Why isn't it more main stream to love math and to be enthusiastic about participating in mathematics learning?
A former Principal I worked with (@neffdan5) used to say: "we can't expect the students to have a better culture than the teachers." For me, it stuck.
Culture. The family, school, society, and context of our lives has a staggering degree of connection to the attitudes we hold and activities we engage with.
What would happen if you were to organize a math problem solving session this weekend and invited all your friends? (Yes, even the non-math teachers.) Would they show up? Would they think it was a joke? Would they arrive with a pocket full of number two pencils and a scantron, wearing their favorite pocket protector and holding a pad of graph paper? Would they grumble how they are not math people and offer to pour drinks instead of solve problems? (To be sure, it is a necessary job at all math parties.)
If you are anything like me, you might be chuckling as you think to yourself of who the hard core math lovers are that would show up smiling, and what the amazingly creative excuses for not showing up would include. If only they were as creative with their mathematical problem solving as they are with the excuses for avoiding it.
I'm going to ask you to be honest with yourself and take stock in what your life outside of teaching really looks like.
Do you let natural curiosity drive your learning interactions? Do you do math for fun on your free time? Do you engage with learning math without a big picture understanding and a clear learning goal? Do you look for new and interesting ways to incorporate mathematical thinking into your daily interactions?
Hopefully, the answer to all those and similar questions is a resounding: YES! If not, then at the very least I hope you will begin to find compassion for your disinterested students, they may not be so different than you after all. For those of you who said yes without hesitation, here comes the follow up...
Do you openly and transparently share these dispositions with your students? It is one thing to be the perfect example for students to follow, it's another to share the stories and experiences that will allow your students to follow your lead and emulate your example.
As teachers, our example is much more than our lessons, or the words of wisdom written on the whiteboard. We model how to act, what to value, who has value, what we hold dear, and how to live our lives. All of this has very little to do with math but a huge impact on what your students learn from you. To be the example for them to follow, you first need to take on the immense challenge of being the best version of yourself. Next, learn to tell your story so that people can see behind the curtain and understand the depth of thought and determination involved in the example you set.
In my experience, these two things will transform the culture of a class more authentically than any new strategy, group structure, or innovative task. When students buy into you as a person worthy to teach them, the details become much easier to iron out.
Just like my former principal said: we can't expect a better culture from the students than we demonstrate ourselves.
Today I ran into an 11-year-old friend of mine, and I asked him what he thought about learning. He said he really likes learning, just not at school. He went on to tell me how he would like to have a chance to learn where he could get his mistakes corrected and have help to achieve his goals. Also, that he thought high school would be much better because then he would have some choice in what classes he is taking and gets to decide what to learn. I didn't spoil his enthusiasm by telling him that most people get very little choice in school all the way up until graduate school. I'll let him figure his own path out from there, and I sure hope things get better in high school.
I cant help but wonder what is happening to education when an 11 year old already has a perception that learning can't be fun except outside of school. We can and must do better!
Getting students intrinsically motivated is always a goal and frequently a struggle in maths classrooms. When your students dive into a problem and really dig into the maths involved it is so fun and rewarding for everyone involved.
Recently I decided to try two different approaches with my classes to see what would happen. Both classes were given the four 4's task. https://www.youcubed.org/task/the-four-4s/ This is a well known task and it is a lot of fun. One class was given the task and told that the group that gets the highest integer wins a piece of candy for each person in the winning group. The second class was given the same task and not offered any incentive for the highest number.
What I noticed after we started was very interesting. The students who were enticed by a piece of candy dove into the assignment, as did the students that were not offered an incentive. What I noticed was that later in the task, students who were offered candy began looking around and comparing their progress.
In the candy class as soon as one group heard that another group was sufficiently ahead of them they were ready to throw up their hands in frustration and quit. It seems that having something to loose (even a trivial prize) made students significantly less willing to persevere through adversity.
The no candy class worked through the whole period. Although there was a definite competitive feeling to the no candy class, the students were willing to help other groups, willing to share ideas, and worked much harder on the task. It was such a joy to see this group work through struggles and observe how they collaborated. Trading ideas, bartering for different answers, and generally having fun with math knowing that nobody had anything to loose.
This was a real eye opener for me on many levels: students love having engaging math tasks, they enjoy getting to play with numbers, competition can actually hurt productivity, collaboration increases when there is nothing to loose, and although students love rewards they don't necessarily work harder when a reward is offered.
Obviously my findings are anecdotal, but I would love to research this more in depth and find out how to recreate the response of the no candy group on a daily basis. Ideas? Know of related research? Leave them in the comments or send me an email through the contact me page.
Anyone classroom teacher can certainly sympathize with the level of commitment it takes to bring energy and excitement to the teaching profession day in and day out. By expressing enthusiasm to your students it helps them share to your excitement for the content. I've had moments that exemplify clarity of purpose and moments of just showing up for another day of work, certainly we can all relate to both conditions during our careers.
We should be sure that our students get the best of what we have to offer so that our profession will never be just another day at the office. Lately I have made some very deliberate changes to my health and nutrition and it has drastically reinvigorated my classroom climate. I know that is because I have the energy and enthusiasm I should have, allowing me keep up with my students, perhaps even surpass them regarding mood and health. I am happy to show curious people what I have done, but that is not the focus of this post.
The reason why it feels important to share this thought is because we need to bring the best versions of ourselves to the classroom. If any of you entered this profession for similar reasons as myself, you want to change the way young people see the world. We want to make the world a better place, invest in the next generation, and help our society thrive for many generations into the future.
Here is my call to action, get up, take a walk, loose some weight, read a book, eat healthy food, follow your passions, make time for new relationships, enjoy the sunshine, and love the life you live. We need to be the best version of ourselves if we can ever hope to teach students to do the same. Our students learn much more by the way they observe our actions than anything they do on a homework assignment. We need to inspire our students by giving them an example of how to live a happy and health life.
Lead by example, take care of your body, develop your character, and become the best version of yourself. It is the only way to teach your students to do the same.
By: Mr. Woodford
I will reflect on ideas and practices I learn through my formative years as a classroom math teacher.