Tag Archives: Benjamine Riley

Math isn’t Aspirin. Neither is Teaching.

First, congrats to Dan Meyer, who finished his doctorate at Stanford and just hired on as CAO for Desmos, a tremendously useful online graphing calculator. He persisted in the face of threatened failure, and didn’t give up even when he had an easy out into a great job. (Presumably Dan and most of the Math Twitter Blogosphere are still annoyed at my jeremiad about the meaning of his meteoric rise, in which Dan played the part of illustration.)

Dan has asked math teachers for ways to create “headaches” for which math can be considered aspirin:

dmeyeraspirin

And this interested me because the request completely, perfectly, captures the difference between our two philosophies, which I also wrote about a couple years ago:

meyervsme

The comparison is an instructive one, I think. Both of us find it necessary to build our own curriculum, rejecting the one on offer, and both of us, I think, tremendously enjoy the creation process. Both of us reject the typical didactic contract described by Guy Brouseau, setting expectations very different from those of typical math teachers: explain, work a few examples, assign a set. Both of us largely eschew textbooks for instruction, although I consider them completely unnecessary save as reference books that often provide interesting problems I can steal, while Dan dreams of the perfect digital textbook.

And yet we couldn’t differ more in both teaching philosophy and curriculum approach.

Dan’s still selling curiosity and desire for knowledge, assuming capability will follow. I’m still selling capability because I see confidence follow.

Dan still believes that student engagement captures their curiosity which leads to academic success, that the Holy Grail of academic success in math lies in finding the perfect problems that universally stimulate interest in finding answers, which leads to understanding for all. I hold that student engagement leads to their willingness to attempt what they previously thought was impossible but that the Holy Grail doesn’t exist.

Meyer thinks teachers skeptical of his methods are resistant to change and the best interests of their students. I advise teachers and recommend curriculum; if they find my advice helpful, great. I encourage them to modify or even reject my advice, to continue to see an approach that works for them and their students.

Dan wants to be “less helpful”. I want to teach kids to use their own resources, but given a kid who wants to give up, I’m offering help every time.

Meyer’s methods would probably need tremendous readjustment if he worked in a low-income school with a wide range of abilities. I’d probably be much “less helpful” if I taught at a school with a high-achieving, homogenous population obsessed about grades.

Meyer rose quickly in the rarefied world of rock star teachers. I aspire to the role of and indie with cult status.

Dan’s query: “Why did mathematicians think this skill was worth even a little bit of our time? If the ability to factor that trinomial is aspirin for a mathematician, then how do we create the headache?

My answer: You can’t.

The commenters, mostly teachers, took the question seriously, understanding that it was another way of looking at the students’ demand, “When will we use this?”. Answering this question clearly troubles most of the commenters—or they have an affirmative answer they’re satisfied with.

My answer to the student demand: “Probably never. But the more willing you are to take on challenging tasks you learn from, the more opportunities you’ll have in life, both professional and personal. Call me crazy, but I see this as a good thing.”

Dan Meyer is wrong, I believe, in looking for the Holy Grail that makes math “aspirin”1. But that’s not the point of my running through the Dan vs. Ed showdown.

Instead, consider the comparison yet another data point in my slowly developing thesis that ed schools need more flexibility and even less prescription. Few people understand the vast scale of values, philosophies, management and curriculum found in the teaching population.

Two teachers developing uncommon curriculum who agree on very little—yet both of us are considered successful teachers. (one has much more success selling his ideas to people with money, I grant you.) Take ten more math teachers likewise who build their own curriculum, have their own takes on philosophy, discipline, and even grading and they’re unlikely to change to suit another model. Take 100 more–ditto. Voila! an expanding population of teachers who have successful teaching approaches and curriculum design that they’ve developed and modified. None of them are going to agree on much. They have come to widely varying conclusions that they will continue to develop and enhance on their timeline as they see fit. No one will have anything approaching a convincing argument that could possibly convince them otherwise.

The point: the current push to “fix” ed schools, a fond delusion of reformers, progressives and union leaders alike. People as diverse as Benjamin Riley, Paul Bruno, Rick Hess and others believe we can find (or already have) a teaching knowledge base that can be passed on to novices.

Teachers are never going to agree.

Agreement or even consensus is impossible. Teachers and students form infinite combinations of interests, values, incentives and unlike reformers, teachers are going to value their experience and unique circumstances over anything ed schools tried to pretend was the only way.

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience. Treat it as a medicine, mandate a particular course of treatment, and hundreds of thousands of teachers will simply refuse to comply because it won’t cure the challenges and opportunities they face.

So when the status quo has prevailed for the next 30 years, don’t say you weren’t warned.
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1which isn’t to say I don’t plan on writing up the how and why of my quadratic equations section.