Monday, August 16, 2010

Making Magic

"One learns by doing," Zia said. "This is not school, Sadie.  You cannot learn magic by sitting at a desk and taking notes.  You can only learn magic by doing magic."
From The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan.  Now that my kids are old enough to read real books, I find myself mostly reading what they recommend.  Which is a lot of YA fiction.  I love that this genre has appeared in time for them.  Rick Riordan is the author of Percy Jackson, and this is the first book in a new (somewhat similar) Egyptian-themed series.  It's a fun read.  (But I miss JK Rowling.)

But how about that quote?  Doesn't it apply to everything?  What can you learn by taking notes?

I want a powerful metaphor to start my classes this year that gets this across.  At least gives students a chance to understand that they have been robbed.  Misinformed.  Abused.  Neglected?

A recurring theme - at least since Dickens, and certainly post-Potter - is the child with a suboptimal life discovering that they have an amazing destiny.  I think that appeals to us because it is, in fact, true.  Without getting all religious here, I really believe that there's something each of us can do that no one else could do as well, or as opportunely, or where we could do it. One of the reasons I love teaching math is that, if learned, it opens doors, creates possibilities, and enables new choices.

Another recurring theme is that we find ourselves with new powers.  Magic, demi-god stuff, athletic ability, spider-sense... but sadly it's often the result of genetics (Kal-El, Percy and Harry) or an accident (Spider-Man, Daredevil, ... Captain Underpants?) and less often the result of study. (Batman.  It's always Batman.)  Another thing I love about teaching math is that when students learn something they can literally do something that they couldn't do before.  Even if it's something insignificant, like solve any quadratic equation that anyone could ever dream up.  One of the reasons I love Potter is that being a wizard doesn't solve Harry's problems, it's the start of a whole new world of even-harder problems. 

So I'm thinking that one of my fundamental teaching problems is how to communicate these ideas to my students.  It's all muddled up with the growth mindset stuff, and deeply connected to the Equity Principle.  What is a metaphor that will connect?  What is the narrative?  What experiences have they had with which I can connect?  What experience can I provide from which they can draw?  In a teacher education class, I think we can motivate through their profession - I've had some luck with that.  Sometimes it works connecting with other learning.  Athletes considering their sport.  But in a pure content class, when the students are convinced they know what it means to learn or do math and they are just, almost totally, wrong?

My biggest successes so far have come with trying to convince the students that my real goals are to teach problem-solving and/or learning how to learn, and we're just using the math as a context for it.  With these other subjects, they're willing to think it might be different.  "I've never had a problem-solving class before.  Must be what they're like."

This reminds me of the Robert Duke video that's making the rounds.  He talks about how students only pay attention to what's assessed.  And, somewhat more subtly, teachers only attend to what's assessed.  And chances are, you are not assessing what you really want students to learn from you.  He goes on to share a model of Whitehead that boils down to get your students doing the magic to learn magic.  (His example is playing the drums, but...)

This is the Gene Krupa magic.

Didn't learn that in a lecture.

What is your model of math?  Do you share it with your students?  How?

I would love to hear about it, by email, by comment, by your blogpost... but please, share!

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