‘I-We-You’ Malarky: Breaking the ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’ approach to teaching math

I am annoyed with, (but still love) Louis CK for coming out against the Common Core, because student anxiety over tests has little to do with the actual standards.

As annoyed as I am, I share this video because I am grateful that he voices his frustration. We are all mad. Now, if I could redirect our anger, I would point it at high-stakes standardized testing before the age of 16… but I digress.

Tears from students over common core math can actually be traced to tears from teachers over common core math. Monkey see, monkey do, right? Teachers are supposed to be the experts, but they have  been set up to fail with its implementation.

This NY Times article, Why do Americans Stink at Math?  gets to the heart of the common core shift away from procedural teacher centered math pedagogy.  ‘I We You’, the practice of modeling a procedure, performing it together as a class, and then asking students to repeat it independently, is so fear-based and controlling. It speaks to school-based anxiety over allowing students to make sense of problems on their own.  After all, who knows what direction they will steer the conversation in? Who knows how long it will take them to get to the objective, and the one thing we do not have (thanks to yearly standardized tests) is time. But with the proper training and support, a deemphasis on accountability, and beginning to use assessments to inform teacher practices, we might just be on to something. So, we must acknowledge that we pass on anxiety to our students, and we owe it to them to improve our practice so that they can do more than just poorly copy what we do.

Still not convinced that the common core curriculum (minus high-stakes testing) has some merit? Put the broad brushes away, take a look at the Common Core Math Practice Standards and decide for yourself.


Psychosoma and Freedom

In honor of Nelson Mandela’s birthday, today’s post is all about great acts of love, as demonstrated through forgiveness. Because I say, if former inmates now live as neighbors with their prison guards on Robben Island, than we all can forgive.

We’ve got our ‘Why’

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Last week, I thought I was dying. I thought I had an autoimmune disease called myasthenia, in which the messages your brain sends to your muscles are attacked by antibodies at your neuromuscular junctions. Okay, I didn’t think I was dying, but I did think my body was waging an attack against itself. I hit walls during workouts (figuratively speaking), slept 11+ hours each night, took naps, felt as if my face was falling off, went to urgent care with chest pains… and then…I had a normal blood test. I wasn’t dying anymore! Not only was I not dying, ALL of my psychosomatic symptoms disappeared. Here’s why I bring this up. I may be a drama queen, but I am OBSESSED with the impact of the messages we send to students in our failing schools. And by failing schools, I mean all of them, because we are so narrow-sighted that we cannot see that they are all ours, and that their fates are all connected. I physically could not curl 6 lbs when I thought I had this disease. How can I (we) expect students who are constantly told that school is not for them to finish a stupid math problem? So we let the hungry ones starve, while their parents work around the clock, let their sick die, their older siblings drop out, we move every goalpost for college, we poo-poo math (and academia in general) in the media, we wag our fingers at their young mothers, we spirit away their very best, or taunt them into failure, or medicate them, and we lose them..out of fear. What we are incapable of teaching, we will not learn. Onus is on us.

Here’s How

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ― Nelson Mandela

Only the greatest of the great understand the wisdom in this. As with all tools, this weapon may be wielded for good or for ill. And poverty, the great syphoner of choice, and thus, freedom, is the antithesis to change in places with little inter-generational elasticity, such as South Africa and the Unites States. Fear of change is one of the least dangerous-sounding, most dangerous beasts.

…And a little Steam

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ― Nelson Mandela

To get things rolling, we have hope, forgiveness and… love. But wait! Don’t get me wrong. We musn’t fix this for the economy, or because it is morally sound to do so. No, we must do this because it is self-destructive to deny that we share ownership in fixing this for the benefit of ALL of our “community’s own compelling purposes”. (thanks, Pasi Sahlberg)

Fear-Based Teaching

If you:

1. Don’t understand your students’ way, so insist they use your way

2. Never accept ‘I don’t know/understand’ as an acceptable response

3. Finish your students’ sentences for them

4. Tell them whether or not they’re correct, either verbally or in the form of tests

5. Don’t receive feedback from them on a regular basis

6. Answer your own questions

7. Answer their questions instead of allowing them to answer them for each other/themselves

8. Think mistakes, confusion or struggling have no place in your classroom,

Then I bet you were a really good student, but you are a really crap teacher. 

Ya, I said it. I’m sorry.

But I’m not that sorry.

I am sorry because I know that classrooms go smoothly when you do the above. I am sorry because I know that these make teaching easier, and teaching is the hardest effing job on the face of the planet, hands down.

You know you are a fear-based teacher if you find yourself doing all of the thinking in the classroom. Why, though?!  You already graduated! It’s their turn now.

So what should you dare to do?

Before each lesson, know your big takeaway. What One Thing do you want them talking about, when they leave you?

Study your own practice more, stay up-to-date on academic research and try doing the work you assign before you assign it.

And then… get ready, because after all that studying and research, you will need to be willing to throw the whole plan out the window. Have the guts to really listen to your students and make sense of what you are hearing. You are otherwise just one more barrier keeping them from achieving their dreams.

Remember, your students are seeing something for the first time. You can teach until you are blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean they are learning, and learning takes time. ‘Wait!’ You say, ‘They’re seeing this (dividing fractions/long division/slope) for the 2,800th time. They just never get it’. And that, educators, is your first data point, and all the justification you will ever need to try something else tomorrow.


Reflection on Learning and Teaching for Understanding

I have to change my stance on the ethics of technology in education. I am very impressed with how technology may be used to overcome barriers, such as access to learning centers, due to geographical or political boundaries. Technology has the potential to facilitate access to all forms of learning at a distance, and increase connectivity of ideas, markets and communication.  Also, technology may help overcome the lack of other resources, such as materials to build or construct ideas.  It may allow students, who conceptualize ideas, to create virtual simulations of those ideas, and perform various tests that would be impossible, or way too costly to simulate in reality.

Technology also provides tools for people- such as amateur musicians, film producers and entrepreneurs- to make finished products, and then market them. In this way, possibilities become limitless.  And of course, internet videos may informally teach people how to do pretty much anything, making the spread of information as close to equitable as we have ever achieved before.

Cell phones don’t count?!

I was educated in a public school system until I was 15 years old, and then I attended a private boarding arts school far away from my hometown.  There were drastic societal changes throughout the course of my public school education, and I cannot speak to the quality of the current system in North Carolina and Michigan, only to the one that I taught in more recently.

Standardized testing was not a part of my earlier educational experience, and I was even more resistant to SAT and ACT tests than even my peers.  I only applied to universities that did not care so much about these tests- I thought they were unfair and not worth my time.  My education was well-rounded, involving the arts, music, technology, sports and health.  However, the American education system is drastically different from state to state, district to district, school to school and individual to individual.  There are some elements of agency, but this agency is inequitable based on geography and your economic background.

The educational system that is currently in place in New York City is the one I would want to change, and I am able to speak to this system based on my experience as a New York City public school teacher. There is a great deal of contradiction to the role of technology in education.  While system-wide software programs are purchased, and training is offered, student cell phones are banned.  There are awards: cell phones to entire schools that reach certain goals on standardized tests.  There are laptop giveaways to whole grades. Then, within schools, there is an abuse of tools, such as computers and calculators, by students who feel pretty disconnected from the school in the first place.  They develop their computer savvy on their own.  They’re so inventive and resourceful: I get practical computing tips from my students, who know youtube instructional videos in and out.  I have one student who at a very young age built a computer with money he earned from his summer jobs, in secret, slowly.  I would make sure that students who are interested in such things would have the resources to pursue this sort of learning during the course of their formal compulsory education: programming courses, strong mathematics and problem solving, game development, sound and video engineering, etc. In conclusion, any effort we make to teach them, and access, what they actually want to learn would help them feel more connected to their schools.  Why not? It is cost-effective AND equitable.

E-trainwrecks in the classroom

Most of my encounters with technology in classrooms involve:

1. Lengthy professional developments in which we are expected to learn a new tech language and then teach it to the students,

2. Booking visits to the computer lab, only to find that 10 out of the 20 computers are missing some vital component, AND the internet is not working, or

3. Getting to the point where we can actually use software, only to discover that they software, tutorials, and questions are written in language geared toward college students.

These three problems are a reflection of the huge gap between the theory and practice of technology in education.  And, let’s face it: software incorporated into the school systems is good money, and this dictates most policy decisions.  Thus, these programs are developed quickly and without the input of educators.  They require knowledge of their own language (‘when a student gets a question wrong, we don’t tell them, we redirect them to a tutorial, and they have click on a button to proceed, and the calculator is hidden behind this icon…’); and they certainly don’t allow for the input from students themselves.

I’m interested in technology in education that allows students to evolve and innovate on their own.  ‘Interactive’ learning is not so impressive to me. Give them the language behind the language, so that they can one day create an even better software company to sell to the department of education.  I’m interested in lifelong learning because they have to function within systems that are constantly changing. That being said, I believe tech education is a tool, a resource, that is full of as many possibilities as it could potentially convey limitations.  It can be used to maintain the status quo, to updhold the powers that be, or it could be transformative.  There are some huge obstacles we have in accessibility, equity, etc. and tech education can help overcome these, if we wield it in such a way.