What really was the point?

August 27, 2008 at 3:34 am Leave a comment

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AT THIS year’s Commencement ceremony I idled the time reading the list of graduates. Names from the past triggered memories.

I watched the recalled names walk across the stage in cap, gown and garlands, looking so proud and so much taller than my memory. Was that really mischievous D’Arcy? He seemed so much smaller then, now he could cradle the principal under his chin.

Jeff, two years of struggle, of repeated assignments undone and promises of better to come and broken promises… who came alive when asked if he could help make a film about the math in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

Ashley who tried so hard, turned everything in, pages and pages of detail and colorful annotations… and almost every answer not even within the realm of what we were doing. Lindsay, who would not move to the next question till the current question had been confirmed, pristine and correct in every way.

Kyle… Kyle… ah, yes, Kyle. Richard who was so correct, now sporting a giant mohican.

I wondered… do they remember anything whatsoever we struggled over? And, does it really matter?

The oh-so-important assignment, grade, topic, algorithm, nuance that seemed so damnedly frustrating and vital two, three years ago seemed so irrelevant now. Our year (or two) together through Indian fall, and the long, grey, wet months, praying for a snow day before seizing on an early glimmer of sun would, at best, be the briefest of memory. You remember that math teacher…?

Each semester I do a student feedback survey. It prompts some reflection and student self-assessment and seeks some feedback on the lessons, what worked, what didn’t. The memories are always a surprise… certainly not the meticulously-planned and brilliantly-executed three-part lesson.

It’s usually the spontaneous moment. The something that popped out of no-where, or, the go-with-the-flow moment or experiment. Lesson-of-the-day: Go with the flow.

Nik complained all year, when are you going to do those puzzles again? Next week. At last he spelled it out insistently… the three baby elephants, the telescope, tweezers and the jamjar. How do you catch three baby elephants and put them in a jamjar armed only with a pair of tweezers and a telescope before mummy and daddy elephant spot what you’re doing? Those thinking puzzles, the ones where the answer wasn’t the point. And remember, we needed to punch some holes in the jamjar lid. They really made him think, Nik explained.

What they all asked — Jeff, Kyle, Lindsay, Ashley, Nik, D’Arcy — is when are we going to use this in real life? And that is the question all math teachers need to ask… and be able to answer. That’s really the point. And depending on the answer, depends what students remember and take away from that walk across the Commencement platform.

If all we did was merely deliver the curriculum, they probably take away little if anything. If the answer is the purpose was to learn to think and be creative in problem solving and that all students will need such skills in real life, students may, it is to be hoped, take away something.

But, as Marie, our school psychologist, commented as students filed out: “They got here. We did our job.”

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Entry filed under: Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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