The Math of Things

When I was a student, my math instruction involved a teacher writing problems on an overhead projector with clear transparencies and vis-a-vis markers. They all followed the typical, “I do, We do, You do” model. We didn’t do a great deal of thinking at all. We solved as asked, often regurgitating exactly as our problems were modeled.

In many classrooms, we’ve tossed out the overhead and replaced it with interactive whiteboards, projectors and sometimes even handheld devices.

But think about it…Has our approach to math instruction really changed?

A teacher recording problems on an IWB while kids copy and duplicate or a teacher walking around using their ipad as a writing tablet is really no different than the teachers who prefer the overhead projector. In every case, the teacher is “modeling” process while kids record steps. The tools changed but the pedagogy remains the same.

As a student, I was given tons of worksheets and homework was often solving even numbered problems from the textbook. Often times, my teacher would stand beside my desk or call me to hers in order to listen to me speak my way through a problem. Now, if kids aren’t getting physical worksheets or solving the same standard problems from a textbook, they might just be recording “how to solve a problem” on a mobile device.

Does working a problem out on an ipad make it any different than writing it on paper? What about listening to students via device? How is that different than listening while standing beside my desk?

Thinking about it makes math seem even more drone-like than I remembered.

Is This Real Life?

In math circles, we throw words around like “real world” problems and we like to think that we make problems “real world applicable”.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 1.24.12 AMAn example of a “real world” problem might start like so…

In a model of a ship, the mast is 9 cm while the mast of the actual ship is 15 m high…

I remember giving tons of those problems and then trying to draw and explain what a mast was to a group of kids who had never even experienced a lake. In my mind, the picture that I drew should have been enough. All they needed to know was that it formed a triangle, at least on paper, and that understanding the mechanics of the boat had zero to do with the answer.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 1.01.18 AMA few weeks ago, I traveled to the great state of California for the first time and I took tons of images because this was my first real experience with not only seeing a boat but watching it sail the ocean. When I experienced it, it was different than what I saw in a textbook…the same book that I used with my students.

Only, I didn’t wonder about the missing side of the possible right triangle formed by the mast, sail and ship. Instead, I wondered if varying sizes of “sail material” affected boats differently. I wondered why some boats traveled without their sails and if doing that affected speed in the water. I wondered how much weight could fit in those small boats before they didn’t sail so well. I wondered if angles mattered.

I wondered why we give kids problems like this and call it “real world” when most kids never experience it. This is not their world. This is not their math.  When I was standing on that beach, I wasn’t standing as a teacher but a person who was experiencing newness. The sights, sound, smell…I felt something…a connection.

Not just real…but human

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