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.