To my math students

I see you struggling. Looking for a question similar to the one on the assessment. Searching for something that will show you the steps to complete this problem. Desperately hoping that there is some rudimentary pattern you can reproduce. Something has gone wrong in your mathematics education.

Most likely, it happened long before you reached me, but if I have shown you that mathematics is reproducible and regurgitation-based, I’m sorry. Mathematics is understanding. If you take the time to understand the concepts, and what the questions are asking, you do not need to reproduce common examples. Once you understand the theories, you are able to complete any question. Take the time to understand.

I apologize. At no point in our instruction did I complete an example just like the question you are stuck on. You will not find a similar example to replicate. However, if you understood that this question required a basic use of combinations, you wouldn’t be so frustrated right now.

Mathematics requires understanding. I can help you with that. Unfortunately, you didn’t deem that important until your assessment. Good luck.


Excited about Educating

I have had a blank screen staring at me for about an hour. I am attempting to write an article about a topic which I am quite passionate about, but as mentioned in my last post, I have felt less than enthused about teaching lately, so why would I be excited to write an article about educational practice?

In an attempt to refresh my memory, and hunt for some desperately needed citations, I began reading some of my writing from my master’s program. As I was about half way through my major paper, I realized how excited I am to be returning to academia this fall. I was challenged in my masters program; challenged to rethink what education meant to me, and why I had become so complacent and accepting of the current educational regime. I was challenged to improve myself as an educator for myself and my students, not simply asked to implement a division wide practice forced upon me. I was pushed to really think about education, curriculum, and practice – their origins, evolution, and personal meaning.

As I prepare to return to academia this fall, I have been asked to consider teaching undergraduate courses in education. At first I was elated solely because I am considering this as a potential career, but today it took on a new meaning. I may have the chance to make young teacher candidates to rethink education for themselves, to consider what the current system means to them and where they think they will fit into it. I may have the opportunity to gain an entirely new perspective on education from those who have most recently been a part of the system. I will have the opportunity to grow philosophically as an educator; I am extremely excited about this.

Recently, I have been wondering if I made the right decision to move from the trenches (aka the classroom) and into academia, fearing that I may become disconnect from education. However, today I know I made the right decision and I CANNOT wait for this journey to begin.

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.

So why DID you take your masters?

Today, I can proudly say that I finally hold a Masters Degree in Education.

When I tell people I am completing a masters program, I am often asked “so what will you do with it now?” Honestly, not much. Yes, it did bump my pay. No, I DO NOT want to be an administrator.

I have been reading articles from angry grad students about how their degree won’t get them a job. This is not the point of grad studies! Graduate degrees are to improve personal knowledge on a subject, to think critically about an area of academic study. Grad studies is not to get a job.

On that fact, if you choose any degree to get a specific job, you’re “doing” university wrong. University is no longer a place to prepare for a specific job. There were many people I went through the College of Education with that had no intention of ever becoming a teacher, and more who did not wind up becoming teachers even with the degree.

Why did I take my masters? To reflect critically on my teaching and improve my knowledge base; to prepare myself to change in the future; to form a solid academic base to build my philosophy around. Grad studies is for thought, not for a job.

“Physics is just my hobby”

Over the last year I have really struggled with giving over my ‘control’ of knowledge within my classroom, opting for exploration, discovery, and student-uncovered information over directly given, textbook knowledge. It has been very difficult at times, but also extremely rewarding. I have grown so much in my practice over the past year, and I can know work with students to develop ‘experts’ AND have also gotten over the fear of having students know more than I do. There is always something I can teach students, even if it is asking them to consider a new perspective; there is also always something I can learn from students, and that has taken me almost 5 years of teaching to learn.

Nobody likes a know it all. I have learned this the hard way (because I was kind of [ok I was REALLY] a know it all when I was younger) and being on the other side I can see WHY. As a physics teacher, I used to find it EXTREMELY frustrating when people would attempt to ‘know more physics’ than I did. I mean, I was the one with the degree, what could they possibly teach me?

“In our youth we learn, as we age we understand.” – Criminal Minds

I was SO wrong. One of my favourite things about physics (now) is that it is a hobby for SO many people (students included). I am learning new things everyday from EVERYONE (especially since physics is everywhere); people may not even realize we are having a conversation about physics, but that’s where my head is. It absolutely makes my day when I have past students, or friends, who are not actively involved in a ‘typically’ physics based profession send me articles about the new findings in the world.

Now that I recognize this ‘hobby’ and leisure as a benefit (and not an annoyance), I am struck with wondering how to instill it in my practice? How can I alter my teaching to get students to see the interesting side of physics today? How can I show them that even without a complex understanding of calculus, anyone can appreciate physics (and its new discoveries)? How can I show students that physics can be more than simply an area of study?

Too Smart for Groupwork?

Recently, I have had a swirl of thoughts around collaboration and intelligence. It all started with three students in three separate classes that I have. Each of these students expressed the same sentiments: they felt they were too smart to work in groups and group discussions only held them back. It’s not like I haven’t heard this before, but I finally heard some arguments from the other side.

Humans, as a whole, are social creatures. In fact, Matt Ridley does an excellent job explaining about how this social nature has allowed humans to thrive so quickly in recent times. We need our ideas to mate in order to get any further.

This epidemic of solo supremacy is also prevalent in education. Collaboration is important! Not simply co-planning but allowing open sharing of ideas and letting these ideas change shape and grow through this exchange.

Our intelligence (as a human race) has come from collaboration. So kids, I’m sorry, but no one is too smart to collaborate.

Considering Momentum

Yesterday I found that I had some extra time in my momentum unit and decided to re-integrate an activity I used to do. Students were given 7 steel ball bearings, 4 magnets, and shown how to make a ‘particle accelerator’.

Quickly, students saw that the ball after the ‘accelerator’ was moving faster than at the start. I then asked them, “is this a violation of the law of conservation of momentum?” most students correctly identified that it was not, and some even able to justify it with a fairly complex understanding of
Forces – but the arena was more interesting.

Without a formal structure, many students felt this was not ‘learning’ – even though they gained a much better grasp of 2-3 concepts covered in our course (and more importantly, how they link). Students wanted to get to their paper and pencil assignment.

As a system, education, specifically in science, needs to stop cheating our students an show them what real learning looks like. Activities such as this give much better comprehension, and more in depth assessment, than pen and paper math questions. This type of learning is used frequently until students reach high school – and here they learn ‘real’ science. We must use curiosity and questioning to push learning further.

Anyone have any other good activities to push my students with?