If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Just One More Reason Why Teaching Is Hard

Just a quick post this morning before running out to our school's Field Day to watch little kids run relay races and pour water on each other and generally enjoy a beautiful sunny day here in northern Virginia.

This article from the New York Times is a few weeks old now, but it fits in with the math theme of the last few posts. The article is about a study from Ohio State University that seems to contradict many people's instincts about how to teach math. Most people, myself included, would think that in order to explain math to the widest variety of students, it is best to apply it to real world situations. The NYT article gives the example of the classic two trains leave a station word problem.

The Ohio State study found, on the other hand, that the opposite may be true; that we learn mathmatical concepts better, and can apply them better, when we learn them as exactly that, concepts. In the case of the train problem, students should learn the algebraic formula first, then learn how to apply it to specific real world situations.

If this finding holds up, it would require a major change in perspective from math teachers at all levels. The problem is, this study suffers from the kinds of problems that so many education related studies suffer from, and is a good example of why it is so hard to come up with a scientifically based approach to teaching.

First of all, the subjects of the study, as with most pychological studies, were college students. Applying what works for teaching 18-22 year olds to teaching eight or nine year olds is a big stretch.

Second, the activities invented for the study, in order to find a mathematical concept that would be new to college students, strike me as a little bit artificial. It's not like the experiment was done with quadratic equations, or something else more relevant to teaching school-age children.

To me, this is why teaching is still a mix of an art and a science. There is information out there, but the information is far from perfect. The skilled teacher is able to sift through it, figure out what will work, and put together appropriate lessons for the specific students he has in front of him at the moment. It is always about knowing the kids you have in your class.

1 comment:

Stacy said...

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