“Putting the work in” – running and math

My love for Steve Miranda is little secret at this point. He works at a highly progressive school with extremely student-centered practices and the grooviest of academic structures, so I was curious how they handled math. “A couple of the teachers are very into experiential stuff,” he said, “but strangely, the resistance comes many times from kids. They want to just do the work, finish the assignment, and feel like they’re making progress.” This is something they tend to grow out of by high school, but I definitely know that feeling.

With SAT’s, tracked courses, and state testing across the country, it’s easy for students and their families to worry about keeping up. Math has become this ladder of arithmetic, terminology, and notation to be climbed at pace if you want to be a successful student. Even at PSCS, where students have no requirements, they think “all my friends are doing problems from a workbook. I don’t want to get left behind.” Dear god, no. Let no child be left behind!

This kind of thinking worries me, but I guess that’s sort of how I feel about running.

* * *

I have never called myself a runner. I do run sometimes, because I feel like I really ought to, but I don’t much enjoy doing it. I probably like running the most when it’s over, (like a lot of people) because the hard part is out of the way, and I can feel good about having put in the time. The idea is that it might not seem like it, but it must be good for me. Even if it kind of sucks, I should put the work in, really.

This is pretty different from the relationship I have with things like music, juggling, and math. Whereas, for me, a run is something to complete – an act to feel good about finishing – I take real pleasure in the doing of these other things. This is a big part of why I call myself a musician, a juggler, and a mathematician, and it’s that kind of personal pleasure and attachment to subject matter that I think makes real breakthrough and expertise occur in school.

I think they get this at PSCS, where so many kids are passionate about the work they do every day. Their choices at school become a proud piece of their identity, but the relationship Steve described sounded all too typical of the disconnected, get-through-it approach many students have to school math.

* * *

Where’s the love for doing math? Where’s the much needed creativity? How do students become mathematicians this way? Leaving standard behind and directing content toward student interest is the best way I know to do this, but it’s pretty tough if you’re working through whatever’s next, just to keep up.

I’m not trying to put down “putting in the work.” Scales, speed work, and practice routines are kind of dull, certainly not the real deal as far as piano and juggling are concerned, but I do like to “put in the work” and improve. Plus, it does the trick. Hard work pays off!

But this contemporary view of mathematics as the prep department for science and a high stakes NCLB subject is backward. If we fail to show our students how personally appealling math can be, we fail to truly show them the subject.

Might be hard to change in a country full of “runners” like me.

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2 responses to ““Putting the work in” – running and math

  1. Don’t lie, you enjoy running with me!

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