Monday, December 1, 2008

On True Education

I could be a kick-ass teacher. I really could. Sometimes, I am a kick-ass teacher. But I could be one on a regular basis.

If our education system wasn't so f---ed.

I teach at a middle school. My particular designation is "Math," but I also teach elective classes twice a week (currently, Music Production and Psychology; I taught Public Speaking and a podcasting class last term). And guess when I'm more often a kick-ass teacher?

Yeah - not when I'm teaching math.

Some of the problem is my lack of passion for the subject-matter. I always hated math when I was in school, so my main motivation is to not have it be as painful as it was for me as a kid. When I teach my elective classes, I obviously pick subjects that I'm interested in or even passionate about, and that comes out in how I teach.

But the passion vs. lack thereof isn't actually the main problem. No - the main difference between how I teach (and plan curriculum for) my math classes versus my elective classes is simple: there's so much bullsh-- involved in teaching math, and little to none in my other classes.

So - why is that? Good question. It's because I have to teach math to the State Standards. Which really means that I have to teach to the annual State-administered tests for each grade level. And so exactly what I have to cover is pretty much laid out for me in advance by some hypothetical panel of "experts."

And my questions to these "experts" is: how do you decide what is important to "know"? Really? Because so much of the subject-matter I have to cover is complete and utter B.S. Complete. And utter. Really.

I mean - honestly - how many of you all have ever used a box-and-whisker plot in your real life? Or a stem-and-leaf plot? How often has the Pythagorean Theorem come in handy (and if it ever has, what was the chance that you couldn't easily look it up when you needed it)? Outside of basic math functions, how many specific math concepts have ever been necessary without being able to readily look it up or gain assistance?

Now, I believe in the value of mathematics. I think the problem-solving skills are handy. A basic knowledge of algebra is great for better solving real-life math problems. The various ways of thinking and pattern-recognition learned through practicing math skills are invaluable. But what difference does it really make if some kid knows how to make a freaking box-and-whisker plot as opposed to spending that time mastering more basic skills at a deeper level?

Because I could make math relevant to the kids. I could come up with some ridiculous, fun and hands-on games and activities that would hone kids' math skills. I could teach the Hell out of math. If I didn't have to waste so much time on B.S. that some imaginary board came up with as "important" enough to put on the standardized tests that my kids' academic standing and progress are measured by. If I didn't have to scrap deeper-level learning and comprehension and actual MASTERY because my quality as a math teacher is gauged by how much improvement my kids make on B.S. tests that put as much weight on being able to determine the measures of alternate interior angles as calculating averages - with almost NO emphasis on true comprehension and problem-solving skills.

And it kills me. When the kids ask "when are we ever going to use this?" and all I have is a lie because I can't just say "after the test, you won't."

So I constantly skim over subject-matter. Never getting deep enough into any of it for it to be relevant or stick or just be interesting because there's always something else they "need to know to do well on the test."

Because our society loves tests. We love to do surveys and quizzes that tell us what our personality type is. We try to come up with formulas that can match the "perfect mates" based on multiple-choice questionnaires. We talk about people's high IQs as if that has any bearing on common sense or people skills. And we measure academic skills based on how a student did on a test without ever really bothering to find out if the kid actually understands any of it.

And it's especially frustrating to me because I know just how little these kinds of tests demonstrate true knowledge or understanding. A conversation demonstrates understanding. Being able to teach somebody else demonstrates understanding. A multiple-choice test usually just demonstrates your socio-economic background mixed in with some rote learning.

And it's not like the other subjects I teach aren't broad topics. They're vast. But it's up to me to focus my curriculum and classroom activities based on relevance, the kids' interests, etc. I actually get to take into account who my kids are, what my particular strengths as a teacher are, and what the desired end result is. And trust me - in none of my non-math classes do the kids finish up with a test. They debate topics of their choice in Public Speaking. They design their own Psychology experiments and run them. They produce their own cd with their own music in Music Production (obviously). All demonstrating true understanding, all relevant, all self-directed, and all great learning opportunities even if they don't go perfectly (especially if they don't).

And that's true education. That's how learning should happen. And that's kick-ass teaching.

Too bad the current system doesn't allow my math students to experience that.


mthgk said...

I really appreciate this post, both as a parent of two elementary public schoolers and as a person with graduate degrees in math and chemistry. I've had to teach college algebra, and, let me tell you, the kids in that class do not have a good foundation in basic arithmetic! Ironically, many understand algebra, but cannot get the correct answer because they don't know how to deal with fractions or long division, etc.

I am supremely frustrated with public education. As a single mother, it would be an ideal profession for me and I happen to think I would be a good teacher. But, the public school system in the U.S.would drive me insane! I'd rather work at a hospital or national lab and make a lot more money.

So, thank you for dealing with all of the crap and doing your best. I am glad there are thoughtful people like you teaching our kids.

Jane said...

Have you seen the dy/dan blog? Dan's a math teacher who is pushing what it means to teach math and to teach more generally and he spurs a lot of discussion. You might find some solace there:

CVT said...

Jane - thanks for the link. It's good to see I'm not the only one here.

And mthgk - sadly, I'm never quite sure how much the "thought" really counts these days, but thanks for your kind words.

ThoughtsOFARandomCollegeStudent said...


but we never produced our own cd, we played instruments in a band...


I feel what is going on in out schools is a VERY strong plan to dumb down the nation. In addition to crappy school testing standards, parents are desperate enough to home school kids. PARENTS!!!

I have such great respect for the educational field. I realize, as loving and right as parents can be, they cannot replace a quality , certified teacher. Kids need to go to school and the number two reason they don't is because of bad school systems ( guess what number 1 is!!!)

My main concern is how this is going to play out for colleges in the next 15 years when they have a boat load of kids that can't really DO anything. I wonder if colleges will complain they cant find any quality students, or teachers willing to teach.

lyric said...

sigh. I SOOOO agree with you about the crushing requirements of standardized testing. Too many good teachers - squeezed out of the joy of creatively teaching a wonderful subject - by "standards."

My thoughts and prayers are with you - teachers are my heroes. We need them so desperately - keep the joy alive - at least in the electives!