You Will Use It Every Day

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My computer was on the blink, and a friend came over to fix it. We are lucky to have such a friend because this guy is an IT guru as well as a great neighbor. While waiting for some data to load we got to talking about all the world’s problems, and the discussion moved to kids and education. He had just left a math position at an alternative high school, and I had just retired after a long career in the classroom. We found we agreed on many, many points.

In particular he became exasperated by the constant line, “I’ll never use this (Algebra) again. Why should I have to learn it? Now believe me, there was a time that I would have joined the complaining ranks, because math was not, and has never been my thing. Today however, I’ve changed my mind about the age old gripe, realizing it wasn’t about the subject matter. With new eyes I looked at my math-computer friend and replied, “You were simply trying to teach him how to think–how to problem solve.”

And that is the purpose of educating young people. To nurture cognitive growth, skills and insights in order to progress into purposeful adulthood. If we as teachers and parents don’t expect anything from our kids beyond showing up to class, staying awake, and complying with instructions, how can a young person stretch themselves and mature. If we expect nothing from our kids, that is what we’ll get. Nothing.

I spent half of my career, before retirement, teaching AP US History, and Sophomore Honors History. My teaching assignment began to change my philosophy of education almost at once. It no longer meant a chronology of facts, not that those aren’t vital. The facts were something like bricks, or lego, or whatever, and students were required to line those up and draw conclusions. Let me illustrate. In a simple compare/contrast question the kids had to examine the expansionist policies of Jefferson and James K. Polk.

First of all they pre-wrote every fact about both presidents in a T-square. Next they looked at those facts: Louisiana Purchase through a treaty with France, Lewis and Clark Expedition, War with Mexico, land acquisitions of the Mexican Cession, opening of California, etc . . . With all that unloading the kids should have been able to make some assumptions from the historic record. After some analysis they could make some observations regarding Jefferson’s diplomacy in his negotiated real estate deal, versus Polk’s blatant military aggression. Also they should have added a personal opinion in there somehow for analytic flair– both presidents wanted the same thing, land, but Jefferson’s approach was more peaceful or principled (or something like that).

Now that process takes discipline and tons of practice. And some kids simply wouldn’t push themselves, and their grades reflected that lack of  effort. Some parents balked, believing we teachers shouldn’t ask that much of their young ones. But most students truly grew after getting the hang of connecting these dots.

I was, in reality teaching the same thing as my friend, the Algebra teacher. We were both trying to show the kids how to process information and formulate conclusions. In a sense there are no “A’s” in this approach to education. How can one grade intellectual depth? Instead the aim was to foster a sense of self-agency and autonomy, skills useful in a democratic society and a purposeful life. If our young people can think, and teach their kids to think, the Republic is secure.

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