Eventually I want to discuss actual mathematics and how to teach mathematics on this blog. I don’t have a lot of experience doing that yet. Until I have that experience and therefore have something useful to say, I will mostly just share my thoughts on education itself. Soon I will also talk about my philosophy of education and teaching perspective. For now, thoughts on the final days of my final education classes.
This past Wednesday was the last session of Teaching and Learning in Diverse Classrooms for the quarter. We were discussing–and by discussing I mean the professor asked every person in the classroom “What about you?” one at a time–what our definition of academic achievement is. Our textbook described it thusly,
“…what it is that students actually know and are able to do as a result of pedagogical interactions with skilled teachers. The teachers who focus on academic achievement (i.e., student learning) understand that this is their primary function. They are not attempting to get students to “feel good about themselves” or learn how to exercise self-control. Rather, they are most interested in the cultivation of student’ minds and supporting their intellectual lives. They understand that through engaged learning students will develop self-esteem and self-control.” Gloria Ladson-Billings
I like this quote. (It’s one of the few from the text that I did.) Academic achievement defined as the knowledge and skills acquired by a student who has been skillfully guided by an educator is much more meaningful than the academic achievement that is: “Aaron A. Aaronson graduated from Sandford High School 8th out of 143 students. He took these college prep classes, passed all sections of the state standardized test in the accelerated category, and scored a 29 on the ACT.” (In an upcoming post I want to talk about what I view is the purpose of a high school education.) The first definition values learning and individual success while the second values categorization and competition.
In other words, I think education is meaningful when it focuses on how it benefits the learner rather than how the learner benefits others.
So anyway, to get to my main point, my professor came around to me repeated her question: “What about you?”. I gave her a mostly coherent answer which occurred to me on the spot that I’ll attempt to clarify here. I said I think there are three types of knowledge:
- Knowledge you need to have.
- Knowledge you should have.
- Knowledge you want to have.
Knowledge you need to have in today’s world includes things like the ability to read and write, how to financially responsible, how to interact with other people, and the lyrics to theme song for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Knowledge you should know would be things like the history of your native country, how to separate the laundry to avoid pink whitey-tighties, and how to change the oil in your car. But the knowledge you want to know is completely different because only you decide what knowledge you want to learn. Wants might overlap with needs and shoulds, but not necessarily. In everyday life, want is not always a prerequisite for learning to happen. You may not want to learn the knowledge you need, but you learn it anyway. Because, you know. You need to.
The knowledge that is important here is knowledge you want to have. No one makes you learn it. The state hasn’t mandated you take a test on it. You just want to know it! I think the key to creating academic achievement with my students in my classroom is presenting math as knowledge they want to have rather than knowledge they should have or need to have. Should students know algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and perhaps even higher mathematics? I am sure someone could make a reasonable case for the negative, although I am not that person. Do students need mathematics? Certainly there are some basic numerancy skills that are necessary to existing in our modern world. But frankly when that students asks, “Am I ever going to use this?” the answer is no a lot of times. But then, will I ever run a DNA gel electrophoresis test, a skill I learned in AP Biology, as a mathematics educator? Chances are slim. How about playing the mellophone, an instrument essentially useless off the marching band field? I learned those skills for the sake of learning them, for the joy of learning them. Maths educators need to convince their students that it doesn’t matter if they won’t ever use maths because what they are learning is interesting for its own sake. It must be presented as something the students want to learn. I’ll talk about this more in my post about what I think the point of high school education is.