable value in music theory (mathematical skills, logistical skills, creative skills, etc etc etc), but the pessimist in me can’t quit reminding me that this is a pipe dream at best. *sigh*

        My background is social studies, so I am not current on mathematical pedagogy. But if the problem-patterns hold true across all education, I understand exactly where you are coming from with your objection to the “little piggie” way of teaching math. It is the same as teaching social studies via a “top-down” approach. It is not the ends, it is the means that really counts.

        Anyways, like you said, we really agree with each other on this. Good stuff.

        • May 1, 2012 7:46 am

          I often wonder if our education system were to teach and emphasize music and visual arts the same way we currently teach math and English – high stakes standardized testing and all – if society would stop loving art and music and start doing logic puzzles and math problems for fun.

  9. May 1, 2012 8:14 am

    You, sir, might be onto something there.

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