Teaching and the Art of the Possible

Michele Kerr

Michele Kerr lives in California, for her sins.

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23 Responses

  1. Em Carpenter says:

    I agree with the point you are making. Everyone wants children to believe the sky is the limit for them, and that’s great. I would never tell a child “eh, you’re mediocre at best”… but I am a firm believer that not everyone has what it takes to be an academic success (not when everyone is graded on the same scale and in the same way). I appreciate your approach.Report

  2. Murali says:

    I don’t see why you can’t both teach the course and the kids. You just need to have courses tailored to different abilities. One course for people who might take longer to get algebra. Another for those who can get it when they’re 9 and yet another for those who need to be 13-14 before they get it.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Murali says:

      Partly because budget (each curriculum costs money to develop, etc.), and IMHO partly it’s the idea that if you allow kids to have an “easy path” option, they will take it, even if they have the ability to succeed along the more difficult path.Report

      • Murali in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        1. This is penny-wise pound foolishness. Developing separate curricula for slower, average and faster students pays dividends later on.

        2. Kids won’t want to take the “easy” path if they knew that it would close off most college courses for them.Report

        • Dark Matter in reply to Murali says:

          Children not taking the long term view is very common. IMHO some of what we’re seeing is the lack of long term planning of their parents.Report

      • bookdragon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        This is not strictly true. My daughter has consistently chosen the most difficult courses open her, to the point where she’s taking 4 AP courses next year.

        My son doesn’t especially like English, but he chose to 6 level class instead of 5 level that he could skate through, even though it will have no impact on his ability to get into the college courses he’s interested in, which are biology/science.

        In both cases the primary equation was engaging vs boring which was a more important consideration than how easy the class would be.Report

  3. Aaron David says:

    When I was in fourth grade a new kid came to our school. Yateen was from India, spoke not a lick of English, and though he made friends, struggled academically the whole time. By the end of the year, he spoke a bit (immersion for the win) every bit of the educational aspects of grade school was a challenge. And no wonder, trying to work with a new, barely understood language while attempting to navigate a school set up for faculty brats is a recipe for disaster. So the teacher recommended he be held back a year, so as not to miss any of the building blocks that come at that point.

    He was still there on the playground, just making new friends, speaking better and hopefully learning, as opposed to being moved on up the ladder. This isn’t to say what you did was wrong, or that I disapprove in any way. It is simply to note that there are as many ways to teach as there are kids. And that without a teacher who cared Yateen would have been lost in the system, as small as it was in my hometown (SLO).Report

  4. fillyjonk says:

    A lot of this experience reminds me of something that happened earlier on in my teaching here. I am at a small regional college, one in what is sometimes euphemised as an “underserved” area. We’re rural, we get a lot of students from small, not-great high schools. We’re not open-admissions, but we’re close to it.

    Anyway. One cohort of incoming students was averaging about 30th percentile on the math portion of the ACT. WELL below average. And I can attest to many students being underprepared in math; I have learned I cannot assume people know how to calculate an average, or that they know some of the math terminology…

    We have a portion of the junior class re-take sections of the ACT, as a way of tracking progress.

    The cohort that came in at 30th percentile scored 45th percentile after two-and-a-half years of college. In my department, we were ecstatic: look at that improvement!

    But the administration came to us – “Why…why can’t you get these students to achieve more?” they say, not looking at the level of improvement they had experienced. One person even actually said, “Why can’t you get them up to where they are above average?”

    (I left it to the other person who teaches stats in the department to explain to that admin what “average” means and why you can’t expect everyone to be “above average.”)

    But yeah. It’s frustrating when YOU see a lot of progress, but someone who isn’t working with a person every day comes to you and ignores the progress and just asks why the person hasn’t set some arbitrary waypoint that they think should happen.Report

    • Em Carpenter in reply to fillyjonk says:

      Just as an aside, math is my Achilles. I was in AP or honors classes in high school for English, History, and French. I was in the “tech” math classes. I could not do algebra to save my life- it was the only F I ever received on a report card. Even in tech math, I had a hard time achieving even a B in the dumbed-down version of algebra (I fared better in geometry, got an A.)
      I’m a smart person, I think, but I have a major math block. To the point that I switched majors in college to avoid it. I started out a poly sci major. But poly sci required taking statistics, which required Algebra I. I switched to English, and the only math class I took in college was “Mathematical Concepts for Non-Science Majors”.Report

      • bookdragon in reply to Em Carpenter says:

        I have TA’ed a number of people just like you. One had such serious math block she froze like a deer in headlights as soon as I put an equation on the board. I still recall her in office hours gasping at the solution to what (to me) was the simplest possible problem and saying “X is 2? But it was 4 yesterday!” I did, after replacing x with the concept of a closed box whose contents we were figuring out, get her past that. In fact she made it through the only college math class she needed with a C-. I later learned she was an Honors student in her major, so really it had little to do with intelligence and everything to do with a mental block about math.

        On the other side of things, one of the guys I knew in high school was a true math genius. He was acing advanced math classes at a local college when he was junior in high school. But there was a problem with the way his eyes tracked (not dyslexia, but something related) that made it nearly impossible for him do the reading and writing required for English and History. Again, nothing to do with intelligence, but tied to the way his brain was wired.Report

        • fillyjonk in reply to bookdragon says:

          Yeah, I found sometimes explaining things differently or trying to find an application helped some of my math-phobic students.

          Also, I find it ironic, but about 80% of the students who come to me before Biostats starts up and declare a “fear” of math, when I tell them, “Just keep up with the homework assignments, if you are confused by anything come to my office hours, if you get stuff wrong on the homework and still don’t think you understand it after I’ve gone over the homework, come in and talk to me and I’ll tutor you” wind up doing FINE – many of them earning Bs or even As.

          It’s the people who walk in thinking they know everything and who blow off the homeworks, by and large, who earn poor grades. And I make a big deal the first few days of class about how the homework is how I monitor not just how they’re understanding but how I’m teaching: if 75% of the class earns a 10/10, that means I’m probably doing OK and it’s just that a few people are confused and might benefit from coming in for extra help. But if 75% of the class is earning less than 5/10, I probably need to go back and re-teach the topic in a different way.Report

          • Yeah, I found sometimes explaining things differently or trying to find an application helped some of my math-phobic students.

            One thing that really helped me in algebra was my teacher saying something to the effect of, “there is no subtraction and there is no division. Instead, you’re just adding negative numbers and multiplying by the reciprocals.” For some reason–I don’t know why–that really helped me. I’ve never been a math maven, but thinking of things that way seemed to work, at least for me.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to bookdragon says:

          I’m not sure about other subjects, but it’s pretty clear to me that we can not pretend that a singular, or small set, of mathematics pedagogy is sufficient. I wonder, at times, if anyone has tried to catalog all the myriad approaches to teaching math that have worked, especially with kids who are not ‘math people’?Report

          • This is made harder because most math classes — at least by the time you get to algebra — are pretty much forced to have at least two different purposes, that are somewhat at odds with each other. On the one side in algebra, is setting up and solving word problems: a way of thinking about the world, of finding a number or numbers that satisfy certain conditions. On the other side is sets and functions as first-class objects that is a precursor for calculus. On the third side is sheer skill at symbolic manipulation that will be necessary to deal with doing calculus by hand. Same thing in calculus: setting up and solving practical problems, still more of functions as first-class objects, plus a foundation in mathematical proofs for those students going on.Report

  5. bookdragon says:

    The system is still far from perfect, but we do have different levels in the local school system here: 4, 5, 6, and HP. Most students are in 5, which is for the average/expected proficiency student. 4 is for those who struggle or need remedial work (there are also tutoring and special education classes for those who have difficulty at 4 level). 6 is accelerated for those ahead of 5, and HP (high potential) is for what we used to call ‘Gifted Students’.

    These are not blanket levels, where a student is always in just one of them, but applied subject-by-subject. So, for instance, there are kids in 6 for math and 4 for English, and vice versa.

    Of course, this is a huge school district (the high school holds only 10-12th grades and is still ~5000 students) so having to provide many multiple classes in any subject anyway allows them to more easily break core subjects into levels.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    I’ve mentioned before that I went to a high school with an ESL track. I guess it was considered the best way to handle this sort of thing at the time. The semi-literate immigrants got shuttled off to an upstairs wing at the end of the school that the Regents and Honors kids never had reason to go to. It’s somewhat weird, though. We had a number of students going to the school who spoke English as a Second Language (we had a bunch of kids from Jamaica who grew up speaking the Patois, for example). The only people in ESL were Spanish-speakers from Mexico or from Central America. The Jamaicans were in the regular classes with the rest of everybody.

    When I was in Elementary School, we had a kid show up who wasn’t good at English and the teachers pulled all of us aside and told us that we had to include him in our playground games and that he wouldn’t get better at English if we didn’t include him. So we included him and he did his part and watched Voltron after school so that he could partake in our rabbinical discussions surrounding the show.

    I don’t know what the official policy ought to be (depends on what we want, I guess) but the ESL kids in the first example didn’t ever integrate with the rest of the school. The kid in the second example integrated very well.Report

    • Mark Van H in reply to Jaybird says:

      It is also easier (and more of a necessity) to integrate when you’re the only kid not speaking the language well, it is altogether different when it is a group that can speak with eachother in Spanish and can fall back on each other for social life.

      Immersion works best for learning a language and culture, but is very hard to pull off with larger groups.Report

  7. Dark Matter says:

    A growing body of research suggests that non-cognitive factors—persistence, effort, motivation—are important in adult outcomes.

    Sounds right, also sounds like we should be measuring this too.

    While the education philanthropists like Whitney Tilson hold that “kids will live up – or live down – to whatever expectations are set for them”, reality plays out very differently.

    Setting high expectations has worked really well in my family. Over the years, the big problem I’ve (repeatedly) had with the system is their expectations have not been high enough. Just letting the system do their thing would have resulted in “success” that wasn’t anywhere close to my kids potential.

    In practice, valuing “non-cognitive skills” almost always means lowering academic standards.

    Why is this?

    Schools might provide a menu of classes of varying difficulty, allow students to choose course material they are capable of and interested in learning, rather than set a ferociously high bar and then make some teachers choose between failing most of their students or not covering the material with a rigor appropriate for the strongest kids.

    This sounds promising… but I’d thought research showed the rest of the class is better off with the strongest kids there?Report

  8. Michele Kerr says:

    “I don’t see why you can’t both teach the course and the kids. You just need to have courses tailored to different abilities. One course for people who might take longer to get algebra. Another for those who can get it when they’re 9 and yet another for those who need to be 13-14 before they get it.”

    You really don’t see why we aren’t allowed to do this? Look up the tracking wars of the 90s. Has nothing to do with budget.

    Fillyjonk: as to your first comment, preach. It’s very frustrating. Also annoying that by high school, the tests are designed far above the bulk of kids’ ability, so you can’t use them to capture progress.

    It is not, however, my experience that kids who are afraid of math end up doing well, unless the teacher rewards effort over ability.

    Em, there’s always someone who doesn’t grok their own personal restriction of range.

    Jay, Santino had surprisingly good English skills. ESL is almost never an issue with math. Even kids who can’t understand the language at all can advance if they are capable of understanding the math.

    Oscar: “I wonder, at times, if anyone has tried to catalog all the myriad approaches to teaching math that have worked, especially with kids who are not ‘math people’?”

    We’re not really allowed to pretend one method doesn’t work for everyone, and the “myriad approaches” pretty much boil down to progressive vs. traditional, after you scratch the surface.Report

    • Murali in reply to Michele Kerr says:

      At least some battles which were lost in the 90s may be winnable now. SSM is an example. It also seems that many of the education battles which were hot-topic in the 90s and early 00s are just off the radar now, not because the overton window has changed, but because the news cycle is much shorter. Given the different political environment, it might be winnable.Report