Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Get to the point.

All teachers have heard "why do we have to learn this?" from confused students waiting for us to give them answers.  To many students math is a distant, far-off land for math teachers and math teachers only.  To them our job is to "dump" our knowledge into their heads and as teachers we hope that somehow the information will stick.  Their understanding of mathematics is that it is a means to an end: the answer in the back of the book, the 28 ACT score, the letter on their transcript.  The students simply want us to get to the point already.

So why do students really have to learn this stuff?  The simple answer is that everyone needs to learn math to make informed decisions.  Let's imagine we've assigned a word problem on linear systems.  What do we want kids to do?  In an ideal world students would...
  1. Read the problem and pull out necessary information.
  2. Make a plan of attack.
  3. Execute the plan.  If something goes wrong, try a different approach!
  4. Verify the answer.
This crazy foreign language of word problems that math teachers speak is really just our way of helping students learn how to analyze a situation and make an informed, educated decision.  Unfortunately, as teachers, our intentions often get lost in translation.  We need to view our classrooms as places where we can help shift a student's thinking.  We need to challenge them, and we need to make the practice of mathematics something that the students connect with.

One way we can work towards this is by helping students learn about social justice through their math courses.  In this, we are creating knowledgeable citizens who know how to look at situations and perform an educated analysis - little mathematicians!  Something pretty cool that I'll be using this year in my AP Stats course comes directly from the Bock, Velleman, and De Veaux book Stats Modeling the World and analyzes the relationship between race and the death penalty.  Students are given a data set and are asked whether race has an influence on the verdict in death penalty cases.  Types of activities like this show students that math is used to study the world around them, not just the world in their Statistics text book.

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