Monthly Archives: August 2011

Class lists and robotic hands

I found out my course load a few weeks ago, but I’ve had a serious mental block planning them.  Who I’ll be teaching is much more important than what I’ll be teaching.  I am very serious about catering course content to my particular students this year, so without knowing who they are, whether I’ve met them, their reputations, their history as mathematicians, what math they’ve liked, and on and on – it feels almost ridiculous to think about what I want them to be doing.  Sure I have some overarching themes, some goals, and ideas here and there, but to know how it will really go, I need to know them.  You can see why I’m upset that receiving my student lists is the very final thing to happen in preparing for the year.  (more on this another time)

Thankfully, today is student list day, so it’s starting to get real.  I’m halfway through a post about architecture and “classroom management,” so here’s something awesome to tide you over.

Robotic Escher Hands by Shane Willis


The perfect marriage/school

I’ve been married a little over two years, so surely there are more experienced spouses in the world, but as I made the bed this morning, I had a nice little thought. My marriage works, but probably not for everyone. Shows you how nuts I am, but this somehow got me thinking about school, of course.

Here’s what marriage has taught me about teaching.

* * *

I was last out of bed, so it was my job to make it. That’s our deal – one of many that address small, but rather vital little things. We also have agreements about stuff like dishes, walking the dog, money, watching TV, and on and on – everything from how we spend our time to how we communicate.

Our relationship is central to my life. It’s the primary structure in which I thrive and grow and learn, so I’m extremely thankful that we’ve settled into patterns that keep it going. We certainly don’t have “the perfect marriage,” but these little deals and strategies work for us. We’re constantly engaged in a process of rethinking ways to make life better. If we stopped that process, I’m sure the marriage would be over.

And yet, I have no expectation at all that anyone else’s marriage needs to run like ours. What we have is highly idiosyncratic and certainly our own. If there is such a thing as “the perfect marriage,” I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all.

* * *

I feel the same way about school. What works for me and my students may not work for you and yours. What motivates this student often leaves that one flat, so I run into real trouble when I walk around the room and give the same explanation over and over (pseudo-teaching for sure).

And yet, the national education debate seems to be aiming straight at one-size-fits-all. Not a week goes by without someone pointing to Singapore or Finland, trying to figure out what they know that we don’t. “If only we did it like that,” we seem to think. In professional development teachers are pushed to establish “best practices,” as though good teaching were simply a matter of doing it right.

I checked out MSNBC’s two-hour special, making the grade just long enough for, “we’re here to figure out what works, 100% of the time.” I seriously doubt there’s anything at all that works all the time, for every student, and every teacher, in every community, let alone a scalable structure that will fix our system. It’s futile searches like this that keep ed-reform stuck in endless, pointless debate.

* * *

There is no systematic and standardized solution to education for the same reason my wife and I can never stop adjusting our life patterns. The heart of the matter is growth, development, and sustenance, i.e. change. Nothing static can ever address this fully.

Though students and teachers can’t often choose each other in quite the same way, the central questions are equivalent; how can we make this better for both of us? Teachers and students need the freedom to respond in ways that are inventive and unique to the two of them.

Day one this year I might say something like, “I’m here to figure out what works for me and each of you, more of the time.”

Should we be on the same page?

A math session in the park the other day got me thinking. Do we need our students to be on the same page? Here are some thoughts.

* * *

Teacher authority is almost always at the center of the classroom, whether it’s by setting the course of study or controlling each day’s activity. As Peter Gray said in his recent post, “both sides [traditionalists and progressives] believe that good learning is a function of good teaching; they just disagree on what constitutes good teaching.”

Out of this, grows the necessity to be on the same page. Maybe you’re not reading along, or perhaps your mind is simply somewhere else, but in either case, we have a problem. The student’s not picking up what the teacher’s laying down.

By designing and legislating a standardized school system, we have made the statement plain; everyone should be learning the same stuff, pretty much. Looking over how much stuff that is to cover, and given the high stakes we place on testing this knowledge, it’s no secret the standards take up nearly all our time. So if a student isn’t on the same page, we really do have a problem. “You need to get this, and now is when we’re doing it.”

I think we can do better.

* * *

The other day I met up with some people at Prospect Park to do some math. For a while it was Nick Fiori (our department chair), a fifth grader, Paul Lockhart, and me. We were trying to figure out the minimum number of calls needed to share everyone’s gossip in a network of ___ people, a fairly tricky problem and certainly non-standard. Paul has a PhD in Math, Nick has one in Math Ed, I’m halfway through a masters in each, and the fifth grader is a fifth grader. Is it even possible that we were on the same page?

Certainly we were all thinking about the same problem, but in dramatically different ways. I have neither access to the sort of combinatorial graph theory that Paul knows, nor the fresh thinking of that fifth grader. I have only learned from my experiences. Amazingly, we all contributed to the problem, and surely continued our process of mathematical development.

By our individual trajectories, we have developed what I call “personal insights” – the connections we’re able to make between our current problem and our own previous work. Insights can be shared or common, but in my experience they form most easily when the work you do is personally appealing and meaningful. That often means being on different pages, even different books, to extend the metaphor.

* * *

Not only is it OK, but I think it’s essential to building rich cooperative scenarios. Our society, our minds, and our problems all require different approaches, novel thoughts, and varying levels of expertise to function. It’s nonsense to think you can master, know, or solve everything. Even our most comprehensive curriculum brings us nowhere close.

By filling our classes to the brim with common, standard material, we lose a critical amount of uniqueness that drives personal and societal development. We also sacrifice the time we could spend following our interests towards personal insights and expertise.

Differentiation in the classroom shouldn’t be a response to differing ability. It should respond to differing interest.