Monday, December 2, 2013

fear factor

"This is the first time I can remember that I have not been terrified about my math exam." ~student in College Algebra

I teach College Algebra.  It is populated by juniors and seniors that have struggled with math in the past.  For some, math is intellectually challenging.  They work hard, but they just don't get it.  For others, math is not interesting and so they don't do the work they need to do to get it.

The purpose of College Algebra is to give students another chance.  The goal is two-fold.  First reinforce the essential algebra skills required to move forward in a college level study of mathematics.  Second, change hearts and minds.

I think we have to ask some hard questions about how we teach math as a society.  I work in a school with 'good' students.  They want to do well.  They do their work most days.  They take notes, they ask questions, they engage.  But still they are kids.  They get distracted by football games and parties.  Say the word "cake" right before lunch and they're probably lost because they're always hungry.   

Yet in my best case scenario, we still have students who are not only struggling, but afraid.  How can you learn when you are afraid?  In our effort educate them all, we have obviously lost some.  In my school, like in most schools, we went on before they were ready, either in terms of intellectual functioning or maturity.  And as a result, they fell down, they failed.  Maybe they've been failing a long time.  And nowhere along the way did they get up.  We just left them there.

The Atlantic recently published an article discussing the myth of "I'm Bad at Math." It's an interesting read on how kids get caught in a spiral of failure.  I think it's easy to be hard-core, to come to the conclusion that kids that fail are lazy or deserve it.  But it's not about fault.  The world is already a hard place.  Schools are under no obligation to model this.  Instead we must consider our intended goals.  Education on our timetable fails some kids.  Why can't the timetable change?  As parents and educators, we need to start asking questions that don't end with a standardized test.  That's the job. 

I'm not suggesting we just pass students along by lowering our standards.  I am suggesting that we try something different.  As always, we stand on the edge of educational change.  Technology has placed the world's knowledge at our fingertips and open access sites like Khan Academy and Udacity have made tutoring and a world class education available for free.  But all of this doesn't change the need for personalization and attention to individual needs.  Kids are not cans of peas.  One size does not fit all.

Education is not a gift, it's an interaction and a responsibility.  Interaction that leads to fear is failure. 

Interestingly enough, everyone fails.  What we do next says everything about us.

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