“Doing work”

I see children as instinctively creative and analytic, innately mathematical. School done wrong, particularly math class done wrong, has a way of putting out this light inside of young people. This is a story about seeing it happen.

I teach at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed and creativity holds perhaps the highest value. When you strip away grades as the source for authority and remove standard course content, “the leadership of the teachers arises from their intellect and accomplishment,” quoting the mission. “There is no other source of status.” Remove those things, and classes can spend their time learning from each other, driven by passionate personal interest.

In sharp contrast, I am spending part of my summer teaching math to incoming fifth and sixth graders at a small private summer session. The demands on me are simple. Get the kids a head start on next year. Do what’s in the book. Have them do every page in six weeks. This means we have to do about seven pages a day. Homework is given letter grades each day. Incomplete work must be made up, and poor work must be corrected. Ignoring the fact that these homemade books are full of misguided activities and tons of typos and mistakes, the primary focuses are arithmetic, terminology, and standard tricks for deciphering “what they’re asking.” Much of it could be classified as mathematical busy work. A lot of the content and techniques are new to students, but they have to move quickly to “just doing it” in order to get through the work load.

What keeps me there is the thought that in my time with the kids, I can get them through the busy work, narrating along the way, and then stoke their mathematical fires by challenging them with really compelling and inviting math problems. I felt great about last year, but one of my current students has really shaken me up, today especially.

* * *

He really struggles to complete his homework, always saying how distracted he gets. Doing so many problems each day, he struggles to work “at pace.” And yet, this guy gets on a roll whenever he relies on his intuitive number sense. He wants “his strategy.” “I’m just trying to find a strategy,” he says, finishing too few problems again. He analyzes what he’s doing to the point that he slows down to think until he’s figured out exactly how it works. In short, this kid can’t do all of the work, because he’s thinking too much about it!

Having seen the change in his face when his strategy clicks, and he starts nailing it, today was particularly hard. Long dividing two decimals was tricky for him, and kicking himself for being slow again, his face lit up. “I think I figured something out,” he said, “math is like just doing work.”

I was gutted, but I knew exactly where he was coming from. The demands are simple: do the work until it’s done. The program doesn’t care how he thinks. Get the work done. Despite my backing, the head teacher pushed to bring him down to fourth grade. He was embarrassed enough for her to change her mind, but the trouble was clear. This student is in a learning environment too rigid to give him thinking time.

* * *
He possesses a unique knack for numerical reasoning. He has so much to celebrate and enjoy developing, but he’s being rushed through tons of material and busy work for the sake of “high standards.” The book asks almost nothing of his own naturally creative math insight, so he does little thinking for homework. Class time tells him he’s too distracted and too slow, so his only regular time with mathematics is negative. And so, he slowly writes off his positive experiences with problem-solving.

Mathematics requires time to think and create. Asking students to blow through grunt work with handed down shortcuts is foolish. Students need time to make up their own strategy. In fact, making up the strategy is the part that’s mathematics. Take that away and you’re just doing work.

7 responses to ““Doing work”

  1. Melissa and Jennifer

    Hi Mr.S!
    Hey it’s Melissa and Jennifer! Jen wanted to say she wishes her mom thinks the way you do, basically me too. We stopped by to say Hi! So Hello! Also we didn’t do math yet. Hey you mind giving us like 4-5 pages every day? Teehee! Bye! Good Posts the video is AWESOME :D

  2. How odd; I had just finished reading this and then saw that you sent me a message saying to check it out.

    Anyhow, it’s a tragic story. What really kills me is when I’m working with students that have had this stuff beaten into their head to the point where they no longer take pride in figuring something out their own way. Doesn’t every little kid want to take anything you tell him or her and question it? Mull it over trying to find holes and explanations? We are born to look for patterns and to make our own connections.
    It’s a real bummer when someone I know to be thoughtful and creative walks into a math classroom and seems to turn that bit of their brain off. Like after years and years of what you’ve described, there’s this acquired lazy mind effect. It’s like some backwards survival technique to get through problems 2-40 (even) and not get attacked for wasting your time with things like thought and wonder.
    I read somewhere recently about how Fortune 500 bosses ranked attributes of employees that they really look for. All the top ones had to do with problem solving, creativity and communication. The actual content they arrive with ranked somewhere around hairstyle.

    So anyway, keep the posts coming. I hope you plan to share some cool lessons on here as well. I’m always looking for new ideas.


  3. Not to overdo it, but you know when you are thinking something and in a somewhat miraculous way someone else makes it clear that they are thinking that same sort of thing at the same time?
    Well in any case, I get home from dinner tonight to find an e-mail from my new boss containing this link: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html
    and an enthusiastic message regarding the coming school year and how she is radically altering her class. I really get pumped when the leader of my department is thinking about how to improve what’s happening at a school that is already well regarded and could easily get away with following the status quo. Enjoy the clip.


    • I’ve seen that ted talk, and I subscribe to dy/dan, Dan Meyer’s blog. I’ve been giving his message a lot of thought lately, and I am almost certain to do a post about it. (I have some misgivings, but I think he got me a little today.) It is awesome to hear that you have such a progressive department head. I love being a part of this growing movement calling for institutional change. I’m really excited about the coming year. I have so many exciting courses and projects coming up, but all of that I will save for another post. Thanks for being such a rad dude, j.

  4. I had such a problem with math when I was younger, due to natural inclination and a series of teachers who, they weren’t bad teachers, I’d never say that, but had a different teaching style than what I needed to learn. It wasn’t until the second year of algebra in the 9th grade that I got a teacher who clicked. She did these exercises that involved figuring out the process intuitively, like you develop ideas about something you’ve read, rather than memorizing a series of steps and then applying it to a set of problems. A lot of students didn’t like how slow we went, but after that year I was much better at, and more positive about mathematics in general. I ended up taking Calculus in the 11th grade (which made me want to defenestrate myself at times, but I got through it by pretending I was calculating flight for the TARDIS or the Enterprise because I am a giant nerd.) and I’m really glad I did. Without it, I wouldn’t have been as logical or methodical. It was really important to my development.

    Anyway, it’s really, really nice to see another math teacher like the one I had.

  5. Wow! That is a really great story. Thanks so much for sharing. I love hearing about the actual experiences of actual students. I hope you keep up with the blog and possibly share another memory. Thanks again!

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