The Reflective Educator

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If we taught carpentry like we teach math

Your instructor brings you a board. Before you can use the board and play with it yourself, she tells you how to properly line it up on your table. Next, you practice this over and over again with everyone in your class practicing the same number of times regardless of when they master the skill. When you line it up in creative or fun ways, you get scolded, and sometimes even have your board taken away from you. You look around the room and notice that everyone’s boards all look the same.

Finally, after you are considered to have mastered the skill of lining a board up, your instructor takes your board away and gives you a nail. She shows you for 10 minutes all of the various ways you can line up a nail, but never shows you how this relates to the board, or any other possible tools. You want a chance to practice lining up the nail properly, but your instructor says that time is up, and assigns it for homework, and takes away the nail. "You’ll have to find your own nail to do this for homework," she says. You wonder if that is fair for the students who don’t have nails at home.

The next day, your instructor checks to see that all of you have practiced lining up the nail. She then gives you a chance to practice with the nail for a few minutes, before she again takes away the nail and gives you a hammer. You spend some time learning about the history of the hammer, and finally you learn some of the possible uses of the hammer. You ask if you can play with the hammer, but your teacher says, "That’s much too dangerous for you now, you’ll learn more about hammers when you are older, and then you can use them."

You never get a chance to see how the board, the nail, and the hammer relate to each other before the unit finishes. You don’t really understand how to use a board, and you’ve forgotten how a nail works by the time the test is given and so you fail the final assessment. You want a chance to practice some more with these skills your teacher says are "vitally important" but she moves onto another unit.

"Okay class, in our next unit we are going to learn about sanding wood. Everyone take out their boards and practice lining them up again…"

At no point in your learning of carpentry do you ever find out why people might want to use carpentry, how beautiful some works of carpentry look, or how to put it all together and make your own buildings.

 

You might think that this would be a ridiculous way to teach, but this is exactly how we teach mathematics today. Each unit is separated from one another and the connections between the units, and often the lessons, are virtually never taught. Students almost never have the opportunity to play with mathematics, and never get a chance to use some mathematics once they have mastered it. If we even connect mathematics to the real world, we do it in arbitrary and often nonsensical ways. We teach mathematics as a bunch of discrete tools and not as a holistic study of patterns and our world. In fact, we don’t even really have a consensus as to what mathematics actually is!

It’s no wonder kids usually hate mathematics. They say, "Math makes no sense," and they are right.

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