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the importance of listening to students

Good teaching is as difficult to define as other arts and the debate over how teachers should be evaluated and what it should mean is raging all over the country. While reading a paper on teacher evaluation put out by Accomplished California Teachers, I realized that, though the study is useful and the recommendations good, it misses a fundamental issue. Too often, in the discussion among professionals about teaching and learning, we neglect the voice of students.

That’s one of the reasons I like the draft study done by James W. Stigler, Karen B. Givvin, and Belinda J. Thompson, “What Community College Developmental Mathematics Students Understand About Mathematics.” In it, they try to eplore what students get wrong and what they don’t and why. They listen carefully and respectfully to students, thoughtfully writing about what they find.

One of the most profound questions that students pose when asked to solve a problem during the interview is, “Am I supposed to do it the math way, or just do what makes sense?” The question reveals a fundamental disconnect between what students experience in their lives and what they experience in the classroom. Not a revelation: the disconnect is completely consistent with my experience listening to community college students in developmental math classes. Any teacher paying attention is aware of it. However, as I read this question and the rest of the study, I began asking a series of different questions:

  • Is the math we teach connected to students’ lives?
  • Is the math we teach connected to our own lives?
  • Are we, as math teachers, so indoctrinated into a mathematical perspective that we force the connections between math and our lives?
  • Would it be beneficial to math students for teachers to call out the cultural framing that we are bringing to the subject and that we are trying to help them assume?

Clearly, I’m not going to answer the first three questions here. People make variously good and bad arguments about math’s “utility” that are usually circular, starting from the assumption that math applies to most, if not all, the natural world. Rather, I think we must continue to ask them of ourselves and of our curriculum. The question of perspective and acculturation is complex and probably unanswerable. Philosophers of science, much smarter and more capable than I (e.g., Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend) have been arguing about it for years without full resolution.

But the last question is easier for me. Cultures around the world do math, so math seems to be a fundamentally human activity. However, that math is not usually what we’re teaching. As such, I firmly believe it is helpful for students to see that the math we teach in our classrooms is a cultural construct and not necessarily “natural”; in fact, the math in our modern textbooks is a carefully contrived version of math. It is made to appear smooth, a straight line of development from numeration, to fractions, to factoring, to graphing, to functions, to differentiation, to integration, and beyond. If students don’t see how smooth and “obvious” it all is, then it is their fault. And when the story isn’t quite so smooth, we just pretend it is — “don’t you see?”

Acknowledging the culture of math and its interplay with the other parts of our culture is an important step to demystifying math and to being intellectually honest, toward having students realize that they can bring all their intuitions, experience, and knowledge to bear on problems, both in and out of math class. At the same time, it helps remind us, as teachers, to listen to students, because their experience of math is part of what math is in our classrooms. More, their experience of math will survive us, long after we’re retired, helping to create the culture of math in the world to come.

As teachers, we have spent years mastering our content and working to be better teachers. Yet, students still sometime disparage our work and/or our chosen field of study. Working with as many students as we do, it is often hard to see what we can learn from the next batch. Truly listening to our students takes effort and focus. I frequently fail to do it well, but every time I do, I am rewarded with a better connection and a better class. Listening to our students is part of the art of teaching. We fail to listen at our own, our profession’s, and our culture’s peril.

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