What Makes You Think This is Teaching? – episode 1

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Note: I’m starting a new series of occasional blog posts in which I share my disbelief at what I see passed-off as “teaching” during my work in schools around the world.

My nephew, let’s call him Vernon Honours, is a 9th grader. His Geometry teacher assigns the kids to read Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott over the December holidays (so far, so good) and then complete some related “projects.” (that’s where the problems begin)

One of the “projects” the kids had to tackle was to “List the first five laws of Flatland and explain why they are needed.” This caused the nephew, his parents and Facebook friends to tear their hair out.

When I was asked to help, I did my best Googling, eBook reading and even tweeted the question to my legion of Twtiter followers. That outreach to my “personal learning network” resulted in  insults from people accusing me of an inability to, in the worlds of former President George W. Bush, “use the Google.”

The problem is that the teacher’s question was hopelessly vague or a trick question. Since the only THREE laws of Flatland anyone could ascertain had to do with the treatment of women, one could conclude that either:

a) the math teacher is merely testing comprehension and testing the kids on their reading

b) it’s a trick question because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with geometry

Having endured ridicule for sharing this question on Twitter, I was curious as to whether my nephew answered the question correctly. I asked my nephew Tuesday afternoon after his first day back to school and was told, “I don’t know. I have to wait to get my paper back and see what grade he gave me.” On Friday afternoon, the students were still awaiting their fate.

So, there are a few problems here:

  1. What makes you think that telling the kids to read a book, answer questions and then never discuss the book or their answers is effective teaching?
  2. Where did you get the idea that a comprehension quiz is a project?
  3. Flatland features a lot of interesting connections to geometry, Victorian mores, philosophy and more. Why have you left this to students to figure out on their own?
  4. Is a teacher’s primary job to catch kids submitting the wrong answer?
  5. Is teaching a trick? Are you a magician?
  6. What makes you think that a bell curve is the desired learning result?
  7. Are you really asking geometry students to regurgitate the sexist views of the author?
  8. What should the students do with their grade a week or more after the assignment?
  9. Can’t you be replaced by a worksheet dispensing and grading machine?
  10. Do you get paid a bonus for every student you get to hate your subject?

Comments

13 Responses to “What Makes You Think This is Teaching? – episode 1”
  1. Luann says:

    You forgot the nworst reason of all: your participating Twitter followers are waiting anxiously to find out if we were correct.

  2. admin says:

    A colleague told me via direct message that he was surprised I was so concerned with finding the correct answer.

    That is a very good observation.

    I responded by saying, “I’m only concerned with the right answer when the teacher is going to punish kids for having the wrong one on a vague poorly-worded question.”

  3. Nancy says:

    I agree with many of your observations. However, I would have to say kudos to the teacher for creating an assignment that was not ‘Googable’ or it appears ‘Twitterable’.

    I’m not sure I would have 9th graders reading ‘Flatlands’ (perhaps hence the reason for your nephew’s last name).

    As for the term ‘project’, why do we (I) assume it must entail glue, scissors or the latest bells-and-whistles ladened presentation/photo-editing-slideshow/MTV-wannabe-video?

    I agree, at the least there should have been a discussion upon return from break, unless of course the teacher decided to ‘differentiate’ the instruction and provide 24,846 choices for the students to choose from.

    Not sure whether you were attempting to make the ‘magical 10′ list, but I found your final two comments to be a ‘stretch’, a tad ‘snarky’ (but heh, it’s your blog, & it’s obvious you are passionate about what happened), & I found myself at some primitive level giving less weight to the previous 8 items.

    As always, I enjoy reading your posts & look for to the rest in this series.

  4. Gary Stager says:

    Nancy,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. However, I’m trying to discern what you are actually defending?

    There is a profound difference between a clever problem-solving challenge that may not have a Googleable answer and a poorly conceived assignment or prompt. I honestly believe that the example I cited is just a “gotcha” question, especially since the answer may not have anything to do with the course, Geometry.

    I explore the question of “what makes a good project?” here – http://stager.org/articles/goodpbl.pdf A project needs neither glue sticks or Powerpoint. It does however need another of other variables absent from the assignment I discussed in this post.

    As for my snark, it is intended to inspire some soul-searching:

    • Using the ditto/photocopier is not teaching.
    • Giving an assignment, especially a vague confusing one, collecting the result and grading it without discussion is not teaching.
    • Students do not exist to be caught not understanding something and thereby sanctioned for their ignorance.
    • Telling a kid not to worry about their 68 because the class average is 70 is not teaching. What makes a teacher think that their fabulous quiz, test or assessment system is empirical?
    • Math teachers, in particular, perpetuate “the math is hard” BS that feeds on student failure, loathing and disinterest.
    • If the number of kids who stop taking high school math classes dropped out of P.E., there would be nationally televised tribunals. Hating math always seems to be the fault of students; not the fault of a noxious curriculum or bad teaching.

    Gary

  5. Looking forward to the series. You ask important questions that challenge assumptions too many have about teaching.

  6. admin says:

    Thanks Karen,

    I should have started this a long time ago.

    It will however, only make people mad at me.

  7. Dennis says:

    This is an interesting read, but based on my own personal observations this activity may not have even been intended to be discussed or meaningfully graded. Whereas, this is a math course, this teacher may be receiving much praise from the administration because of the perceived integration of math and reading…you know…the type of light shining down from the heavens moment as the Principal calls the teacher in front of the faculty because he has done the impossible…had math students complete a reading comprehension activity thereby increasing (at least in theory) the chance the students will score higher on the state mandated test. I wonder how many teachers will be made to feel bad because they have not been able to integrate a meaningless reading activity in their math class.

  8. Gary Stager says:

    Dennis,

    I must disagree with you. In this case, using Flatland in a geometry class may be the only thing the teacher did right. Knowledge is not only integrated, but Flatland is a classic piece of mathematical literature that has inspired mathematicians for more than a century.

    Too bad the teacher decided to skip the mathematics and stick with the book report.

    Thanks for reading,

    Gary

  9. My daughter Minden, a high school senior, would have read the book and realized the problem with the question. She would have then said aloud, “This assignment is stupid and I don’t do stupid.” (Can you guess where she got that from?

    I suspect what happened is the teacher believes the students think exactly the same way he does and will draw the exact same conclusions after reading the book. Of course the teacher does not take into account background knowledge and the differences of experiences they have. I have (and still do occasionally) do that myself.

    It seems to me that had the teacher set aside a couple days for students to discuss the books as a group their would have been much less frustration and consequently much more learning taking place. Perhaps the teachers simply forgot the purpose of an assignment is for students to learn?

  10. wow – can’t wait to hear the results and the rest of the series. I’m just starting one about creativity and learning and am sure to tick people off, too. Cheers to us!

  11. My son had a reading comprehension social studies paper to do for classwork. He brought it home to do corrections. He had several answers selected on questions he got wrong. Problem is, there were no directions on the sheet (there was a sub that day) telling him multiple answers was not allowable, and bigger than that, his multiple answers were correct. He could prove them as correct (it was multiple choice). he asked me what to do. I told him to choose the one he thought she wanted (play the game) and then explain in the margin why the other answer choices were also correct. I’m waiting to see what she decided to do, but judging on past history with this teacher, he’s screwed. Oh well. This teacher will not define him. He knows that.

  12. Robyn says:

    So what’s missing from this teacher’s practice? There’s no formative practice going on. Why do so many teachers persist in their intentions being a total mystery to their students? If the teacher had shared the purpose and the expected learning (which they may well have gone beyond) with the students, then helped them to discuss and peer- and self-review their work, some deep, powerful learning could have happened. Instead of that, as in too many classrooms, the students are stumbling round in a dark cupboard, unable to find the light switch!

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