When I finally landed a permanent public school teaching job way back in 2009 I was handed the class of Geometry. Oh, did I hate teaching Geometry. Probably the biggest reason I hated Geometry was the fact that the only training in Geometry I ever had was taking the class as a freshman in high school. (I managed to miss Geometry in college due to the fact it was only offered every other year and there happened to be a change of professors as well, which messed with the scheduling.)

Anyway, Geometry is full of theorems, such as, “a line that is tangent to a circle is perpendicular to the radius of the circle at the point of intersection.” The textbook I used relied on using the theorems to set up algebraic equations. The vast majority of my students simply memorized the theorems and applied them as necessary. However, a few of my students wanted to know why the product of the segments of intersecting chords in a circle were equal. Guess how I answered.

“Because that’s the rule.”

“That’s what the book says.”

“This is preparing you for the workplace where you have to be able to apply rules.”

I’m sure there are more examples, but they are all in the same vain of, “just shut up and do the work.” It still makes me nauseous to think I was like that because that meant I only viewed my students as subjects to be controlled. I assumed that I was only like that in Geometry, but as that first year progressed I began to realize I was like that in Algebra I as well. Eventually I realized that I wasn’t teaching math, I was teaching how to get the correct answers to textbook problems. I was doing that because that’s all I had ever known. I taught how I had been taught. I could solve nearly every procedural problem in the book, but I still struggled with anything of a different context.

I was taught to look at a problem and recall the correct procedure. It forced me to develop a mentality towards school where I don’t question, but rather I obeyed. No one ever asked me to explain. I never asked why. I just did and I got rewarded. It’s kind of like one of those seal shows that happens at a zoo or aquarium.

Please take a moment to watch the video because it is the perfect metaphor for how I view the grade obsessed student. Imagine going to out in the wild and throwing that ball at a bunch of wild seals. If they could talk I’m pretty sure they would all say, “Ummm… yeah….WTF is with the ball?” And if I was the person that threw the ball I would say, “It’s MATH!!!!, and you use it everyday in your life.”

But the zoo seal plays with the ball because it knows it’s going to get dead fish, just like students solve equations because they know it will get good grades. That’s right, we’ve replaced dead fish with A’s. Neither the zoo seal or the honor roll student question why, they just want the reward. Play with ball, get fish. Solve for x, get A. Play with ball in front of people, get more fish and applause. Have a lot of A’s, get a name in paper, discount on insurance, or even tacos. It’s purely a conditioned response that requires no application or understanding.

Now imagine that zoo seal from the video is transferred to another zoo to teach the ball tricks. How does that go? Probably pretty smoothly for most good, tamed seals, but what if there is a newly captured seal from the wild? How does that zoo seal respond when questioned about purpose of the ball?

Pretty much the same way I did.