“You’re boring them,” my master teacher noted characteristically. “I’d say 90 percent of the class doesn’t get it.”

She’s right, somewhat. My students aren’t too thrilled about my Venn Diagram comparing soft money and hard money, and the flicker of understanding was there in just a few faces. Indignant, I was tempted to ask her back what service a song and dance provides my students.

In a rare fit of self-preservation, I didn’t.

Let’s look at that question seriously: How do our students benefit with activities, simulations and the inevitable poster projects? Arguably, students are better educated from them.

Let’s argue.

Remember that in the last blog post, I wrote this at the end:

Just because something is tedious doesn’t mean it has to be.

I’m not some die-hard neo-traditionalist, if such an ideology exists. Forget my position in the past on technology — though I am clever enough to link once and link twice, natch — this is a question on whether teaching by engaging students is the right thing to do.

To get back on topic, consider the purpose of education, expressed through this context:

“Education is what remains when what has learned has been forgotten.”

If the goal of public education is to prepare our students for college and higher education, teaching with activities and simulations is a disservice. With these methods, the burden of learning is put upon the teacher, who finds or creates the lesson, chooses the pertinent information, presents the most important parts to the class in a debriefing. Students internalize the premise and general outcome, but only after the teacher has done all the legwork in figuring out what’s important.

Students aren’t sifting through primary source documents, putting in long hours of intellectual development. I certainly don’t advocate endless lecture outside Advanced Placement courses, or any classes meant to prepare for college, a phrase which as used here means “get used to endless lecture” and “learn how to learn on your own because the teacher isn’t going to make it easy.”

That said, let’s look beyond higher education.

If the goal of public education is to prepare our students for life, then teaching to the concepts in public life should be central. What concepts do we want to teach our students, who in this Information Age so-called have worlds of knowledge at their fingertips?

Should we teach them indirectly that the activity of learning, although fun, requires no work on their part? Beyond learning, should we teach them that anything of value comes without much effort, and that, if something is worthwhile, everyone could succeed at it?

Simulations cement general ideas and concepts of a given lesson. In a well-managed activity, students learn the content and, in my experience, do well discussing the concept in an essay. It doesn’t teach vocabulary, perhaps, but there are drills and quizzes for that.

The worry I have is that this emphasis on cooperative learning doesn’t teach students how to think critically in a sea of misinformation. Students don’t learn how to become self-sufficient thinkers — in learning, they rely on groupthink and tight-gripped teachers as they near the same age of self-perceived alienation and bucking authority for the sake thereof.

Coupled with education’s growing emphasis in creating a world where failure is impossible, the phenomenon that is the “engaging activity” won’t teach personal integrity, determination or a Puritan work ethic. Students may pick it up at home, but it isn’t the place of teachers to assume they will.

Our students aren’t learning these lessons at home. That’s the scariest part.

What I remember about most of the units without fun and engaging activities is boredom, and the occasional failure. I learned how to cope and I learned how to learn from it.

Boredom has its place in curricula, as does failure. The lessons of each are invaluable to everything in life in the most literal sense of that cliche.

Without either, how would we measure excitement, or success?

Moral of the story? Use activities, simulations, poster projects — not often, never to exclusion.

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  1. adferoafferro

    Maybe you’d find ‘Knowing and Not Knowing’




    You could even introduce the thing itself – just the graphs really – starting with the Rummie quote.

    “Anyone know who Donald Rumsfeld is?”

    (no, it’s not going to work….)

    Reminds me of the distant past when I sat bored in a post-graduate teacher training lecture, blinking awake for a moment to hear someone say, “….work from the known to the unknown…”, thinking to myself this might be rather useful, noting it down amongst all the doodles on the page, then drifting off sleep again.

    By the way, last year the R-Quote was up in the old British Library Reading Room (which is something else now…), a few strides from the “He sat here” plaque to K. Marx. Of the two, Rummie would almost certainly go down better with your students than a phrase or two from The Communist Manifesto or anything vaguely understandable from Das Kapital. Hey! There’s your way into an introductory course on epistemology.

    They will almost certainly start reeling out their own permutations on ‘know’, which you should immediately write up on the white board, circle, and then proceed to link by means of coloured arrows.

  2. I think that this would just confuse them. That’s also a plus — as long as it gets them to think.

  3. If you’re simply arguing that sometimes you just need to talk and they need to listen and take notes, sure. They’ll experience plenty of that in college, and they need to get used to it.

    I have difficulty believing using rhetorical techniques to keep said lecture engaging is ever a bad idea. The college classes I remember most involved skillful words as well as ideas.

    Mind you, How to Talk doesn’t seem to get taught in any education courses — I’m still unsure myself how it works. Bizarre, since you have to do so much of it.

  4. There’s an idea. Teach new teachers how to talk.

    I learned how to talk however I do by listening to speeches. Which is funny, because with one or two exceptions, all my math teachers seemed to have learned how to talk by listening to Stephen Hawking.

    And I like math.

  5. Brrr. I confess my discipline has some of the less ably articulate teachers. (Part of the issue being that mathematical ability and verbal acuity are at odds in some people.)

    Also, speaking of Venn Diagrams, you at least could use the opportunity to show them a couple of the funnier ones from Indexed. It wouldn’t be just a rhetorical gesture — not all the students are as familiar with them as you’d expect.

  6. Of these two, who is better?

    a. The geometry teacher who knows not much more than first-semester calculus, one who has quite a lot of charisma.

    b. The teacher who can connect the material to graduate-level math — whatever that is — but lacks as much charisma.

    Ideally, of course, you want both, but, with few exceptions, that doesn’t happen.

    Assume we’ve hired both but have to get rid of one due to budgetary restraints. Who do we fire?

  7. Generally (a) is better, although you didn’t specify just how much difference in charisma we’re talking about here.

    Also, it is possible the department is short on staff capable of teaching higher-level classes (it happens more than you might think). However, since your teacher (a) does know *all the way to calculus*, that’s not bad at all since there are high school math teachers that are a disaster past algebra.

    (And yes, we have to take tests that we certify we know things all the way to calculus, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing.)

    What’s also interesting is your point of connecting to graduate-level math. I tried to think where it happens in my practice, and I came up with

    a.) I have a better idea of what needs to be mastered and what can be skimmed through; skimmed either because it is something never used at higher levels or if it is used it has to be taught from scratch.

    b.) I know how to use LaTeX (which professional mathematicians use to lay out their papers) and I’m going to be teaching some to my Pre-Calculus class.

    c.) I can occasionally pull something out of a really serious math article, at least to show students that mathematics is not an ossified subject.

  8. I tried to make them not too different in the question on purpose. Usually, these hypothetical questions get pretty ridiculous.

    I’m thinking the difference in charisma between a baseball coach and Urkel. Both are human, but one’s a lot more fun to hang around.

  9. Matthias

    Both higher-level math and relationship-forming in the classroom are acquired skills. I teach Multivariable Calculus, and I get Valentines from my (regular) Geometry kids.

  10. Some people don’t have the tenacity to concentrate on both, however.

  1. 1 You Get to Fire a Math Teacher « On the Tenure Track

    […] newbie, pedagogy, principal, secretary, student teacher, teacher, teaching A recent discussion on this post brought up an interesting hypothetical thought, expanded as follows. There are two math […]

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