For decades, good pastors have drilled the difference into my head: judging vs. discerning. Judging assumes I know what is in my student’s heart. Discerning is my reflective quest to figure it out. Judging is arrogant: damaging to our students and our relationships. Discernment helps us understand our students. Without discernment, it is impossible to do our best in their behalf.
Lazy! I do not believe that any healthy student with clear, long-term vision would intentionally blow off core academics to play video games. Students may get depressed, may lack self discipline for deferred gratification, or have other issues; but I continue to believe that if they truly understood what most adults know about today’s workforce, they would be working their petutees off. Even if they have their hearts set on a career that requires no math, closing other options while still in high school simply does not make sense to me. Maybe I am being too simplistic, but I have seen huge changes in student responsibility when someone paints the picture for them in a way they can truly wrap their minds around. Knowing this, motivation becomes an equity issue for me as I feel compelled to try and try again. My contentment rests on doing my best, but my satisfaction does not come so easy. I will not rest until I find the brush that unveils contrasting futures for each of my students.
In most American families, parents have done a great job making sure their children have those things that are most important in life. When something is really important, then someone makes the kids do it. When a student comes to school, they often have the same expectations. What we see as apathy may be a skewed understanding of priorities.
Many math teachers are not aware of new and emerging careers in science, technology, and engineering that all have foundations in math (STEM). It is difficult to understand and relay the importance of what we teach if we are unaware of how those thought process are used in real life. Why do we teach rational functions? Does anyone use rational function thought processes after high school? The answers to those questions should be provided to teachers as part of a good professional development program. When we math teachers fail to convey the long-term importance of our topic, students get the false idea that it really is not very important. They may envision an ogre up the chain of authority that forces all students to learn worthless procedures. Like adults, students need to prioritize how they spend their time. If we are unable to make a serious case for learning Algebra, then we have not elevated our topic to a priority worth pursuing. Good professional development should include tools teachers can use to connect math they teach with real careers and thought processes. Tools might include career videos, 3-Act lessons, and engaging problems to embed in their traditional lessons.
Parents, family friends, and relatives can also help disaffected students by bringing them into technical work spaces. Some companies encourage job shadowing. Some have special days set aside to bring in visitors. Students need to see and feel what it is like to have a 21st century career. There are many published statistics with respect to employment forecasts. Some report 85% of the new job openings as related to STEM. When students see the difference in opportunities, the transformation can be monumental. A few years ago I taught a “high risk” summer school for incoming freshmen who had been identified by a number of red flags. We took them on two field trips: one to tech school and one to a community college. The phone cameras came out with comments like, “This is where I want to go to school.” The district reported that none of those students were discipline issues their first year in high school. Most passed their core classes with appropriate supports.
Unmotivated! Lack of motivation is often tied to a feeling of hopelessness. The amount of effort required to master mathematics may seem far beyond reasonable. Less accomplished students often feel they are not among the “better math students.” They have failed to memorize and accurately contextualize all the rote procedures and shortcuts teachers provide to get acceptable scores on math assessments. They likely have holes and gaps that need to be filled in order to make success within reasonable bounds of effort. It is time to stop blaming students and start finding ways to remediate their weaknesses. I have started using Khan this year, and it has been especially helpful for students who lack most of the foundational procedural skills to move forward. Mastery quizzes provide incentive to try and try again, building confidence and strength on an individualized basis in gamified form.
Stressed out! Overwhelming weaker students can become the unintended consequence of challenging all our students to reach their potential. The distinction needs to be made between a student who frets because they would rather be doing something else, and the student who is truly in over their heads because we made the bottom too deep. Working closely with parents is key, but such a diagnosis can be tricky even for those closest to the students. Low floor, high ceiling tasks can provide appropriate challenges and hints with respect to students’ short-term limits.
Again, most US parents have done a terrific job shielding their children from avoidable trauma. Any math class that is challenging is likely to create conflicts in priorities. Good parents help their young children control and manage stress. When conflicts arise and stress mounts, the natural response for students of all ages is to express enough emotion to motivate someone to eliminate the pressure. It is important to know whether the emotion stems from a desire to free up time for something more fun or if it is from lack of progress. Parents need to hear from a confident teacher that the material is within the student’s reasonable efforts. Teachers need to be listening in case there is a miss-match between assignment expectations and what most students can be coaxed into doing.
Won’t think! I use web apps to teach some rote procedures so I can focus on developing thinking skills in the classroom. Occasionally parents will ask why I don’t just provide examples on the board, lots of examples, step by step because that is what the students find easier. Of course! It is much easier to copy procedures from notes to homework problems. That process can result in wonderful scores on traditional plug-and-chug tests. Good math teachers know that process does not require much thought and classroom time can be better spent. The fact that many students prefer “sit and git” lecture is not necessarily an unwillingness to think, though. The entire flipping process needs to be carefully explained lest it seem more like a hunting excursion.
When a student complains about having to watch a video, it could be that someone needs to walk them through the process. Students may not think of pausing, rewinding, and making notes. However, if a student is against learning by video, and by explorations, and by…then one must wonder about his or her prior learning experiences. It is the student’s fault if they have not felt the joy of making math connections by exploration and whole-class discussions in previous classes? On the other hand, they may be asking the adults, “Isn’t there an easier way so I can get back to my video games?”
Demand force-feeding! Showing step-by-step examples is sometimes the most efficient use of time and does not automatically preclude conceptual understanding. When students and parents ask about more direct instruction, they may be wondering why they are having to hunt and fish for information. After all, making learning accessible is a teacher’s job. When they ask for more examples, it could be we are not seeing gaps in their learning that need to be addressed. Regardless, it takes time to build their trust that math is not numbered steps copied from the board and that something amazing happens when we think a little harder to make connections. As I refer back to the hooks problem-based-learning provides, I point out the connections and retention benefits to my students so they see the value of the explorations.
Grades, not learning is what matters! Social media has fed the idea that math should be memorized the easy way. How can we blame students who demand, “Just show us one way that works every time,” when most adults seem to support that and many math teachers agree. It is ethically challenging to explain the difference without insulting colleagues, but it is high time we call out memorized tricks and shortcuts that help students avoid math. Nixthetricks.com has become my handbook for weeding those out of my repertoire of pedagogical strategies; but until such placebos are widely recognized, the students will prefer easy fixes at all levels. The push-back we sometimes feel from students who are struggling can be an issue of trust. “I never had to work so hard to understand before” is not the same as, “I never had to think before.” When students trust that the activities we provide stem from reflective insights rooted in research, they are far more willing to spend time thinking and understanding math concepts.
Assuming a student’s motives is highly judgmental. It is far more beneficial to explore the perceptions and work with students toward a productive working relationship. Building a foundation of trust begins with giving them the benefit of the doubt and willingness to do everything possible to clear learning hurdles. Students want to know we have their backs, we are pulling them up, and are opening the gateway to amazing futures.