Why Do We Do What We Do?

Math is a Language.jpg

Today I want to talk about learning mathematics. Specifically, I want to discuss how we TEACH mathematics and why we do what we do.

This blog post was inspired by a radio broadcast by Science Friday titled “Does Math Matter?”.  You can listen below.

I love the opening:

I want you to think back to your math class… was it a joyous, mind-expanding experience?

Of course most people would answer that “no” there math class was not joyous, not mind-expanding, and perhaps not even useful.  The panel goes on to basically discuss why that is and how math needs an image overhaul.  Largely this need of a math revamp is due to how most of us have experienced mathematics as a student in a classroom.

The description given by Jo Boaler sums up the heart of the problem:

 Well, we actually have a lot of evidence of what works in mathematics teaching, and it's not what we see in most classrooms. There's a huge gap between what we know works and what we see normally, and the gap is, as you say, it's often very procedural, drill, lots of rules.

When we teach it as an open inquiry subject, kids do well. They love it. So I teach math to traumatized undergrads at Stanford, and we teach this open inquiry math, and everything changes for them.

The question naturally arises, if we have all this evidence about what works, then WHY is it not what we see in most math classrooms?  In other words, Why Do We Do What We Do?  This was a question brought up in the broadcast, but the panel didn’t really answer it in much detail so I thought I would tackle it in this blog.  (You’re welcome!)

I think that we do what we do in math classes for several reasons; these may include:

  • We often teach from our own basis of understanding; thus, our limitations become our students’ limitations as well
  • We often teach the same way we were taught
  • We often will do what is familiar (e.g. the way we’ve always done it), rather than risk something new
  • We often will do what is easier to measure (e.g. test), rather than risk a more subjective and open-ended approach
  • We often will do what is in the book (or the curriculum guide), rather than risk a more innovative and personalized agenda
  • We often will do what students expect (e.g. making learning “easy” on them), rather than pushing them to think, problem solve, and engage in their own learning process in order to avoid their criticism or complaints
  • We often will do what is simplified, rather than explore the various methods by which one could approach / solve the problem

Let me say just a few words about each of the items I’ve suggested as contributing to why we do what we do.

Teachers, like everyone, are prone to do what they know, what is familiar, and what feels safe.  Most of us are risk-averse to some degree.  However, if you are in a job where your performance is directly tied to the performance of your students on a standardized test, the level of risk aversion increases exponentially.  You will fall into traps of “teach to the test” and “drill and kill” kinds of methodology even if you know, in your heart of hearts, that it is not what is best for the students.  Add to this an environment in which your professional colleagues and your supervisors (department chairs, principals, etc.) echo that same mindset and you have an even more difficult wall to break through in order to achieve change.  What’s  worse, students’ fear of failure is often more damaging that teachers’ fear of failure.

When you also factor in students who have had a lifetime of educational experience being taught that “good teaching” looks like spoon-fed, step-by-step instruction requiring no thinking on their part, and plenty of ready-made examples that they can watch you do (again, with no effort on their part), then the problem becomes even more difficult to overcome.  Teaching “a different way” will often result in student resistence, even uprisings, and complaints to administration.  Student comments like, “This teacher should not be paid.  We had to teach ourselves in this course.” are often the result when a change in methodology is experienced for the first time by students who have been systematically led to believe that learning is always an easy, effortless process. 

As always, I'd love to hear from you.  Especially, I would love to hear if you have experienced difficulty in trying to change your teaching methodology to one that is more student-centered or inquiry-based, if you have stories of success (or failure) in that process, if you have words of encouragement to others who are attempting to change both their mindset and their approach to teaching, or if you have other comments about this blog post!


LINK for the Opening Graphic

LINK for the “Does Math Matter?” inspiration 

LINK for the post on “She didn’t teach, we had to learn it ourselves.”

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Author:  Dr. Diana S. Perdue

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