I think all of us who have ventured into a high school classroom have faced the challenge of working with students who, for whatever reasons, are not motivated in class. There are some reasons for this that go well beyond the scope of a math teacher’s relationship with a student. That said, the common approach to math education in this country is doing teachers no favors. I am reading A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart (thank you David Wees for the book recommendation) and there is a great quote that sums up the problem.
Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politician’s say, “We need higher standards.” The schools say, “We need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “Math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right. (page 20)
Key Curriculum’s publisher, Steve Rasmussen and some students he interviewed, articulated the problem in a 5 minute Ignite! talk he gave last year.
Unfortunately, in some ways, as much as the Common Core and the upcoming common assessments are going to promote rigor and college readiness, they will also provide additional hurdles to be overcome as we try to reach students who are, in many cases, already reluctant. Another quote from A Mathematician’s Lament:
There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Include it as a major component of standardized testing and you virtually guarantee that the education establishment will suck the life out of it. (page 36)
I don’t believe that means math education is doomed as a result of the Common Core. I don’t agree with Dr. Lockhart’s assertion that students cannot be engaged in a standards-based curriculum. If we look at the standards as a whole rather than as disjointed parts and provide content that engages students in a classroom where students are an active part of their learning, students can be motivated to learn. As Steve articulated in his talk, engaging tasks where students aren’t hand-fed formulas to memorize and plug into irrelevant story problems will go a long way toward overcoming apathy even in a standards-based, high-stakes testing environment.
How to create engaging tasks that reach all learners is another blog. Lockhart definitely has his views on how to make math exciting again, but I am also reading Judy Willis’s Learning to Love Math (click on the link and the publisher ASCD has large chunks available to read) and she makes a compelling argument in another direction. I’m open to suggestions.