The Great Gatsby

This morning, a comic by Zach Weiner:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is a great comic, even if it does veer off into not-safe-for-work territory from time to time. You should all be reading it.

Of course, today’s is of special relevance. Somewhere along the line, our high school curriculum ossified. The topics that we learn, and the methods by which we learn them seem to have become stuck in time.

During my training to become a teacher, I was introduced to what educational departments call “research,” and to modern educational theory. One class that I took was designed to help instructors teach in a culturally sensitive manner. Unfortunately, the anthropological and sociological theory upon which the teaching methods were based was at least 30 years out of date. Educational psychology is still taught using the unedited work of Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist who died in 1980, and whose publications date back as far as the 1920s.

Because the foundation of theory upon which our secondary educational system is built is so old, our methods are similarly old. I think it also creates a pervasive and unevaluated attitude that the material that we teach is important, and that we don’t really need to explain (or even understand ourselves) why it is important that we teach it.

So we get The Great Gatsby, reduced down to an easily digestible paragraph for an exam, and we get math classes where problems are presented through repetitive drill-and-kill so that they can be memorized by rote. Kids are turned off of the very topics that should be most interested in: artistic expression, the beauty of mathematics, the scientific process, and so on.

But fear not! There may be a solution!

First and foremost, colleges of education need to start looking beyond themselves. In my teacher education program, the college of education hired educational psychologists and multicultural education specialists to teach what are basically psychology and anthropology classes. In an ideal program of study, I do agree that it is important for teachers to take classes in developmental psychology, anthropology, &c., but these classes ought to be taught by researchers in those fields.

To draw a parallel, we don’t teach calculus in departments of engineering. If you want to become an engineer, you take math classes from a mathematics department. It is understood that those that have spent the time and effort to become mathematics faculty are probably the best suited to teach mathematics classes.

Unfortunately, educators seems to begin from the assumption that in order to talk about teaching and students, you need to have spent time in the classroom. Now, don’t get me wrong—in the discussion of teaching methods and other directly pedagogical concerns, I do think that teachers are among the best qualified experts. I don’t think that teachers are the best experts to discuss developmental psychology. Most universities have dedicated psychology departments that are better suited to the task.

In addition to better teacher training, we need to seriously evaluate why we teach the curriculum that we teach, and how we approach it. I have been told over and over again that we teach mathematics because it is practical, and because it will help students get jobs.

Ignoring the claim that schools should be dedicated to job training, let’s consider the real life applications of high school mathematics. When was the last time you needed to solve an equation of the form \(ax^2 + bx + c = 0\)? When was the last time you needed to compute a logarithm? When was the last time you needed to find the volume of a cylinder?

When we tell students that mathematics has real life applications, our students know that we are lying to them. And these aren’t little white lies. These are important statements that run counter to reality, and offer no pedagogical justification.

Mathematics is a way of thinking. It is a way of evaluating claims and untangling puzzles. Math is useful, and should be taught, but not because the formulae will have practical, real life applications. A good education in mathematics can help people make decisions, and approach problems from a logical, rather than emotional, point of view. This is why mathematics is important.

So how does this translate into the classroom?

I could probably write a thesis on this topic, and I have already departed my the main thrust of my discussion, but allow me to offer a couple of quick thoughts. First, include more logic and proof writing in the mathematics curriculum. I know, proofs are one of the worst parts of high school geometry in the US. That’s because they are taught as another exercise in rote memorization. Instead of teaching students that proofs need to be written in a particular format, step-by-step, we need to start by simply teaching them the ability to structure a logical argument. Who cares if they follow all of our steps and formatting exactly? The point is the logical argument, not the format.

Second, we need to find ways to make mathematics more interactive. There are some really good teachers out there that are already doing a pretty good job of this, but we need more. Throughout history, advances in mathematics have been made by people who needed to solve very specific problems. Arithmetic is the result of financial transactions. Calculus rose out of a desire to predict the motions of the planets. Logarithms were originally a way of simplifying multiplication problems. Why not let students tackle some of these problems on their own before we teach them a lesson by rote.

Because I have studies mathematics, and because I am a math teacher, these are the areas that I feel comfortable addressing. However, the curriculum across the boards is in need of evaluation. I love to read, yet my high school English curriculum sucked the joy out of it. Great Expectations might be a great book, but I will never go near it again, so traumatic was my high school experience with it. Chemistry seems like an interesting science, but my only real recollection of high school chemistry is performing “labs” where the outcome was preordained, and your grade was based upon how well your experimental results matched the theoretical results—I managed to write up several lab reports without even performing the experiment, because I knew what my teacher wanted me to say.

As a society, we seem to recognize that our educational system is in trouble. However, our politicians have made the same error as our educators. They have doubled down on teaching methods and curricula that are behind the times. They asked the question “How can we improve student performance under the current system?” The question that we need to be asking “Why?”

Why do we teach Shakespeare?
Why do we teach the quadratic formula?
Why do we teach acid-base reactions?
Why do we teach anything that we teach?

Before we ask “How?” we need to first ask “Why?”

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