Is School Really About Education?

Today, and the next few days, I hope to be able to just talk to my students in one of my classes. I plan on using the timing of losing many students to senior class trip, along with having to do a mandated Ohio Means Jobs lesson. Many of the lessons are rather basic, or those that do require a little upper level math feel rather forced, kind of like they were copied straight out of the textbook. Yet somehow it has more career connections because it came from the state website instead of a textbook. But, like usual I need to digress before I start to ramble into something I really didn’t intend to talk about.

I have been using my blog to write about some of the more transformative experiences throughout my education and I spent a good chunk of last night rereading some of them. This wasn’t my first attempt at making a personal website, it just changed from what I originally thought it would be. Originally I was going to make a site to supplement my class, a resource for mathematical information. However, I am a unitasking teacher, so I really didn’t need a website to explain all the different methods I am using. Providing mathematical information was kind of pointless because there are hundreds of websites out there to do that, all of them better than anything I could produce. Why have I stuck with writing this time?

I used to consider myself an educator who happened to use math as my medium. To steal a line from my pastor, my purpose was to, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” My goal was to salvage education for those on the brink, the perennial discipline problems, the helpless, and to push the honor roll students to their limits. I felt like I accomplished this goal during a couple of years, and now I find myself constantly chasing that nostalgic moment.

Several years ago I stumbled across a blog that laid out in rather blunt terms the social contract that exists in most schools. (I didn’t bookmark it at the time and cannot find it again, but I want to make it clear that while I agree with the premise that will follow, I did not originate it.) It laid out a vision of school that really resonated with me after I had a nervous breakdown in front of a couple of students. Authentic learning is an inefficient, messy endeavor that is not conducive to a typical educational setting. A classroom inherently relies on efficiency to educate the masses. The problem is that this education resembles training more than education. To be effectively trained, quiet obedience is necessary, but in-depth thinking and analysis is not. A contract develops between teachers and students in this environment, one where the students agree to be obedient and complacent, and the teachers agree to not really make students think, but rather rely on memorization. Students are willing to sacrifice freedom and opinions in exchange for not being challenged.

School becomes a place where an encyclopedia of examples is memorized, and we denote the ability to memorize with grades.

After I had my nervous breakdown in Calculus I, I started teaching differently. Well, teaching in a traditional sense wouldn’t be the correct description. I talked with my students, explained everything in excruciating detail. Since it was more conversational in nature two things happened. One, it was easier to get off task. Two, the questions in class changed. It was less, “How do you…,” and more, “Why did that happen?” Every so often we would actually lose track of time and class would end with nothing resembling any sort of closure, and simply resume the next day. Instead of intro and hooks, we opened the book, picked a problem and started mathing. As a teacher, I absolutely loved it. Every statement or action I did was directly in response to something the students did, and every statement or action they did was in direct response to something I did.

There was only one problem with this set up. How do I grade an open-ended discussion? What if I abandoned my end of the social contract? No more grades.

It worked better than I could have hoped. No more grades, no more contract, no more complacency, actual thought.

The next year I decided to try it for a full year rather than a quarter with my next Calculus I class. Same result, but with an added bonus. I started to realize that there is a huge difference between productivity and learning. It was after one of our off task conversations, it could have been about college athletics, school rules, or whatever else, but it left me with an odd feeling. By any normal definition of a typical classroom it was a wasted day. But it didn’t feel like that. I felt like something was learned because my students engaged in some level of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I still knew how to set my foot down and decide we needed to do some math, but I stopped feeling guilty if every second of class wasn’t devoted to math.

Unfortunately the following year I did not have a Calculus I class. Additionally I had a Pre-Calculus class, a topic I hadn’t visited since my sophomore and junior year of high school. I was teaching Pre-Calc in a relatively traditional way, cover previous assignment, introduce topic, go through examples, release students to work independently. One day though, I had assigned the following problem from this book. It’s #18 on page 163.

A car leaves Oak Corners at 11:33 AM traveling south at 70 kmh. At the same time, another car is 65 km west of Oak Corners traveling east at 90 kmh.

a) Express the distance between the cars as a function of the time after the first car left Oak Corners.

b) Show that the cars are closest to each other at noon.

A student in class called me over to help her get started and another student joined in on the conversation. I became momentarily lost in the problem, probably a couple minutes elapsed, but when I looked up to talk to these two students I noticed every other single student had come over to observe. Right there it told me something wasn’t working. My students weren’t making the connections between the concepts I was teaching and the exercises that are supposed to enlighten those concepts. I immediately thought of my previous Calc class where I didn’t separate the concepts from the procedures and quickly sent out this poorly worded email.

I am looking for feedback on how I taught Calc I last year. Bascially, did the method of doing work in a small group and working through problems one at a time help or hinder your prepartation for whatever math, or attitude towards math, that you are encountering outside of high school? I ask because I have been burdened with trying to teach precalculus this year and I feel that my classes are creeping ever closer to the model that I used last year and the year before, just on a larger scale. If you guys feel that it actually helped your preparation I think I will try and do the same group work/pacing that we did with Calc. If it didn’t, I will stick with a more traditional model.

I know the sample size is tiny, but I received rather positive feedback. The closest to negative feedback I received was a student telling me he was on par with his classmates in the honors program where the students came from AP and IB classes. So I tried it with the larger group, and it worked surprisingly well. I had buy in from 12 of 14 students on a regular basis.

From these three years of experience I became comfortable admitting my own shortcomings in front of my students and learning with them at times. I accepted that I will never be able to embrace bell to bell productivity and always call it learning. I realized that the best learning is extremely difficult to pigeon hole into letter grades. Sometimes I would take a day off from math, but it never felt wasted because there is so much more to learn than what can be enlightened by mathematical procedures.

The next year I dropped many of the conventions found in the social contract of school. If the actions we were doing in class didn’t help enlighten mathematical knowledge, then I decided that that action was really about obedience. I stopped homework. I showed movies, played games, or just talked with my freshmen in Algebra I after they had mastered a set amount of material, which served the dual purpose of extrinsic motivation and allowed me to start to build personal connections. I completely eliminated the concept of a grade with my upper level electives and made the classes more about claiming authority over knowledge, rather than going over many different derivative rules.

There are things I can’t control in school, but for the first time I felt like I was actually teaching and the majority of my students were actually learning, instead of the usual dance around the burden of obedience. I had a purpose as an educator.

However,…

I no longer feel like I have a purpose as an educator who uses mathematics, but that I am now expected to be a provider of mathematical information, which makes be dependent on obedience. I’ve been told that students are liars (“they will just lie to protect you”). I’ve been told that students are not smart enough to engage with material (“they can’t be expected to push themselves like that”). I’ve been told that students are nothing but disrespectful and rude (“punch them in the face and tell them to shut it”). I could keep going, but I hope the picture is becoming clear. For the past three years, I feel like my work environment has been one that distrusts its most important stakeholders, its students, and places a premium on obedience and complacency.

That’s why I keep writing this time, because I’ve lost the autonomy to have these conversations about obedience with my students. If this was three years ago, I don’t think this blog would exist because it’s contents would exist between me and my students.

Why do We Forget Everything that We do in Class?

My fourth year of teaching I really began to reflect upon the purpose of my educational experiences. Specifically, the purpose of taking so many college courses to become a teacher. (How does having Abstract Algebra help me teach Algebra I?) It was after I admitted that I really didn’t know the math I was teaching I began to question the whole purpose of school as we know it.

As educators, we like to toss around rhetorical statements about mastery of material, but the reality is that the vast majority of the students we see will quickly forget the material we taught them. I don’t mean kind of forgetting and becoming rusty with the material, but completely forgetting it, so that if they were to encounter the material in several years it will be as if it never happened. I had this happen at my in-laws over Christmas break a few years ago. I had given my Algebra I class a worksheet where they were asked to find solutions to systems of linear equations by graphing. I was in the basement correcting, and as a joke I decided to give it my brother-in-law who had never passed College Algebra. (He is a college grad because he ended up using a Statistics class for the math requirement, which prevented him from becoming a history teacher, which make any sense to me.) He couldn’t do anything on the worksheet. As the rest of the family made fun of him he offered to let them try. My in-laws have six members in the immediate family, five of the six are college grads of typical four year universities. Only one of the six could come even close so correctly solving a systems of equations, and it was the one member who only graduated high school.

Combined, my in-laws have at least 18 credits of college level math completed, yet were clueless when it came to something that was standard fare for 9th grade students at the time. That experience, combined with my own struggles with teaching mathematics, made me question the whole purpose of education as we know it. I often hear math being defended as a subject worthy of study because it teaches critical thinking and problem solving skills. But critical thinking skills cannot be taught outside of a context, and if the context is impermanent has anything really been learned? No content retained, no thinking retained, nothing learned. I started to view my college diploma not as an accomplishment, but as a receipt for time spent avoiding the realities of life.

I am enough a pragmatist to admit that not every student can be reached. I know that there will inevitably some students who slip through the cracks no matter what opportunities are presented to them. I also know that there are some students that will achieve tremendous things in spite of everything obstacle placed in their way. I know that there is a group of students who have their destiny already determined and are just surviving the hoops placed in front of them. But there is a group of students who need school to be something more. This group needs school to be a place where knowledge is gained and retained, and it will be used to push their limits. There is this group that needs to be broken out of the complacency of unquestioned honor rolls and 4.0s.

That group of students will never be served until we can unequivocally answer the question, “Why do we forget everything we learn in school?”

My epiphany occurred when I was teaching Algebra I in 2010. There was one problem the class wanted me to go over from the homework assignment. I asked for volunteers, which there were none. Probably yet another assignment that was either incomplete, copied, or just mindlessly filled in hopes of a completion grade, I thought to myself. The question came from this book, and was found on page 422. It’s number #47

In your chemistry class you have a bottle of 5% boric acid and a bottle of 2% boric acid solution. You need 60 milliliters of 3% boric acid solution for an experiment. How much of each solution do you need to mix together?

I couldn’t do it, couldn’t figure out the answer. I gave the answer that was in the teacher’s edition, but I didn’t have the worked out solutions manual and I had no clue how to get the answer. I have a BA in mathematics, taken courses such as Calculus I, II, and III, Ordinary Differential Equations, Elementary Statistics, Linear Algebra, Abstract Algebra, Physics I and II. I took three rounds of Chemistry classes for my science requirements. I graduated Cum Laude. I ….couldn’t do 9th grade math. That’s kind of humiliating, especially in front of freshmen.

At first I took the rust route of blame, “It’s been years since I’ve seen a problem like this.” That was my scapegoat for my struggles in Calculus I also. It kind of falls in line with that old cliche, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” As I thought about that more and more, it just didn’t resonate very well with me. Instead of wondering why we forget everything we learned in school, I started a little thought experiment with myself.

What if that’s the point. What if we are supposed to forget everything we learn in school, unless we are explicitly using it. If we are supposed to forget, then what is the purpose of any class in the first place? The only logical conclusion I could reach was as some sort of gate keeping mechanism. Basically, as a society, we are finding out how much a person can temporarily withstand in pursuit of obtaining a long term goal. Once the goal has been achieved, the path to get there can be forgotten.

Want to be a doctor? Well, you’ll need to pass at least Calculus I. Why? Because I want to find out how bad you want to be a doctor. Once you’ve become a doctor, you can forget all that calc crap anyway. (I would venture that this a rather common sentiment, though I am basing it on my personal anecdotal evidence.) The only reason academics would exist then is to torture students, as a way of weeding out the weak.  Ghoulish images of evil old men devising ways to make students confused. “Quadratic Formula…Muwahahaha…”

Solely because of my principles, I refuse to believe that all of math was created as a means of inflicting pain on students. That might be the very real world outcome, but that can’t be the reason for the existence of academic subjects. This was a turning point for me, I either had to accept that the whole premise of school was to make students suffer through some kind of sorting mechanism, or I need to find a purpose behind the math I am teaching. Not only did there need to be a purpose for the math, I needed to find out why do we seemed doomed to forget everything we learn in school. Over the course of the past six years, here is what I believe causes us to seemingly forget so much of what we learn in school.

There are two large elephants that hang over public education that I don’t believe gets the level of discussion they deserve. One is determined largely upon genetics, and the other would require a massive change in society. This means that we should acknowledge them, but realize that they probably won’t change.

Cognitive Ability

The longer I have taught the more I believe that people get equal opportunity and equal outcomes confused. (If you’re not sure what I mean, the movie Ratatouille is a good example). There is such a stigma surrounding cognitive ability that I don’t know if we could ever design an education system that actually meets the needs of everyone involved. If I want to actually bring up cognitive ability in designing a curriculum or class schedule, I am at best written off as being an elitist or worse, thought of as being an inhumanely, cruel, dream crusher. Why? Because I don’t believe I can change someone’s cognitive ability any more than a basketball coach can change someone’s height. So when I am told another story about everyone achieving amazing results, it makes me think of every basket ball player dunking on a 7 foot hoop. Unfortunately, I believe that we have sacrificed so much of our students’ potential at the alter of equality. When we think and act like everyone is the same we decide we know what’s best, which leads me to…

Compulsion

We force students into school to take subjects they may or may not want to. We take this very heterogeneous group, force them into the meat grinder that is academia, and expect uniform results. There are countless analogies written about how school is like a prison, which to some extent are accurate. The problem with compulsion is that it forces people to do an activity, and when an activity is forced it will ultimately be of poor quality, whether or not that activity was enjoyed at one point. And if it wasn’t enough that we force students to go to school, we force them to take subjects that many in society view as largely useless. Then when we find students’ math skills lacking, we force them to take more, so they will be better prepared. It really is a vicious cycle.

I don’t think anything can be done to solve the problems posed by cognitive ability and compulsion, but at least acknowledging them would allow us to try and design an appropriate curriculum and structure, rather than the insanity we have now. But forcing students to do something they don’t want to is really going to impact…

Motivation

Yes, they are forced to go to school, but what do they get out of class? Are they just trying to graduate? Do they need an ‘A’? Maybe they want to graduate with honors. It doesn’t matter, all of these are extrinsic motivators and are doomed to fail. Maybe the student will be fine in the long run, for example, the doctor who can’t remember linear relationships are modeled by y=mx+b, but nothing will remain in long term memory if extrinsic motivation was the reason. That’s because extrinsic motivation doesn’t produce results, just the opposite, they hinder results. Intrinsic motivation is the way to go. If students want to understand that tangent lines are perpendicular to radii of circles, they simply want to have to know WHY. The questions and problems have to be motivating enough, they need to be an end to themselves, not a means to an end. I might be able to convince a student that mathematics might provide a pathway to becoming an engineer, but I cannot make a student value mathematics for itself. I might be able to force compliance, but I just can’t make a student want to learn anything. And when students aren’t motivated to learn, they fall victim to…

Distraction

If you are motivated, you are hard to distract. No motivation, easily distracted. The problem in a classroom is that distraction is not just limited to cell phones. If students are thinking about an upcoming Physics test, they are distracted, even though they might appear compliant. Overcoming distraction takes difficult, self-aware, personal work, and the ability to admit that multi-tasking doesn’t work. I will freely admit, that as a teacher that I do not try an eliminate all distractions for a couple of reasons. First, I firmly believe that limiting distractions is a personal endeavor and is best achieved through intrinsic means, not extrinsic. When students think, rather than rely on memory, distraction is difficult. Ironically, if students are thinking, distracting noises can actually be beneficial, as long as it’s not above typical human conversation, like sitting in a restaurant. When students are trying to memorize information for recall any sort of background noise can be distracting and detrimental. Which leads perfectly to…

Learned Helplessness

“I need help.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Is this right?”

As a teacher I have to acknowledge that I am somewhat an accomplice in this behavior. Students can only be told they are wrong so many times before they just start to assume anything they do will be wrong.  At that point math, or any subject, becomes some arbitrary set of rules to memorize, so students no longer have the capability of understanding their own work, which makes them reliant on the teacher for validation. When students encounter a problem many will start to try and recall previous examples. If they cannot find one similar enough to duplicate in their memory, they quit. They are helpless. They are helpless because students don’t actually like to think.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the responsibility is placed upon the students. Teachers have their role in memory retention also, which I feed into by…

Pseudoteaching

This isn’t a scientifically researched topic as far as I know, but this post about pseudoteaching is one of the most influential I have ever read. I used to be a much more traditional teacher in format. I would spend several minutes going over previous homework, then I would spend several minutes going over new material, and finally give students several minutes to start their own assignment. The problem was that for the majority of the class it was only me doing any thinking, and then it wasn’t much. Even when I would present new material, I made sure to provide examples of everything that might appear on the homework, explicitly saying, “on this section you will see….” Pseudoteaching isn’t about methods, style or entertainment. It occurs when the teacher is the only one doing any thinking and the students nod along in agreement. They nod along because everything the teacher does makes sense. Then they try the homework or take a test and go, “What?!” So my goal is to try to create some controlled confusion, hopefully to make students uncomfortable. If students can embrace being uncomfortable, and differentiate their discomfort from being loss, then they are in the right environment for learning to occur. One thing I can do to try and cause some discomfort is to use…

The Worked Example Effect

The worked example effect is one part of cognitive load theory. Worked examples are one of the most efficient ways to learn a new task, however they pose a slippery slope. The best way to master a new concept or task is through goal free, open ended questions. But those types of questions pose a problem, one of efficiency. To increase efficiency, worked examples are used to guide students. If too many are used, if the tasks to be mastered are too similar though, worked examples actually have the effect of killing thought and creativity, which is why students end up relying on memorizing rather than thinking. My goal in class then is to use some worked examples. I might only use a couple and then make sure the tasks to be completed differ from the examples, or I might start, but not finish the example, forcing the students to complete it. The tough part for me as a teacher is trying to find the delicate balance between efficiency and mastery. Provide too many worked examples and I am contributing to learned helplessness, don’t provide enough and there is no semblance of efficiency. Worked examples are the primary medium in which I invest, but I also need to know…

Other Cognitive Theories

I need to know about the spacing effect and how to use it. I need to know about the expertise reversal effect and how to avoid it. I need to know about ways to reduce cognitive load. I need to know that learning styles, though they sound nice, basically have no evidence for their existence. I need to find a way to convince my students to overlearn. All these things will help students move what is learned into long-term memory. The goal is to force new information into a schema, which are large, framework like memories that allow us to interpret and analyze new information. If I can accomplish all this, and I find students willing to embrace it, maybe, just maybe, some sort of knowledge might last beyond the semester exam.

 

Please notice that nowhere did I talk about making learning interesting or relevant. Those are nice if they are available, but the purpose of this post is to discuss why we seem to forget everything we learn in school. Maybe that’s our destiny as a society, and until we stop using education certificates as economic gate keeping mechanisms, we will be stuck with an ever forgetting society. It kind of makes me sick that our education system is that, but it is what it is.

 

A Summary of Why We Forget What We Learned

Students come are forced to come to school and teachers are forced to teach certain topics. We both need to get over it. If we can’t let coercion component go, our motivation will always suffer. When we rely on punishment and rewards to motivate us, we never really do any action to the benefit of knowledge. All we ever do is try to avoid detentions and get stickers on our diplomas, the knowledge is actually pretty irrelevant. If we don’t care about the knowledge, we will turn our attention to something we actually care about, like Snapchat stories. Between our distracted attention and our willful ignorance of cognitive differences, we condition ourselves to dislike thinking, or at least thinking about academics. When we avoid thinking, we rely on memory because it is so much easier. Teachers provide step by step examples and students memorize them, meaning their knowledge is only, at best, an encyclopedia of examples, devoid of all meaning and context. It allows all students to succeed as defined by grades, but leaves us in the unfortunate position of creating a definition of book smart, which apparently doesn’t have anything to do with actual intelligence. When school is about book smarts, we are acknowledging the irrelevance of academic knowledge. We only perform tasks to get the grade, the test score, the scholarship, the degree, the paycheck, or the promotion. Once we get what we want, we don’t care. The memory is gone, poof, vanished.

This won’t change until we learn how to make ourselves care. It’s not about technology, movies, rewards, grades, tickets, 3 acts, projects, discovery, or anything else. It is about you. You control your care, and when you figure out how to care, you will see that you won’t forget.

Having a Nervous Breakdown

During my second year of teaching Calculus I had a nervous breakdown in front of my students. I can’t remember exactly what topic I was trying to explain, I think it was the idea behind the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, but I’m not sure. What I do remember was the feeling and how it started.

I was going over some procedure and explaining how to get the correct answer and one of the students asked me a simple question.

“Why did you do that?”

As soon as I thought about it I felt the sinking feeling of not knowing why. I hate that and have talked about it before. This time though, I didn’t respond with a command of just shut up and do the problem, and I did this for a couple of reasons. One, I was going through some graduate school classes that was completely rearranging my concept of knowledge. Two, the class consisted of only two students which had allowed me to develop more of a personal relationship than is typically involved in a classroom.

When I couldn’t explain the mathy stuff to my students beyond a just mimic me response, I stopped teaching. I literally stopped teaching and just sat there in class. After a few minutes I admitted that I had no idea what I was doing. It is blatantly obvious to most people that math that is used in school isn’t like math in reality, so if I can’t even explain what is happening, what’s the point of the entire endeavor?

I imagine that everyone has been in a class where they have thought to themselves, that the teacher has no clue what is going on, but I can’t imagine many people being in a class where the teacher came in on day one and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing…so, let’s get started.” While it wasn’t day one, that was essentially what I was doing in front of my students, admitting that I am clueless.

If I did that in class today I wonder how my students would respond? I fear they would use it as a justification to tune me out more than many of them already do. (He doesn’t know what’s going on why should I bother.) I fear that they would use it as a justification to complain about grades. (How can he give me a C when he doesn’t understand the stuff himself?) But when I admitted my cluelessness to these two Calculus students they didn’t pounce at the opportunity to take control of the class. I was met with empathy and sympathy, and it immediately transformed the class dynamic. No matter how comfortable I had felt with students in the past it was always centered around a me-them type relationship, but from my meltdown to the rest of the year, class took on a more of an us mentality. It was still a classroom, and I still had more mathematical knowledge than them, but I didn’t feel like the dispenser and controller of knowledge anymore. It felt more like I was talking with them rather than talking at them, as if we were exploring together.

What I learned from that moment on was that my classroom needs to be a place where vulnerability is acceptable, though I think I’ve lost that.  We finished out the rest of the year learning Calculus together. Some days were smooth, some days were messy, but it always felt as if it was together. Sometimes we talked about a concept for the entire period with no math written. Some days we worked on procedures from the book. Some days we did other non-math related stuff and embraced the human element of school. Looking back on the experience, it was probably the first time that I felt like authentic learning was occurring in my classroom and was finally finding a vision of what I want education to be.

That moment became the impetus that lead to what I consider the best two years of teaching in my life. Every class seemed to develop some sense of supportive community. I felt free to experiment with ideas and push the limits of my students. Unfortunately I have watched that environment whittle away that past three years. Why don’t I have that accepting, vulnerable, safe, welcoming classroom centered around togetherness? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know much has changed over the past three years. My schedule changed, students have changed, I have changed, administration has changed, technology has changed, testing has changed, all of this leaving me more disillusioned than I have been in a long time. Maybe I have to have one of those coming to Jesus type moments like I did way back in 2011 when I had a nervous breakdown. I don’t know.

All I know for certain is that right now, there are way more days that I leave work unfilled, like my presence at school has served no purpose. I was under no assumption that everyday would be a rewarding bed of roses when I started this profession, but I am tired of feeling like a piece of shit at the end of nearly every day.

Feeling Nostalgic Tonight

Two interesting things happened a few days ago. In one class, as I was trying to push some students with “why” type questions, a student pointed out that I seem to have disagreements with the American education system. In the next class, a student mentioned that she wasn’t sure where she was going to college. Well, I felt like a failure right then and there, but why? I am just a math teacher, my responsibility is to teach math, everything else is the responsibility of the student, right?

After the class of 2013 graduated, I decided the answer was no. The class of 2013 was the first group of freshman I had at my current job. I had many of them for three years of classes, and several for four. In a way I kind of grew up in my teaching along with them. Growing up with them meant that I formed countless inside jokes and built a level of comfort so that I could try and push their boundaries. In return, they pushed my boundaries as a teacher as well. This was the group that got to watch me experiment with different formats and styles. It was towards the end of their time with me that I began to regret that I didn’t demand more.

When I say demand more, I am not talking about academics. I have mentioned previously about how grad school affected my concept of knowledge, but it also made me realize that many more students are capable of achieving goals they never believed if put in the right environment. There was a segment of that graduating class that reminded me of myself. It was a group of students whose cognitive ability would allow them to pursue nearly anything they wanted, but they seemed to be going through the motions.

There was no subject or activity that invoked some sort of passion. If something did create a spark of interest, they were overwhelmed with worries about future career prospects. The cost of college frightened several to the point of not even trying.

They reminded me of myself because I was that student that was doing what I supposed to do. I had the good grades and test scores that got me the scholarships, but I didn’t have any real sort of passion. When I went to college I chose a major not based upon some sort of calling or desire, but on future career prospects. I chose my college largely based upon how much it would cost.

When I graduated I found myself wondering, now what? Six years into my career I found myself wondering, is this it? I felt like I had done everything society ever had told me to do, I got good grades, I was respectful, I stayed out of trouble, I participated in voluntary activities, I held down a part time job in school, got married, bought a house, had kids, and at 27 I felt like it was a big let down. Where’s my stability? Why don’t I have the enjoyable career? All that work for just a paycheck. Then I started to worry that I would take it out on my kids, literally and figuratively.

I don’t know what the future holds for the class of 2013, but there is a handful of students that come to mind that I wish I would have pushed more. I think I did an adequate job getting most ready for college math, or at least no worse than any other teacher, but I have this nagging feeling that I should be responsible for more than just an ACT score. My job should be to guide students down a path towards a rewarding livelihood, whether that be changing their current path or encouraging them on the one they are on. If that isn’t my job I should be replaced with an automated math program, like Khan Academy.

The next year I decided to make some changes. In a conversation with a coworker I mentioned that I decided to do what I thought was right. In earlier years I had learned that I cannot impact a student’s cognitive abilities any more than I can impact a student’s height. But I had learned that I can impact a student’s EQ. I had the most efficient, productive, fun, off-task Algebra I class I ever had to that point. I was fortunate to have a small group of dedicated seniors that let me push their limits (I cannot emphasize how much it was pushed), and I don’t solely mean academic. I proof read essays and talked about college with them. I got them to question assignments instead of just complying with the assignment. Seriously, coloring as as a senior? Not everyday was about math, but everyday felt productive.

I hope that when they left that something stuck, and I’m not necessarily talking about math rules. I hope that they developed a perseverance they didn’t have before. I hope that they developed an understanding of what it means to know something. I hope that when they left me, they learned not to be content with complacency. I know that sounds kind of hippieish, but I do consider myself an idealist at times. To me though, that’s what school should be about, not power-reduction rules.

So when that student said she didn’t know where she was going to college, my heart sank. I have known this student for four years. I have had a few opportunities to push her in the past, but this should have been the year that I had her, and a couple of other potential filled students, in a small group that would have allowed me to shift the focus of education away from math. It pains me because it is reminiscent of the class of 2013 all over again. They told me their plans, or lack of them, and kept my mouth shut. I’m back at that regret all over again. Things change and the good times can’t last forever, but there has to be some way for me to get at least closer to what I had. When I reminisce about those years I don’t know if I made a difference in those student’s lives, but I know I’m not making a difference now.

Why Do So Many Students Take Remedial Classes in College?

My first year of teaching at my current school I was given a Calculus I course. I was scared to death. Calculus! It had been six years since I had done any math above an Algebra I level, and I had never taught anything above an Algebra I course.

The Calculus class is entirely elective at my school, so all the students that were in my class all wanted to be there to some extent. They should therefore represent some of the most academically driven students we have. We also offer dual enrollment options through the area schools. One day one of the students in my first Calculus class asked me for some help with some of his college math homework. As I was helping him I asked him what class he was taking at the community college because the math questions seemed lower than the topics we were working on in Calculus. He responded that he was working on a College Algebra class.

I was shocked. Here was this student who had passed Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, currently in Calculus I, maintaining a good GPA, staying on honor roll, and would eventually graduate near the top of his class, but he was struggling in College Algebra at community college. While he was my first personal experience with this phenomenon I started asking around and found out that it was kind of common for a college bound students to be placed into remediation.

I started to hypothesize why this was happening and came up with some possibilities.

It’s all a conspiracy for colleges to make more money.

Think about it. We tell students they get free college. Colleges get extra state funding that would normally be sent to public schools. Incentive exists to have a placement test that forces students to start at remedial classes. That way high school students would have to take at least two math classes at the college before receiving even credit for one college level math class, which means more money for the college. The colleges can hide their greed behind the placement test scores and deflect blame to the bad high school teachers.

While I think there is an element of plausibility to the idea of a conspiracy, I have too much faith in educators at any level to be driven by greed.

The students just don’t test well.

Anxiety is a very, very real issue. But, ugh, come on.

If I am writing off the idea of anxiety as a reason for remediation. how is it possible that a student appears to be excelling in my class, but struggling with the same topic in another setting?

It’s my fault. I suck at teaching.

If it’s not the student and it’s not about greed, then it must be my fault. At least I am not alone in being a crappy teacher though. Roughly 20% of all college freshmen will take some sort of remedial class, and of those in the remedial classes, 4 out of 5 had GPA’s above 3.0. Since the early 2000s colleges have turned increasingly to placement tests like the Accuplacer, or standardized tests scores, like the ACT, to determine if students are academically ready for college level work. Colleges just want to make sure that students are prepared for the work they will encounter. I thought my students were doing well, colleges didn’t, therefore I suck.

 

It was during that year that I realized that there was something wrong with the way I had experienced education. I was 26, in my first year at my current job, and had never previously questioned the whole system. Sure, I had the sympathetic talks about schools being like prison, or generic work ethic or critical thinking dialogues with students, but I had always believed in the piety of the enterprise. That year started me on a journey that I have never abandoned.

Twitter Math Makes Me Feel Dumb

Tonight has been weird. I left school with my mind fluctuating between anger, disappointment, and curiosity. I was curious about reflections and the thought of reflecting a triangle over a parabola came to mind, wondering if it would have some sort of fun house mirror effect. The more I thought about it on my commute home tonight I realized that derivatives would be involved, so clearly this wasn’t going to be something I could try to do in Geometry.

Then when I checked Twitter tonight I saw this.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Reflecting over a circle <a href=”https://t.co/WaqQ04G5ji”>https://t.co/WaqQ04G5ji</a&gt; <a href=”https://t.co/1zzqMf1nKh”>pic.twitter.com/1zzqMf1nKh</a></p>&mdash; Christopher (@Trianglemancsd) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Trianglemancsd/status/837071141873164290″>March 1, 2017</a></blockquote>
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Low and behold, nested within the Twitter stream was a question involving reflecting parabolas. I thought it was neat to watch the discussion unfold in front of me, but when I came across the term normal line, I felt stupid. I had no idea what a normal line is. I don’t know if I never was introduced to the term, or I had forgotten, but I do know it’s not that I was rusty. So rather than try to participate, I just kind of shut down because it made me feel dumb.

The problem I have is that I am the math zombie that became the teacher. I finished a math degree and didn’t really know math. I discovered I was a math zombie when I first began teaching Algebra I and I couldn’t answer a typical mixture problem. (If I had a book with me I probably could find the exact problem since it was that scarring.) Any math that I actually know has been more or less self taught with the aid of textbooks, YouTube, perseverance, an enormous debt of gratitude to the History professors at BGSU who challenged my conception of knowledge, and the students who drug me through. Hopefully that doesn’t mean I am dumb, but that does mean that my mathematical knowledge is extremely piecemeal and lacking in formality. Some of the reasoning I try to share with my high school students clearly lacks the rigor of proper mathematics, as has clearly been pointed out on occasion, but I can confidently say it is mine. Sometimes the responses sting though. I was so excited to share my explanation about rationalization with the world, but was dismissed by some because of canonical forms and the definition of radix. I had to look up canonical forms (which made me want to flip that guy the bird) and I’m still not sure what a radix is or how it impacts square roots. Kind of rips the confidence straight out from under me.

But as painful as times like these are, it helps remind me what it must be like for my students. I can empathize with ALMOST every single student in class to some extent, at least in the attitude towards academics, because I have been there. Math wasn’t, and still isn’t, always easy for me, I need moments like tonight to remind me of that. When I leave work angry and disappointed because of student work, it’s night’s like these that I remember what it was like…

to be worried about grades first and foremost.

to not wanting to focus because other assignments are due.

to just not being able to think about math because, well, just not today.

to struggle to try and remember all the steps in this witchcraft.

to look at a quiz and think, “We didn’t go over that!”

to wanting to just get by and get done.

In a perfect world all my students would come to me with amazing prerequisite knowledge and be highly motivated to learn. That’s not the world we live in though. Without empathy for all the situations our students find themselves in, to many of us wind up browbeating kids into obedient behavior, which just breeds a culture of compliance. My hope is that with some understanding and a little patience I can get a student to want to contemplate the reflection of a triangle over a parabola because…, well,…why not?

Stupid

“This is stupid.”

That seems to be a common way that students will vent their frustrations with academics. Okay, maybe it isn’t verbatim, but every time that a subject’s legitimacy is questioned with a dumb, stupid, or pointless, the sentiment is always the same. It’s what leads my students to write poetry like this.

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I don’t mind this, and I actually like the creativity behind it. Even now I have days where the last thing I want to do is go stand in front of 15-20 adolescences and talk about math. Usually though, the, “this is stupid,” sentiment comes from an incomplete understanding of the mathematical concepts being taught. Students know that the classes are important to their long term goals, but they realize that the math in the class is not important to their long term goal. Consequently, students become more obsessed with getting the correct answers, which leads them to ask, “how to do…” rather than the all important why. They want to get through class with the highest possible grade with the least amount of effort because the math itself isn’t important.

(My wife has a Doctorate of Chiropractic and has diagnosed some really cool stuff that I wouldn’t expect from chiropractors. But a few nights ago she couldn’t remember the formula for circumference of a circle. Yet she has a college transcript that shows she has successfully completed Calculus I. Needed the class to get into grad school, but not the math. She thinks math is stupid.)

Why this behavior manifests is a discussion I would love to have, but will do so in a different post. What I want to talk about in this one is what is class is like when everything is “stupid.” When my students experience this frustrations, I am more than empathetic to them because I have been in their place.

I enjoyed school throughout high school, but that enjoyment was based upon my success. When I started to struggle with school the enjoyment diminished. That mindset started to create a correlation, so the more I struggled, the more stupid I thought school was. Sometimes I would spend class time thinking about other assignments that needed to be completed, or about an upcoming work shift, or just spent time lost in my own contempt for all the students who seemed to get everything. The nice thing in college is that attendance is rarely required and majors can be changed. In high school though our students are stuck in that environment, they need Geometry, Algebra II, and maybe even Pre-Calculus just to gain the economic stability that comes with a high school diploma.

Looking back on my educational experience, I have noticed that my classes seemed to segregate based upon our attitudes towards school. There was me and the other future math teachers who would constantly complain about why we had to take classes we would never use, complained about the homework we couldn’t do, and looked upon our classmates that could engage with the professors with a mix of disdain and wonderment. Sure we were all math majors, but we weren’t a unified group. I never went to their study session, and mine, when they would exist usually turned into general venting sessions. Now that I am the teacher, I see this behavior manifest itself in my classes to some extent. We like to trumpet the positives of heterogeneity, but ultimately even our students know that homogeneity creates better learning conditions. All of my classes had an element of heterogeneity which allowed me to find the other students who also thought, “this is stupid.”

The first time I ever entered a classroom environment where true homogeneity existed was when I was 26, and entering grad school. The class was grueling work, especially with working full-time, buying a house, and starting a family. A typical workload was at least 1 book (non-fiction, dense, historical reading) that would be discussed each week, 1 book to present and discuss with the class about every three or four weeks, and 2-3 papers of original research during the semester. I don’t think I had read 5000 pages cumulative during my lifetime, let alone academic reading, in three and a half months. Then showing up once a week and discussing this for three plus hours, it was just too much.

But, as I quickly found out, I was the only one who felt like that.

That got real lonely, real quick. Instead of dropping out though, I slowly mimicked and embraced that behaviors that lead me to actually understand knowledge rather than just memorize answers. I started to speak up with original ideas, finding out even if they were dismissed I was not ridiculed. I began to ask questions in discussions and then participating in discussions. By the end of the class I was fully immersed in the subject matter, picking up the behaviors of my fellow classmates for which the subject was a real thing, and not just something stupid that is meant to be survived.

What I learned about myself was that I was part of that 80% of students who could achieve something (made me look back on my undergrad with regret), but could also become abject failures. I figured out that I was a product of my environment. If I was around highly motivated, inquisitive students, I became like those students, and if I was surrounded by students who wanted the grade, I became that grade motivated student who thinks classes are stupid. When I went back to the classroom I figured out that I am still part of that 80%, even though I am now a teacher. Essentially that means that a student will get out of me what they want. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing, but it is reality.

One of the perks of working in a small school is that I get to see most of my students year after year and I know some of my students fall victim to me being unable to influence the environment inside my own classroom. I have watched some of the most inquisitive, creative minds stumble into a complacent stupor when surrounded by peers who just want the right answers and don’t really care why. I have also been surprised by watching some of the most indoctrinated students blossom, also when surrounded by the motivated knowledge driven students. I can try to influence students, but ultimately I am at the mercy of the dominant students in my classes, even if they are unaware they are the dominant influence.

I am empathetic to my students who are just trying to graduate. I just wish they could surround themselves with students who cared.