“I love your class, it’s all I want to do at school. I can’t stand going to math class after this, I’ll never use algebra.”
My reply: Back in my day as a public school student, the 1960s and 70s, educators felt there was a specific curriculum you could be taught to be considered educated. A canon, if you will, of math, science, English, and social studies. English, for example, had its American Lit, British Lit, essay-writing, and basic researching skills like use of the card catalogue, the Dewey decimal system, periodicals and books, footnoting their use within your writing, etc.
(I have always LOVED the Dewey decimal system. It’s comforting to think that you can put all of knowledge into groups and number them for easy reference. And the card catalogue! What an incredible piece of craftsmanship, the smooth maple cabinet with the perfect little drawers that slid in and out with the satisfying yet small muffled thok! when they slid flush into the cabinet.)
Back to why all of this is important, or relevant: when those kids told me they saw no need in learning algebra, and I explained to them there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.
(In the case of elementary math we were taught ‘New Math’. It was binary, meaning how to express all numbers as series of 0s and 1s. Of course, I have never used this since, and it is no longer taught to the general population, but do you know how computers work? If you break it all the way down, everything is composed of groups of 0s and 1s to a computer. So somebody got it, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and here we are.)
When I explained it this way, the students grabbed it immediately, and were satisfied to go off to algebra class as a useful activity. If only math teachers were able to explain the relevance of their subject the same way. Because that’s what you have to do with education: make it relevant and make it explicit that it’s relevant, all the time. Just think about yourself. What would it take for you to want to sit your butt in a chair and listen to someone else for an hour or more? Well, it would have to be to get something you could use in your life, something relevant.
I applied once for a job teaching adult education. I now am quite happy doing that in the real estate industry, but this was in an area in which I had no real expertise, medical. It was a communications class, though, so it wasn’t too great a stretch. The interviewers asked me, “What makes you think you can teach adults if you have only taught high school?” It doesn’t matter what you are teaching, or whom, whether it is a class of kindergartners or adults. You have to make it relevant, and you have to make that relevance explicit. You have to tell them, “This is relevant to you because…you will use this in this situation…,” or you lose them. If they can’t see how they can use it, they glaze over and you become like Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Mwaaaah, mwah mwah mwah mwah,” like a muffled trombone.
We need to teach math teachers, and all teachers, that making it real, making it relevant, is what matters to students, and if they can’t do that with their subject material, maybe they shouldn’t be teaching it. Look for another way to get it across, something that makes sense to the person in the seat, not just learning abstract knowledge for its own sake.
Once I thought up a speech in which the speaker identified with an object, and told us why. It is like ‘discovering your metaphor.’ I guess I was wrapped up in an English or Poetry class and wanted to make them think symbolically. They didn’t all get it, and limiting the metaphor to an object you could carry in to school didn’t really open up the world of imagery to them as I had hoped.
To get the idea across, I did the assignment myself. What I came up with as a metaphor for myself was a set of battery cables. I am a connector. I connect people to ideas, to resources, to other people, to themselves. And there is a spark, an energy involved. I bought a new, clean battery cable and after the speech it became a decoration for my classroom, displayed along the top of the whiteboard to generate the question of why it was there. It gave me a chance to let them know how I thought about my job–not as a parent-child relationship, or master-servant, nor anything else that put me higher than them, but on the same level. A tool for them to use to learn, to understand.
Everybody is back to school a week now, so this is a good reminder to students, teachers, and parents. Seek relevance and call it out as often as possible.