Unconditioning Math

Our students are conditioned. Conditioned to expect learning a certain way. Conditioned to find a correct answer. Conditioned to simply follow a teacher-given process. Not all students are conditioned this way, but in senior mathematics and sciences this is an absolute epidemic.

Daily, I encounter students who are not willing to think when ask a question (or more likely don’t know how to). Creativity in math- and science-based has been ‘successfully’ removed from their repertoire. Yes, students are easily able to produce an answer when given a certain type of question and asked to reproduce specific steps; students are VERY good at this. However, typically they cannot explain WHY this process works or HOW to apply it to another situation. As a senior teacher, I am FRUSTRATED to be teaching these skills in their final two years of schooling.

The new mathematics curriculum in Saskatchewan HAS helped, particularly in pre-calculus courses, but the number of students taking these courses with weak algebra skills is ALARMING! Unfortunately, the new math curriculum has taken their approach too far the other way. Students don’t know the basics, and without the basics I can’t go further behind the math.

Science is my passion, my love – particularly physics (ask any of my students), but students in physics want it to look like a math class. As soon as I pull out our Sine Cosine and Tangent functions they breathe a sigh of relief – oh we can just do the math. WHAT?! Just do the math?! They are right to say that the math is the easy part of the question, and while adding vectors is an important skill, it is more important that they recognize what it means to add them. A good example is that I had a student unable to visualize the subtraction required for a problem so they just went blindly into math – and got the answer wrong (despite following the steps [since the steps are a guide in physics]).

Our students have been conditioned to think a certain way, to expect learning a certain way. Unfortunately, we can’t change education (which we have to) until we break this pattern and learn to uncondition our education.


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