Lately I’ve been pounding my students HARD about being methodical and following all steps to solve math problems.  Why?  Because they are taking pre-Algebra next year, and expected to take Algebra in 8th grade.  They can pass, IF they learn to be methodical.  However, if they continue to see the process as “getting the answer right” they are HOSED!  I want them to learn to analyze problems, and they want to get an A without too much effort.

I tell them an answer without an explanation is a guess.  A right answer without an explanation is a LUCKY guess.  I tell them that they need to be able to LOOK at their work and see where they made the mistake so they know what to look for the next time.  They look at me, but their brains are hearing, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  DAMN. IT!

I blame many, many factors because so much went into the making of this mess.  I think my biggest ire rests with “worksheets”.  The problem with worksheets is that most simply have space for, that’s right, AN ANSWER.  There is precious little workspace given for students to do work.  It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten that work comes before success.  The answer is the only pertinent part of the process, better to leave the messy details out of it.  DOUBLE. DAMN. IT!

I also blame people who don’t understand WHY someone might want something.  [ASIDE: A friend went OFF on me for wanting the students to line up single file.  “THERE is NO REASON for them to do that!” she barked at me.  I explained that I can see who is willing to compromise, follow directions, give space to others, make good decisions, etc. just by looking at my line.  “Oh.”]  Sometimes people think that teachers are asking TOO much of students.  Sometimes TEACHERS can’t see the reason for the process.  Sometimes it seems TOO HARD to demand excellence and to have high standards.  Therefore, we actively TEACH our students that the answer is all that counts.  However, it’s then IMPOSSIBLE to help them SEE why they didn’t get an answer right.  To put it prosaically,  they’re screwed.

I don’t know if the answer only phenomenon is due to a perverted idea of intelligence or a diminished idea of work ethic.  If we look at intelligence, it’s as if only the SMART people have the answer.  They think that the only way to KNOW the answer is to be smart.  It’s like some messed-up built-in excuse.  However, we know that intelligence is NOT static.  There are ebbs and flows depending on all sorts of neurological input. Learning processes is one way to build neurological pathways.  To bypass it, and sophisticated thinking, robs our youth of their ability to be creative and inventive.  It also robs them of the foreknowledge needed to progress to higher math and science — where, traditionally, the high paying jobs have been.  In essence, we’re robbing our country of its heritage and our children of their potential income.

We also rob them of developing a work ethic.  I was STUNNED in the late 90s, early 2000s to hear about employees who wanted to work remotely.  After all they could do THEIR job from home.  Why did they have to go to work?  Why did they have to stay 8 hours if they could get THEIR job done in less time?  Uhm, dude?  How about because when you’re done with YOUR job, you need to find OTHER work to do to make the company strong, resilient, and profitable.  Strangely, this is not about YOU.

Some would say that this isn’t about work ethic, that it’s about being self-centered.  However, if the whole idea is to put in the bare minimum (only doing MY work), then it is a work ethic thing.  This person doesn’t know or believe in going above and beyond.  How about improving the process?  How about developing new ideas or products?  How about making sure everything is right before going live?  I feel the idea that I only do THIS AMOUNT means this person didn’t learn to do it REALLY well and to do MORE when he/she was done.  There’s a reason people are encouraged to go into jobs they love.  You need to be giving 90-100% all the time.  A “C” is 70%.  No one wants THAT employee.

I’ve made a decision for teaching math next year.  I’m going to go with fewer problems, make an answer without an explanation wrong, and really push thoughtful thinking.  If the 21st century needs problem solvers, then the place to start is by… well, solving problems.


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