Thoughts from Outside the Education Community

Dan Carlin (@dccommonsense or @hardcorehistory) is not a professional educator. He is a podcaster about politics and history. His podcasts are fantastic. A ton of substance in manageable doses, and he is a fantastic story-teller. He describes himself as a “fan of history” as opposed to “historian” because calling himself a “historian” would create academic structures that would keep him from adding a lot of the sensational pieces to his history podcasts that make them such awesome listening. Historians and academics might consider that irresponsible and reckless. But, he’s got something like 500,000 people currently waiting part III of his current series on World War I. Dan Carlin is clearly not a professional educator.

And yet, Edutopia decided to post a short column by him that they supplemented with a podcast that Dan recorded directly addressed to the Edutopia community. It’s worth recognizing that Dan does a fantastic job of recognizing some problems with history education that are consistently problematic in the math arena, too. From the podcast, about a minute in:

“… we teach it the same way we always did, except we’ve learned over and over, haven’t we, that the vast majority of people don’t like it taught this way. And they don’t remember it. And because they don’t remember it, any rationale you have for why it has to be the way it is because people have to learn these things goes right out the window, right? Because if they don’t retain them, they didn’t really learn them.

Maybe they were good students, studied them for the tests and got a good grade, but they didn’t keep that information a couple years later. It’s like learning a foreign language that you don’t keep up on, right? It doesn’t matter if you took Spanish back in high school if you don’t remember how to say anything, you know, ten years later.”

Educational professional or not, that is a pretty accurate observation of the major symptom plaguing education today. Many teachers I talk discuss how unprepared the students are for their particular class. This problem isn’t a secret. And it isn’t new. (Sam Cooke Sing-along anyone: “Don’t know geography… don’t know much trigonomety…“) In the podcast, Dan urges that the education should be less about what we teach and more about how we are teaching it.

From about the 10:00 mark.

You have to awaken a desire to continue with the subject, and not just in an educational sense, but in their lives – to have an interest in the past. Allow them to choose the subject and you’re halfway there. If a kid’s into motorcycles, let them do a report on the history of motorcycles. They will quickly come to understand how that motorcycle they admired in the showroom window today came to be. They’ll understand the value of knowing the past about any subject, right?

If you have a person in your classroom that’s interested in fashion – same thing. The history of fashion’s a wonderful subject. It’ll teach you how we got to where we are now in terms of fabrics, and colors, and styles. You’ll be able to recognize, “Oh, I see a little bit of ancient Egyptian influence in that dress I saw the other day on the runway.” This is how you begin to teach people that the past is infinitely exciting if you get to pick the subject.

… They can learn all the social studies aspects of these stories down the road, if it matters to them. If it doesn’t matter to them, they’re never going to learn it anyway. Now I don’t know if teachers have any control over this in the classroom, and I realize this doesn’t give them many tools to use, does it? But the truth of the matter is that if we’re going to teach history in a way that less than 10% come out knowing anything 5 years down the road, we’d be better off using that time to teach math.

 

Now, Dan recognizes his limitations as an adviser of educators, but he brings a lot to the table of value – and not just in the teaching of history. Replace history with math in most of that quote and you’ll find that his sentiments are still pretty applicable.

Why are we teaching math? What are we doing to put students in a position to leave us with anything of value to take with them? We’ve known for years that students often forget the math they study in school. (I am reminded of this every year at parent conferences when the parents remind me how little they remember of their high school math.)

So, why do we continue to do what we’re doing? Why are we spending so much time at the top levels stressing about WHAT we should teach and so much less about HOW we should teach? What should the goals of math class be?

The goals of math class are perplexity, problem-solving, organized logical reasoning, creativity within constraints, patience, persistence, perseverance, the ability to guess well, and then to design a way to check the accuracy of the guess…

THESE are the reasons for math class. THESE are the long-lasting takeaways. THESE are the things that make math class useful to 100% of the students. And THESE are things than can be taught regardless of the content. You can teach those things with linear functions, or visual patterns, or number lines.

And it’s okay that the advice came from a “fan of history” and not an educator.

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