Math Teachers: A Chronic Complaint

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by Michael Ellefson

Math is hard. Each type of math requires a very particular way of thinking, which often does not come naturally. Math teachers have a difficult job, and many of the math teachers at westlake have grown bad habits. The symptoms of these bad teaching habits are bad learning habits from their students. And I have seen more of them than ever before here at Westlake.

I consider myself lucky. Math is something that comes naturally for me (history is where I struggle). I’ve spent many hours tutoring friends and unknown peers in math ever since middle school. Whenever I am asked a question, an answer is expected. More often than not, however, their question is answered with a question. This frustrates many people, but as they begin to answer the step by step questions that I pester them with, they discover their own conclusion, instead of blindly and solely relying on the testimony of a lecturing teacher. I have found that this is the key to learning and remembering the content fully. Discovering answers on your own is what causes you to remember them.

“When you make the finding yourself–even if you’re the last person on earth to see the light–you’ll never forget it.”

-Carl Sagan

One specific problem I have with math teachers at Westlake is the lazy format in which they give homework. Math homework at Westlake is all-inclusive; questions and answers are both there. How are students expected to learn when the answers to their questions no longer have to be earned? So many students use the “reverse engineering” method of learning math: read the question, look at the answer, discover how the answer came to be. This method of learning is so flawed, yet it is condoned by the teachers. Learning this way creates a no-pressure environment during homework time, where a student has constant access to an easy way out of a difficult problem. This, to me, is the cause of test anxiety, and the mindset of “I’m just a bad test-taker”. Tests do not have answers to check at the end. If homework is meant to prepare students for their tests, then the homework must emulate a test format. If a student runs into a road block, they must be expected to confront the teacher, or better yet, their peers, about their problem. And when questions are asked in class, the teacher cannot act like the homework answers in the back of the textbook.

Here is my suggestion for a better learning environment in the math classroom: teachers need to send homework that challenges their students. No more answers. The students can come up with those on their own. When the students come back with inevitable questions, do not answer them. Let the student come in front of the class and work through their thinking one step at a time. The fact that a teacher can do the math and can show their work does not mean that their students consequently can do it. Also, let the other student’s peers help them with their question. Don’t underestimate us. We are smart. There is almost always at least one student in the class who understands it, and their perspective could be invaluable to their learning peers.

Curve the tests less. The ACT is not curved. AP tests are not curved. Life doesn’t care who does best, it cares who does well. Again, pressure to do well will push students to more fully fulfill their potential. It doesn’t matter that others do better. There’s always someone more able than us. But if we do our best, and do well, then that’s good enough.

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