Teachers DO care, Seth Godin

Seth Godin wrote a blog post yesterday which has been making the rounds in education circles. It’s called “Good at math”, and in it Seth makes a very good point in the first paragraph:

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that being good at math is a genetic predisposition, as it lets us off the hook. The truth is, with few rare exceptions, all of us are capable of being good at math.

He’s right, without question. Most people are capable of becoming “good at math” the way most people are capable of becoming “good at reading” or almost anything else.

The problem with math education, he argues, is that there has been a focus on memorizing formulae in math classes instead of on the important stuff (I’m assuming he means modelling, problem solving, critical thinking, etc.). In particular, he says standardized tests are useless.

Before you continue, please understand that I agree with Seth. I agree that math education has been unbalanced in favour of rote learning and memorization, sometimes to the exclusion of problem solving and critical thinking, and is divorced from real-world, relevant application.

But one sentence in his post is really galling to me. One point he makes, almost casually, that has prompted this post.

He says,

It’s because you haven’t had a math teacher who cared enough to teach you math.

Again, I agree that the focus has been wrong, and that math education has been largely ineffective. But that’s not for lack of caring on the part of teachers.

Teachers are among the most caring people on the planet. We work like dogs, struggling beside our students, coaching, cajoling, encouraging, pleading. We can’t sleep for thinking about how to improve for the next day. Teachers agonize over their students misunderstandings, apathy, home lives, social problems, mental state, self-esteem, literacy, and all other aspects of their beings. We are charged with developing tomorrow’s citizens and we take it very seriously.

But it’s true that not all teachers are exemplary. Not every class is equally “engaging”. Teachers don’t all have the same arsenal of strategies at their disposal. We disagree about assessment, behaviour management, instructional paradigms, big ideas, learning goals,… pretty much everything, actually. There is little consensus among teachers.

Except for one thing: we care. We want the best for our students. We want to be better at our work.

So why has ineffective math education persisted for so long?

  • there is a cycle of successful math students becoming math teachers (this is true in every subject area, not just math)
  • it’s hard to employ new strategies
  • it’s hard to find mentors who have effective practices and can coach
  • there are approximately a bazillion other demands which take away from instructional practice, including other system- and school-level priorities

That’s a lot of reasons/excuses, but there are solutions.

Teachers must become aware that there are ways to improve their instructional practice. Some folks believe that the hard work is figuring out how to ensure compliance from students. “If only they would [insert good learning behaviour] then they would be successful” is a common statement. Developing this awareness requires exposure to better methods, whether through direct observation or other sharing.

Teachers need time and “permission” to try strategies which are new to them. Fitting everything into a math course is really challenging. Now ask a teacher to “take chances” with several lessons. It’s hard to convince people to try something new when you can’t promise it’ll work. In my experience, the best way to make the case is to remind them that what they’re doing now is only working for their strongest students anyway. That time spent “experimenting” can be gained back in the form of increased student understanding and skill.

School leaders need to encourage and support teacher learning in dramatic and meaningful ways. Make co-planning a priority. Visit classrooms. Learn about effective math instruction so that you can have rich conversations with your math teachers. Finding the time to develop as a school leader is possibly the most difficult task I’ve mentioned.

Seth’s blog post seems to have been aimed at the general public, reminding us that numeracy is as crucial as literacy, and that we have been damaged by narrow, ineffective teaching practices. That is a great message, and one that I think most people are hearing in his words. His claim that it’s because teachers don’t care is ridiculous.

Advertisements

Introductory Computer Programming in Java – video playlist on YouTube

I’m teaching ICS3C/3U online right now, and I’ve been making videos for my students to learn from. I realize there are good resources online for this stuff already, but there are three reasons I’m making my own instead of curating other sources:

  1. The Java language has evolved, so some things are done differently now (e.g. String comparison)
  2. The development environment has had major updates (NetBeans)
  3. It’s nice to personalize things for my students so they can connect with me a little better

I’m trying to post my videos to YouTube as well as in the virtual Learning Environment. I don’t want to use just one or the other; YouTube is blocked in some school boards, and the vLE is harder to access from a mobile device. Crossposting seems like a good idea.

If you’re interested, here is the playlist I’ll add to this semester. I’ll warn you that they’re not “polished”, although that’s partly intentional: I don’t have time for a lot of re-takes, and I want students to see coding errors and their fixes too.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfd-5Q3Fwq0WGwNp-Ef9OubhMxwM8bROj

Run/Art for the Cure this Sunday

I’m participating again this year in our local Run For The Cure. I’d be very grateful if you can donate any amount you can to this worthy cause.

Donate at this link: http://www.runforthecure.com/goto/bgrasley

There’s more!

If you donate $100 or more, I’ll send you an original painting of mine at no cost to you. You can choose one or request something “custom”. Here are a few samples:

20140430-220104.jpg

20140430-220125.jpg

20140430-220140.jpg

Bag o' Beans

Thanks for helping out!