Winging It

I hate how time dictates the school day. I hate how we expect drastically different students to learn the same material, at the same age, at the same time of day, and even at the same pace. Sure some have drank the differentiation Kool-aid, but we haven’t yet differentiated high school as a whole. Same graduation requirements, same times, everything is the same.

From my experience, the majority of teaching takes the form of presentation of material, followed by some guided structure with the teacher, and then some independent time for the students to practice. This is the typical I do, We do, You do approach to education. When I prepared for this approach I would carefully think out my presentations. They wouldn’t be flashy, but I would take a substantial time to think about how I was going to talk about something, what I wanted students to notice, and what examples I want students to use. My goal wasn’t to entertain, but it was my goal to make the information clear. Though there are supporters of the entertainment aspect of education.

Are you not entertained?! When I used to show that to students they would remark that the class looks fun, that he makes the subject matter exciting. However, at the end of his courses, the attendance rates and failure rates were similar to other classes. So if the results were the same, what is the point of all that prep work to make the presentations exciting?

Maybe my presentations weren’t nearly as entertaining, but at least I was being clear on what I want accomplished. I started class telling the students what we’re going to do today. I wrote up clear definitions and gave clear examples with multiple steps shown. But the goal of education should be to create students with the ability to think, which involves a whole host of issues. Part of the problem with using clearly stated goals is that novice learners will only focus on the goals, most likely bypassing interesting and important connections along the way. Yes, I know that that study is talking about reading, but from my experience students do that with just about everything they do.

To put it another way, when I was presenting mathematical information I was covering information that is part of a complex tapestry of mathematics. However, my students only take in minor details, basically ignoring as much of my voice as they could, grasping for the bare minimum structure to be memorized so that they can correctly answer test questions. This picture eloquently summarizes what I think is going on in the journey from my mind to their minds, even though it really is about rubrics.

It is a visual representation of why so many of my students seem to think math is just a disjointed collection of random facts and procedures. When I thoroughly thought out my presentations, I made sure to highlight those red dots of importance, but in my mind those dots are just part of the whole picture. My students just pick up on the red dots though, which I often referred to them Charlie Browning me. My voice was the blue, my examples were the red, they copied the examples and heard this.

My good compliant complacent students were Charlie Brown. The had the appearance of listening, but really were just quietly searching out those red dots, those examples and steps to let them solve the next math question. My favorite are the students like Patty though. At least they weren’t pretending to care, yet an alarming amount of them are on the honor roll. They have internalized the process of hunting out those red dots, be it from examples in books, notes, online, or asking their friends, “How to do this?” They are obsessed with the how’s, but not the why’s?

To help try and combat this I changed my presentations. Instead of carefully planning out every individual step with concise, clear objectives, I started to wing it in class. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t lesson plan, it just means that my plans were a rough outline, a framework, that was then filled by the organic discussion in class. My goal was to make sure the students wouldn’t become fixated on the red dots. When I would be planning my presentations I would pick a topic, think of how it connected to the previous topics, and then try and use student questions and ideas to drive most of the presentation. When I know my students and my content I find this to be an enlightening experience. They start to finally see some of that blue background behind the red dots.

However, it does have a couple large drawbacks. It did give class a more organic feel, but students crave the conditioning that they have been experiencing for years and years. Charlie Browning is most prevalent in my honor roll students because it has allowed them to get success in the past, at least in terms of grades, with the least amount of mental effort. For most of my students, it takes a significant amount of time to overcome that conditioning, and some, unfortunately, never will.

It also gives the appearance that I am unprepared, but for me, it changed the hierarchy of my teaching prep. When I plan, I start with content from a teaching viewpoint, then worry about presentation and pacing, then worry about assessments, then worry about supporting activities, then worry about individual students. My ever changing schedule the past eight years has meant that I feel like I am perpetually stuck in my first hierarchy of teacher needs, focusing on content.

I guess I forever will be a rookie.

My Struggle with Homework

The math classroom I knew from school followed a typical pattern.

  1. Review/Collect/Correct previous assignment.
  2. Teacher introduces new concepts/topic(s).
  3. Teacher walks through several example problems.
  4. Students are given an assignment.
  5. Repeat process.

Some math teachers are quicker with a joke, or friendlier, or more strict, but ultimately I think the majority of classes follow this pattern most of the time. When I first started teaching I struggled with how to handle steps 1 and 4. Here is the story of how I came to my solution.

My first year teaching at my current school I followed this pattern fairly religiously. At first I collected homework assignment and tried to check every problem from every student. I quickly learned this is a nightmare. Between students not showing work, poor penmanship skills, and trying to decipher multiple approaches, it is just way too time consuming.

I next tried an approach I picked up student teaching. I wouldn’t correct every assignment, but I would choose them randomly. It was still time consuming to correct, but at least that time consumption was limited. However, there was still a flaw with this system. One day when I went to collect a homework assignment to grade I had a student approach me. He didn’t have the assignment done. Every other assignment was completed, but something came up and he didn’t get that assignment done. I liked the kid, he normally was everything a teacher wants from a student, so I decided to give him a break. The problem was that more and more students asked for breaks, and every now and then I would get the rare student that skipped every assignment, but just happened to complete the one that was collected. I felt like this system was just to coincidental and happenstance to represent some sort of accurate measure of knowledge.

And it was still time consuming. So I adopted something I saw during student teaching, instead of collecting entire assignments, I started collecting just a few specific questions from homework assignments. But the outcome was still largely the same, it just felt like the grades were coincidental and happenstance.

There was also one large problem with which I had an issue. Correcting homework for accuracy led a lot of students to blatantly copy a handful of students. This defeated the purpose of homework to me. I firmly believe homework is there for students to reflect and practice the skills covered in class.

I decided to handle this problem by making homework a participatory grade. About two times a chapter I would collect homework from the students and just check to make sure they did something. I used this system for three years. I liked it because it allowed me to distance myself from student responsibility. If students took the time to understand the homework, great, and if they just filled in their notebooks to get the participation points that was fine with me too because they would just get low test grades. They didn’t put in the effort to learn the material, so they would suffer the low grades. I didn’t feel bad because I was essentially offering 30% of their grade for free by making homework participatory.

Then, at the end of one school year, about 20% of my students failed. It came down to their homework. They weren’t making the connection between doing quality work and success in school. I heard reason after reason, excuse after excuse, as to why the homework wasn’t done. Some of them were legitimate and some weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. They saw me as an authority figure and the homework I assigned was about following directions, not an educational opportunity. I had already struggled with the cycle of detention, and I do fall on the side of the debate believing they don’t achieve the desired result. I kept second guessing myself, thinking maybe I should have assigned more detentions. But those detentions just would have reinforced the cycle of obedience for those students.

If my goal is to breed compliance and obedience in students there are much more effective ways than math homework and detentions. Actually, the more I think about it, math homework and grades are about the dumbest way to teach concepts of compliance, obedience, and following directions. A paycheck and a job are much more effective for that.

Sending 20% of my class to summer school or back to Algebra I again wasn’t enough to make me change my ways though. I spent one year teaching summer school and have had several students go through the process. Though summer school itself is largely unresearched, my personal experience is that it serves largely as a prolonged detention to avoid repeating a class. By sending kids to summer school, the homework wasn’t about obeying me, as a detention would have been, but the homework was about obedience in the system.

And I was perfectly okay with this set up until the end of the next school year. I didn’t have nearly as many students fail this time. Actually only a couple, but one stood out in my mind. It was the last day of class and I had a student who was sitting at around 50 some percent. His homework, 30% of his overall grade, was negligibly above a zero. I had always told students it’s not when you learn something, but rather that you learn it. Well, here it was, the last day of school. Simply do some of the homework and the student could pass the class. I knew the kid had the math ability, I had watched him do math during class before, he just needed to get enough participation points to pass the class.

When he claimed he didn’t have enough time to get the work done, one of his classmates offered the use of her old notebook and worksheets to copy. He still refused because, as he stated, he didn’t care. Homework still wasn’t having the impact I wanted it to. I decided I needed to change something for next year. I couldn’t keep going having so much of a student’s grade represent obedience.

I needed to devise a way to grade so that those grades represented math ability and not classroom obedience. I needed to get students to realize the work they do with homework is what led to success, not watching me give notes. Most of all, I needed to break the cycle where students defend their behaviors with, “…but I didn’t think you’d care.” If all we ever teach is school is to do things because the teachers care we haven’t really educated anybody.

Thinking About Learning

After months and months of trying, it finally happened. A student asked me a question, specifically this question.

“Why do I understand this when you’re here, but when you leave I can’t do it?”

I find that this is often a conundrum that students encounter, especially when they dutifully take notes in class, look at their examples, and then get lost on the homework. When I teach something, or explain something, I am ultimately the one doing the thinking. The students just nod along and memorize what they have seen, and then are unable to duplicate the examples on their own because they have never actually THOUGHT about the process. The best description I have ever found for this is pseudoteaching (MIT physics and hunting monkeys are my favorite), and I believe it should be mandated reading for all teachers.

The problem as I see it, is that so many of our students, and people in general, detest thinking. We like to become familiar with information because when we become familiar with information we are usually able to recognize information, which often will get that hit of dopamine that comes with good grades. Do it enough and it becomes addicting. I frequently run into this behavior from students. It seems like so many of the students in front of me have forgotten nearly everything their previous teachers have taught them. So when I go to teach them, they are insanely driven by quick responses that are externally validated, because they want that satisfaction of being right. When I try to remove the external stimuli of immediate praise and grades, of mind numbing procedural duplication, I am often met with literal withdrawal symptoms. I am not joking about that whatsoever.

I had never really thought of this whole process of teaching an learning until one interaction with one student one day after school. It’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the process involved in mastery of an academic subject, I had just never contemplated what that looks like from a teacher’s perspective. A student came to my room after school to take a test that she had missed earlier and didn’t have a study hall to use. She was struggling. At first came the exasperation that she could remember covering the material, but didn’t remember how to do the problems. We cover information in class, but we seemingly forget so much of what was covered. Rarely do ever think about why that happens.

When students hit that point of struggle, specifically that point when they can acknowledge the familiarity of material, but fail in the execution of material, a dichotomy forms. Frequently students enter denial. We all can recognize the symptoms of denial, I’ve even participated in some of them before. We blame the teacher, saying, “You never covered this.” We sometimes blame our health, saying that I’m too sick. We question the worth of covering subject, asking ourselves, “Why do I have to do this?” We blame our classmates, saying they are too distracting. We might even blame ourselves and say, “I’m just not a math person.” Whatever the reason that is given, denial allows us to avoid confronting the limitations of our own ability and work ethic. Denial allows us to be in a state of mind where we can avoid actually THINKING and ENGAGING with academic material in any sort of significant way. When we then live in a state of denial, we internalize the mechanisms that allow our minds to get through the struggle of school, without learning much of anything, just waiting until we get to the stage where we can quit. (Hello Senioritis, my old friend.)

But back to my story about the girl working on a test after school. She didn’t just live in denial, she hit rock bottom, and in this case it manifested itself as bawling. I’ve had students get teary eyed during tests before, but it is usually tears of frustration and anger, tears that are symptoms of withdrawal. I am so used to students lashing out in frustration (“This is bullshit!”) that I have become almost numb to the symptoms of denial and withdrawal. But that bawling, it lives vividly in my mind because I have witnessed rock bottom so few times, and this was the first. So when she started bawling, I shut the door, pulled up a chair next to her and just talked. I took the test away and shared my own personal story of rock bottom, and we just talked for about an hour and a half. I didn’t know what else to do because hints and instruction at this point would not have been fruitful in any sort of way.

Not much else was accomplished that day, but it did change the nature of the typical student teacher relationship. It instantaneously showed me that no matter what assessment I give, what questions I ask, I will never be able to understand what actually happens inside students’ minds. All the things that I thought represented good student learning, really don’t necessarily mean students are learning anything. They do problems. They ask questions. They listen. But I can’t be sure if they are learning.

It also showed me that displaying your thought process is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. As long as I stand in front of the room, making math appear easy, my students will almost always feel ashamed when they cannot duplicate the process as easily as me. That’s why my students so desperately want formulas and shortcuts. Because actually displaying their thought process is such a painful experience that most of them can’t handle in front of me out of a fear that they will be humiliated. (That happened when a student left class in tears because she thought I was laughing at her when she was struggling through working a problem.) I could go on and on about how comfort with vulnerability is essential to learning, but that should be something that rests entirely on its own merit. Besides, I tend to ramble enough already.

So, ever since that day of bawling, I have structured my classes to try an elicit rock bottom symptoms from my students. If a student is going to tune me out, fine tune me out. I would rather know a student is blatantly disengaged than be surprised when a student’s superficial engagement ultimately led to failure. It can be a struggle and a drain at times. And some kids don’t need it, but those complacent students living in denial, that have the potential to truly do anything they want, those are the ones that need to hit rock bottom. It finally happened this last Friday.

There was visible frustration as a student realized that she should be able to do this stuff, but couldn’t.

One of my students living in an illusion of superiority finally, finally, slowed down and worked through a problem.

And of course, “Why do I understand this when you’re here, but when you leave I can’t do it?”

It’s a start, but maybe some real education can actually begin.

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.