Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Motivation Mojo and Tyanny by Math Requirement

On 10/5/07 USA Today ran an article entitled:
"How kids can get over the motivation brick wall".
This article touches on the very crux of where Education succeeds and fails, and does so in ways that almost all Educators are totally oblivious of. It highlights the work of Richard Lavoie who (as the article states) "is widely known for a popular PBS video and workshops that show teachers what school is really like for struggling kids. A special-educator for more than 30 years, he has written The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets for Turning On the Tuned-Out Child (Touchstone). "

By the way, it's always seemed to me that struggling kids are the ones who give true insight into the processes of teaching and learning and should be valued as a reality touchstone for the entire enterprise of Education.

In the article Mr. Lavoie makes some great points:

- "... "learned helplessness." When a child faces failure enough times, he begins to feel he's not going to succeed and doesn't see any sense in investing himself. Every child hits this sort of motivation brick wall at some point, and then what we do as teachers and parents, unfortunately, is sort of blame the victim and say that it's the child's fault..."

(Mark>) This makes me think about the trajedy of our current approach to Mathematics Education, or perhaps more acurately Tyranny by Mathematics Education. Here's an exercise I actually carried out for roughly 6 months a few years back... I simply asked every successful person I came in contact with (my banker, accountant, dentist, architect, plumber, pharmacist, bar tender, store owners, graphic artists, Education professors...whoever) exactly what math they use in their work. My discovery was that while they all asserted they did use math continually, it was rather basic math or at the very least, math of a level that is much lower than what is required to earn a high school diploma. You know, the four basic functions of Arithemetic, plus a smattering of very simple or pre Algebra...proportions and ratios, that sort of thing. NONE of these very smart and accomplished people ever needed to use Advanced Algebra or Calculus.... NEVER!!!!

This pisses me off no end because in public school the rhetoric that is used to bully students into intellectual submission is that the required high school exit (read that graduation) requirement of Advanced Algebra is based on the strong, unwavering assumption that this is what the Typical Joe will definitely need in the work place. This is simply not true!

Now on one level, forcing students to take more math than they'll really ever need might seem like a benign piece of confusion. After all, the math sympathisers' argument goes, how could it hurt to know more math than you'll actually use?

Well, the truth is, quite a bit. You see those with their eyes open in observing what really goes on in public school will have to acknowledge that because students from an early age are forced on to a 'fast track' in learning math, something that has to be done IF you are going to insist that SO MUCH math is to be learned over the course of years as you speed these young minds unnaturally toward and through Advanced Algebra, the result is that the average student learns not the math, but from an early age just how "not smart' he is. He internalizes the fact that he is just not very good at the mountain of seemingly pointless and uncomprehensible material shoved down his throat in the guise of "the math he'll definitely need"

And so the typical kid either develops a series of coping mechanisms to bluff his way through all this, or (more typically) keeps his mouth shut and suffers the fact the he isn't one of the smart ones. Perhaps he "passes" math somehow, or he fails and suffers through being one of the 'dumb ones' (just like almost everyone else), but in the end whether all that math is learned or not learned, in real life it simply isn't used - it is forgotten and forgotten about. What stays is a bad taste in the mouth about learning and school! And so, in an ironic way, the most successful part of our current approach to teaching mathematics is the successful teaching of the idea that learning is unpleasant!!!

During my tenure as member of the Cabinet of the Deputy Chancellor for Instruction of the New York City Public School System I was drafted as a committee head of the Chancellors Math Commission. During this most interesting exercise, which llasted a full 6 months, I had occassion to chat via phone with Dr. Lynne Steen of St. Olaf's College in Minnesota, one of the nation's foremost Mathematics Educators. Dr. Steen, when I shared with him the same understanding of the trajedy of math requirements I share above, to my surprise agreed with me that the field of Mathematics Education is way off base. What he feels we really ought to be aspiring to is a state of 'Numeracy', a familiarity and comfort with numbers and the way they behave, not the mastery of advanced concepts that is now forced down the throat of hapless Joe Ciitzen.

Getting back to Lavoie's work, he seems to be on the same page with me stating "...the most important thing parents and teachers need to do is to keep in mind the balance between suport and challenge. You need to constantly challenge kids. But you need to give them support to meet those challenges." Our contemporary Math curriculum does not reflect any such balance. It is all challenge without much support. Needless to say, also, this insensitivity is not the elclusive province of math educators, they simply make a whopping good example ot this type of thing.

Lavoie has other important points to make about motivation and how it impacts teaching and learning. In one such reflection he states "... I had a teacher say to me one time "I taught it to him, but he didn't learn it." I said "That's like a salesman saying to his boss. "I sold it to him, but he didn't buy it." I think that particularly at the upper school level, we assume that the kid's going to come in the door totally motivated and sit there and learn, and it simply isn't true. You need to continue to be a salesman and a motivator as a high school teacher and as a parent of high school kids."

(Mark>) And above all, we must question frequently why we are teaching (and expecting kids to learn) what we do, and make adjustments when we see that what we set before our young people may not truly be worthy of them, may even be counter productive!

Read the entire article at:

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