Thursday, May 31, 2012

Where are we heading in this handbasket?

Since I have been delinquet (OK, absent) in blogging I thought I would get back in the saddle by posting a guest blog.

In my travels I meet lots of smart people. Gerry Varty has the unique ability to understand the "ivory tower" thoughts and the reality of every day teaching. Recently he shared a few thoughts about a favourite topic of mine, the currrent state of education vs the good old days. Jamie Vollmer calls this "nostesia", a combination of amnesia and nostalgia. 

Anyway here is Gerry's communication...........

Every so often, somebody spends a few moments telling me about how the world is heading straight to Sheol in the proverbial handbasket.

 Mostly, I wonder if they're right.

 From those conversations come new thoughts, affirmations of old thoughts, amazing insights and usually, more questions.  It's when I go looking to find some answers that I get a chance to hear about others struggling with the same ideas... this little note is about just such an occurrence.

 The other day, I had a conversation (with somebody I respect) about the state of mathematics education.  "Kids don't know their basic facts", he said.  "It's handicapping them when they try to do more complex things.  I don't think they should have taken basic facts out of the curriculum."

That got my attention.  'They' removed basic facts from the curriculum?

How dare 'They'?

 It connected with another conversation I had (about a month ago) where (another person I respect) mentioned that it might have been a mistake to not teach division and 2-digit x 2-digit multiplication in this new curriculum. 

In that case, I sent them on a treasure hunt through the Program of Studies to find where those concepts were indeed taught, and connected them with somebody who teaches them.  They seemed surprised to discover that they had a misconception about what was in the curriculum, but remained confused about why they thought it wasn't there.

I lost a lot of sleep over that one... Was it the resources?  Was it the activities?  Was it the focus on 'developing personal strategies', or 'making sense and meaning' that replaced 'rote learning'?

While we're on the topic, why DID we replace rote learning, since it worked so well for all of us?

All of that came back to me when my friend asked me the question about Basic Facts, and it has been bubbling around in the cauldron since then.

Until last night, when I read these lines on another teacher's blog...

"I'm not opposed to memorizing facts. Somewhere along the line, I've memorized the various spells in Harry Potter, the positions on a football field, and the lyrics to my favorite songs. I've memorized lines from conversations, verses from the Bible, and "facts" regarding Social Constructivism, Social Constructionism and Social Connectivism. I never crammed for a test. I never wrote out the facts in isolation under the watchful gaze of a teacher with a timer.

I learned these things through immersion, critical thinking, context and play."

( From a Blog post written by John Spencer:

The insight that came to me last night wasn't a blinding flash of inspiration; it was more like one of those things you have always known, but never really thought much about that just sneaks up on you and whispers in your ear ...

 "The problem isn't that complicated, dummy.  Neither is the answer."

See, the new Program of Studies doesn't 'do away with' Basic Facts, Times Tables, Multiplication or Division, or Algorithms.  The new Program of Studies recognizes that those things are important enough to learn them well, in context, and that there is a need to understand the 'Magic' of mathematics, from numbers and arithmetic all the way through to Algebra, and beyond that to Calculus.

Math isn't a series of disconnected and discrete routines, any more than a bunch of parts flying in close formation is an airplane.  Mathematics is about generalization, about inductive thought, about pattern and order, about abstract relationships, and yes, it's about basic facts and algorithms. 

In fact, it's the THINKING that goes into basic facts and algorithms that creates the more complex and interconnected parts of mathematics.

Without that thinking, you just can't get to higher math, and that's the lesson here.  'Rote Learning' wasn't good enough for us, either.  That's why so few of us understand polynomial algebra, motion trigonometry, functional relationships, and related rates.  We all took enough math to understand those things, but very few of us know enough math to TEACH them well, and most of us gleefully bailed on math the first chance we got ...

At the end of the day, it's still important that kids can DO multiplication and Division, and KNOW their basic facts.  But it's more important than ever that they UNDERSTAND those things and can extrapolate them to new situations, make conjectures about possible solutions, and generalize what they have learned to form the base for learning new ideas.

 The contradiction here is that memorization just might not be the best way to LEARN those things.

 We're teachers. Learning is our ballpark.  Designing the methodology to help kids learn is tough work, requiring our best thinking.  If parents could just buy flashcards at Walmart and accomplish that goal, they wouldn't need us... that alone tells me that memorization is probably necessary, but not sufficient.  At least, I hope that's the case, or we're all out of a job.

 As always, just something to think about.

Gerry Varty

1 comment:

  1. I think by memorization, you mean, memorization without context, without understanding.

    I naturally memorize (as in commit to my long-term memory) that which is useful to me, and which I use often. We often skipped the "useful to me" part in our previous systems of math education, and focused only on the second piece.

    Great post Gerry.