Sir Ken Robinson has effected my teaching in a major way. In 2012, I got a chance to read Robinson’s* Out of Our Minds*, which is an wonderfully readable discussion on the historical background for our modern education system and how it is forcing students into an overly-left-brained way of thinking. It also provides some fantastic advice and some examples of how changing the paradigms can lead to fantastic growth.

This year, we decided to put some of Sir Ken’s advice into play. In previous years, when it was time to study triangles we would start by talking about the different classifications of triangles. Then onto theorems and then proofs. All the while, the only triangles the students were looking at where pictures out of the textbook. The problems involved writing equations and solving for variables.

This year, we started triangles by having them make triangle art. They cut out a triangle (or a few), protractor-measure the angles, ruler-measure the side lengths. Then they posted them up. We gallery-walked around an recorded 15 different measurements and then discussed.

We had powerful discussions around questions like if all you knew was a triangles angle measures, could you tell what kind of triangle it was? What is the deal with triangles who angle measures don’t add up to 180 degrees?

So, what accounted for the change? I think that there is a huge rush to make our classes academic. As if that were a badge of honor. I think math teachers fall prey to this temptation more than most (although I don’t have a ton of data on that). But most of our students aren’t academic in the sense that we are thinking. Academic, to most, evokes this image of someone who appreciates the value of reading dry texts, preparing for tests, and doing homework. It isn’t necessarily that they enjoy it, although they might. But they understand the value of it all.

2012 has taught me that my students don’t appreciate the value of things like textbooks, homework, and notebooks. So, what is my task? To help them to appreciate the value of those things? Or to help them to learn mathematics. I’ve traded out “academic” for “engaged” and “obedient” for “creative.” They are willing to take ownership of the class, which, of course makes class tougher to control at times, but that’s an adjustment I have to make.

2012 has taught me that we shouldn’t be in any hurry to grow these kids up. Let them cut with scissors and create with construction paper. Let them write their thoughts instead of writing proofs. There is value in managing the experience of the learner (an idea I stole from a very good post from a math teacher from Chicago). It isn’t about making everything fluffy and fun, but it is about designing a class they’ll engage in. Sure, it probably isn’t as sophisticated or academic, but the students are willing. The students are engaging.

Indeed, the students are learning.