I Wanted to Write a Math Post…I Really Did

Here’s a scenario for you MTBoS, can I rotate a point on the coordinate plane 53 degrees without the aid of a protractor or some sort of technology beyond a scientific calculator? I had been wondering since the day I told my classes that they wouldn’t have to worry about knowing anything beyond a multiple of 90 degrees. On my drive home I started to visualize ways that trig functions could do the rotation of any angle and have been wanting to try it out during class.

I found an opportunity after school today to attempt my rotation frustration with a student. She took a different approach then I would have. She established where a 90 degree rotation would have been and then did proportions to figure out the new point. For example, we used (3,4) rotating to (-4,3) and since 53/90 became about 58%, she used 58% of 7 (the distance between 3 and -4), and found the rotated x value to be about -1.1.  As we took time to accurately graph what she was doing, we noticed that what she had created was a right triangle with legs of 7 and 1 and she was finding a specific position along the hypotenuse of the right triangle. This was different than what I had found using trig functions to rotate the original triangle formed by (3,4). In contrast to her, I had formed an arc, not a line. This led us to contemplate what is actually meant by rotation, of which we didn’t draw any firm conclusion. It has also lead me wondering if there is a way to make our answers match, can I extend her hypotenuse point out to meet my arc?

It’s discussions like the one above that I live for as a teacher. I think it is the goal of many math teachers to make their students think like that. I think it is the desire for OCTM, NCTM, and even CCS to get students to that point. The problem is that it is really hard to grade that dialogue. It was a dialogue without a designated answer, in which no firm conclusion was drawn, yet so much learning occurred. But it was so wonderful that I dream of the day that I can get a class where that is the norm for 179 days. I have that dream because I have had that class in the past and I know that is how school can have some sort of lasting impact. Those wonderful dialogues are part of a mechanism that can help change and challenge a student’s emotional intelligence.

A couple of years ago I had fortune to have a math textbook with a misprint in the answer key. We dubbed it the impossible problem from the blizzard bag. It was a problem that required the use of logarithms. I gave it to a couple of students to attempt throughout the day, and two of them perfectly illustrate my understanding of emotional intelligence. One student was in his fourth class with me. He had bore the brunt of the harassment I call teaching in at least two of his four classes. When he was presented with the impossible problem, he solved it correctly, saw the answer in the book, and then explained why the book answer was impossible. The other student also solved the problem correctly, but when she didn’t get the answer the book had, she redid the problem two more times. At that point she gave up, frustrated that she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong.

The first student, I don’t think he ever held the stereotype of being a genius (sorry if you read this and figure out who you are, I really do think highly of you), but he had embraced the challenges that I had thrown at him about justifying everything, about making sure stuff made sense, and when the time came to claim his authority, he did. The second student, who probably has a higher IQ, never learned to explain and justify her answers. She never learned to claim authority over knowledge always relying on some external force to reaffirm truth. Students like this are ultimately subservient to the textbook or the teacher. I realize that maybe it’s just math for some of these students, but it is frequent enough it does make me worry.

It’s hard to imagine students who come into class and demand to be complacent and feeble minded. Why would anyone want that? It’s not that students want to lack authority, but they are making an economic decision. They are smart enough to know that their worth is measured by two numbers, their GPA and their ACT (or SAT) scores. They want to go to college, and they know that colleges just plug those numbers into a matrix that will then tie a dollar value to the student. The numbers themselves have more value than the knowledge that those numbers represent.  That is why students will ask me, “Is this going to be on the test?” Or my personal favorite, “Do I need to know this,” implying that much of what I teach is actually worthless.

The student with whom I was working on rotations was not there for that purpose. She had come into work on ACT math, of which three problems stand out.

  1. Sequences – She caught on quick, it was the notation holding her up. That is entirely my fault for not showing the notation in her previous classes.
  2. Matrix Multiplication – I haven’t done matrix multiplication since college and wasn’t introduced to it until my junior year in college, in a Linear Algebra class. Why is this on the ACT?
  3. Graphing on the Complex Plane – I have never done this, ever, at any level.

All three of those topics are very specific and can be memorized with very little understanding. Memorizing enough of those has thousands of dollars worth of value. What she did with the rotations, while fascinating and enlightening for me to watch how her mind works, has no immediate impact. Why do we seem shocked by students who like plug and chug math?

So MTBoS, we preach mathematical thinking, growth mindsets, grit, and any number of ideological approaches that hopefully will create enlightened problem solvers, but our students live in a world where they are valued upon correct answers, not original thought. Math as I know it, is essentially useless to many of my students, but the right answers have thousands of dollars worth of value. How do we show them empathy for their plight, but get them to embrace our ideals? I ask you MTBoS because I am losing my students.

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