Our Schooling System is Broken

It has been a while since my last blog – it was never my intention to go so long between posts but you know … sometimes life hands you other things. In any case I plan to start writing again more frequently, starting with a subject that has been on my mind for a while now: Education.

See, I am thinking our system might be broken. Scratch that – I know it’s broken, and in many ways. But I am talking about a fundamental issue, which is the assumption that performance in a school system with a standardized curriculum is a key measure of personal value. I will try to explain, starting with some background for context.

I Am a Teacher

It’s true. I am a teacher. A very happy one at that. I love my job. I teach high school math in Ontario, Canada, and have been doing that for about 15 years. Prior to that I worked as a software developer for about 10 years. When people ask me what I do for a living (something other adults seem to have a deep need to know upon meeting each other), the conversation always goes roughly the same way:

Other Adult: “So Rich, what do you do for a living?”
Rich: “I’m a teacher.”
OA: “Oh? Nice. What do you teach?”
(Rich’s note: There may or may not be a “joke” here by OA along the lines of “Oh yeah? You know what they say: ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ hahahahaha”)
Rich (being honest, even though it’s not what they meant): “Kids.”
OA: “Oh, haha. But seriously, what subject?”
Rich (with an inward eye-roll – here it comes): “I teach high school math.”
OA: “Oh god. I hate math. I remember I used to be so good at it until grade 8 when I had Ms. Heffernan. She hated me! And she was so terrible to the kids. She made me hate math. I never understood anything in math after that. I am so bad at math! The other day I tried to help my 7 year-old with her homework and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. Do you tutor? I think I may need to hire you to help little Kelly with her math. Math is so confusing. I keep telling her she doesn’t need it anyway. I mean, I run a multi-million dollar business and I never use any of the math they tried to teach me in high school. Why don’t you guys start teaching useful stuff like understanding financial statements and investing? I had to learn all that stuff on my own. I don’t see why math is so important. I am really successful and I was never any good at it thanks to Ms. Heffernan …..”
Rich: “I apologize on behalf of all my brethren. Please carry on with your successful math-free life. Yes, I’d be happy to help Kelly, but honestly she probably doesn’t need any help. She’s 7. She will conquer.”

You get the point. But as I said, I seriously love my job. For many reasons. But perhaps the main one is that it keeps me connected to the fluidity of humanity. I keep getting older, but my students do not. They are the same age every year. And because I spend a large number of hours each day immersed in their culture, it forces me to keep my thinking current, so that I can continue to effectively communicate. In this way I feel less like some sort of flotsam floating on the river of time and more like a beaver dam of sorts, constantly filtering new water on it’s way downstream, being shored up with new materials as each generation passes through. I am like a connection between the past and the future, and the older I get, the larger the gap I am privileged to span. And in any case, young people are perpetually awesome. It brings a faith in humanity I’m not sure I could get in other ways to see firsthand the caretakers of the future.

School Is Not Really About Education

Um, what? Isn’t school by definition about education?

Well, yeah. Granted it’s supposed to be. But it isn’t. All you have to do is talk to almost any adult existing in Western society today about it and they will tell you (often with great relish, as though they are solving world hunger), they never use a single thing they learned in school in their day-to-day lives. Which is of course false. But mostly true. If you went to school in Canada you probably at some point had to know things like what year Champlain landed in Quebec (1608, in case you’re stumped – I just Googled it). I can say with a fair amount of confidence that whether or not you have that tidbit of info available in your memory banks is not affecting your life in any measurable way. You probably also had to know the quadratic formula at some point. I don’t have to Google that one. It’s $x=\frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}$. Nifty, isn’t it? Sorry if I scared you.

Here. Check out these definitions of “education”. I Googled it.

Side note: Google is so cool. I’m 48. I have existed both with and without Google. I had to assimilate the use of Google as a verb into a lexicon that did not previously have it established that way. Your kids didn’t. They have to establish the word googol as a noun referring to the number $10^{100}$ into a lexicon that likely does not have it established that way.

See? The very first definition says I am wrong. School is about education, literally by definition. Oh, but check out definition number 2! Now that is a good one. Education is an enlightening experience! The thing is, in many cases, and for many people, school isn’t enlightening. In many cases, school is an exercise in conformity and alignment. It’s a system which simultaneously (and somewhat arbitrarily) defines success (um, I think I mean worth) and then provides measures for individuals to evaluate their success (yeah, I definitely mean worth).

Performance of Curriculum is a False Measure of Worth

Ok. So when you were a kid, around the age of 5, your parents sent you off to school. And almost immediately, you started to get report cards. They aren’t cards anymore. In many cases they aren’t even paper. But still called report cards. A figurative card summarizing your score on a number of predetermined criteria for success. And make no mistake – from that very first report card on, kids are sent the message that they must perform according to standards so that they get good report cards. I’m going to stay away from the early years, since that’s not my area of expertise, and fast forward to high school, which is. Let’s look at an example. This is based on a real person, whose name I’ve changed. Yes it’s anecdotal. It’s not meant as proof, only to demonstrate my point.

Sally is a young lady in grade 9 who has never particularly had an interest in math – at least in how it’s presented at school. She really doesn’t care about direct vs. partial variation, or the sum of the exterior angles of a polygon, or about how doubling the radius affects the volume of a sphere. But Sally goes to school, in a system which has not only determined that these things are important, they are also mandatory. So she has no choice but to engage in attempts to learn about these things, despite the fact that she is actually incapable of being interested in them. Sally is awesome, by the way. A genuinely caring human with deep empathy, intense loyalty, and a great sense of humour. Sally is also depressed, because she feels worthless. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t figure out how substituting $2r$ for $r$ into the formula $V=\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3$ causes the volume to increase by a factor of 8. In a test designed to determine if Sally can do these things, her performance was dismal. Her mark on that test was a 58%. The class average was 85%. When the teacher returned the test, she made comments like “Well, I know that I taught about exterior angles, but it is clear that some of you did not learn it.” When Sally brought the test home to show her parents (who, incidentally, knew that Sally had the test coming up, hired a tutor to help her prepare, and then asked if she had gotten it back each day after school starting the day after it had been written until the day a week later when it was returned), her parents were frustrated and disappointed. Sally has been conditioned to believe that her ability to understand direct and partial variation is critical. Because it is mandatory, her inability to care or comprehend is forcibly highlighted. And subsequently, her performance is recorded for posterity on her report card. Sally’s final grade in math ends up being 61%. Her parents are disappointed. Sally is devastated. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with her, because she legitimately can not measure up to the standards set in a system she has no choice but to be engaged in.

Breaking Down the Process

Let’s have a look at this situation of Sally’s, and the number of places where the system went wrong.

First off, the concepts Sally has to learn have honestly been arbitrarily determined. See, someone, somewhere, decided that Calculus is an important prerequisite subject for many university and college programs. And to learn Calculus (a grade 12 subject in Ontario), you arguably have to start with concepts like direct and partial variation in earlier grades. And because grade 9 is truly too early to know if programs that require Calculus are in your future, this pre-calculus material is incorporated into the curriculum for pretty much everybody.

Second, math is mandatory. In Ontario high school is a 4-year program, and you must have a minimum of 3 math credits to earn a high school diploma. All of this has nothing – and everything – to do with Sally. Next comes the process. Sally’s teacher created quite possibly an amazing series of lessons on these topics. Sally just doesn’t have the wiring for them, so even though the teacher may be phenomenal, it will have a marginal impact on Sally’s ability to synthesize the material. Sally used to ask questions in class. Now she doesn’t, because she learned that even when she asked, it didn’t help. Sally is deeply empathic – she has seen firsthand the good intentions and effort of her teachers in the past. She can read facial expressions and body language. She has seen her teachers answer her questions and try to help her and seen how much they believe the answers and help are working, so she has pretended that it was, since that was easier than admitting that it wasn’t, because it meant burdening herself with her inadequacy instead of her teachers.

Third, Sally has been conditioned to believe that it is all being done so that she can get high grades. Because ultimately her success is defined by her report card. And because pretty much everyone is telling her that you don’t need this stuff in life anyway. You just need to learn it to get high grades so you can be successful. Which means the only purpose to learning this stuff is the test you will eventually write on it. This is exacerbated by the well-intentioned parents who put so much emphasis on the test – both before and after. You’ve heard the question “When am I ever going to use this?” Well the answer for most kids is “Next week, when you are tested on it.”

See? It’s all artificial. Sally is a high-worth kid, forced into a situation she isn’t wired for, and told that her worth is defined by her performance in that situation. It’s incredibly sad to watch.

The Present and the Future

So here’s where we are now. Many kids and parents these day believe that high marks are critical. The perception is that material presented in school is not inherently valuable, but instead the value is that it is a vehicle to high marks. This means that kids will often do anything it takes to get the high marks. This includes cheating, but that’s not really what I am driving at. What I mean is that they develop strategies that focus on getting high marks, as opposed to learning. Cramming for tests, paying for courses in small private schools that guarantee (implicitly or explicitly) very high grades, or negotiating with teachers (even to the extent of aggressively bullying) after the fact are all standard operating procedure. What is so terrible is that Sally may be able to get high grades using any of these tactics. But Sally will also always know that she didn’t earn them. She will always know that she is not good at something that she should be good at if she is to be valuable. And if and when she manages to gets the high grades anyway, that sense of fraudulence will haunt her. I’ve seen it. It’s tragic. Sally has a great future if she can discover her true worth. The worth she was born with and the worth that her friends probably value more than anything she can do in a math class. But she may or may not discover it.

I love people. And that includes the kids I teach. And I teach high level math, which is honestly not for everyone. I get a lot of kids coming through my classroom doors who are not there because they want to be, and who will not be able to draw the joy from studying math that I really, really do. I have constraints. I have to teach the material as it’s laid out by governmental process. I have to assign grades that reflect students’ performance against some pretty specific criteria. But within this I make sure that each and every kid I teach knows that I value them as a person. That I care about their story. That I see them not as a 2-dimensional projection of my consciousness, but as a multi-dimensional consciousness of their own, with a narrative as rich and intricate as mine. I make sure that they understand that any evaluation I do of their abilities in math is a tiny, tiny cog in the complex machinery of their existence, and has zero impact on my impressions of them as people, or on my estimation of their worth. I show them that it is totally acceptable to love and be passionate about math, without tying that love and passion to an evaluation. It’s not about the math. It’s about giving them permission to take joy out of abstractions, and to pursue the things that they were wired to do. I’m not always successful. Some kids are too preconditioned. But I will never stop trying.

Rich

Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall

Today my blog is about one of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher, and specifically as a teacher of math. I’m going to start with a story about a kid I tutored for a while, many years ago.

When I was younger and just starting to realize I had a passion for math and for teaching, I firmly believed that anyone could understand math and be good at it. Some people took to it more readily than others, but I was certain that given enough time and effort, every single person could excel.

Then I met Lief (not his real name).

Lief came to me when he was in grade 6, and our first tutoring session was about math questions involving time. The question we worked on was something like “Harry leaves home at 12:05 pm and arrives at his destination at 1:30 pm the same day. How long did the trip take?”. Lief was really struggling with the question, but I knew that I could explain it in such a way that he would not only be able to determine the correct answer he would fully understand how we did it and be able to answer many more similar questions. As my students would say, I have mad skillz when it comes to explaining math.

Boy was I wrong. I spent an hour with Lief and I used all my powers of teaching and explaining to no avail. Strewn about us were diagrams, pictures of clocks, number lines, a watch and even part of a model Volkswagen Beetle (don’t ask me why, I don’t remember). Lief just could not understand what the question was asking and why the answer was 1 hour 25 minutes (see how I threw that in there so you’d know if you got it right? 😉 ). I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Some people just aren’t wired for math. And that’s totally OK of course. Contrary to popular opinion, math is not a critical life skill. Aside from people like me I can’t think of a single person that needs to be able to complete the square of a quadratic function given in standard form in order to determine the coordinates of the vertex of the parabola. Proof? You most likely have no idea what in the world I was talking about there and I bet you do just fine. I know at least that you own some sort of electronic device capable of connecting you to the internet. That says something.

So why is this blog titled “Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall”? What am I talking about, you ask? Well you wouldn’t be the first to ask that. Allow me to explain.

Where I live in Ontario, Canada, students attend high school for four years — grades 9 through 12. During that time, in order to be awarded their high school diploma, they must successfully earn three credits in math. For most students, that means a grade 9, grade 10 and grade 11 credit, though some do grade 9, grade 10 and grade 12. It means that math is optional in grade 12, if all you want is a high school diploma. If you want a post-secondary education however, like college or university, you will most often need to take math in all four years of high school, and also be sure to choose the right math courses for your intended post-secondary program.

Phew! So that was kind of boring to read, right? But if you read it you may have noticed the glaring flaw in the system. A student must decide on a career path in grade 9. When they are 14 years old. Actually they have to pick their grade 9 courses when they are still in grade 8, so they and their parents have to make the call when the student is 13 years old. Who the heck knows what they want to do with their lives at the age of 13? When I was 13 I wanted to look at girls, play video games, eat steak as an afternoon snack and look at girls. And then look at girls. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As a matter of fact now, at 43, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life (except for the looking at women part — I still do that and am lucky to have a wife that is exceptionally fun to look at). But I do know that I am happy with what I’m doing right now. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But the key to my happiness is that I am doing something I am good at and that in turn makes me good at it. Read that last sentence a few times. It seems confusing but it isn’t. Try doing something you suck at for a long time. Keep telling yourself that you’ll get better if that makes it seem worthwhile. But I think you’ll find out that when you’re not good at something you are miserable doing it and then you are not good at it.

So how does this manifest in high school? Well it may seem obvious that since very few 13 year old kids have any clear idea about what they want to do when they finish high school — let alone as a career — that they choose the option that keeps all the doors open. In Ontario, that means that they will usually choose grade 9 academic math, because if they don’t they are closing the door to a post-secondary program that requires math. They do it again in grade 10, 11 and even in grade 12. I can not begin to count the number of students I have taught who have struggled mightily in math who then sign up for the hardest math course the following year because they don’t want to close doors. I’ll illustrate with an example. Good ol’ Hanz.

You might remember Hanz from “Steer With the Skid”. Hanz is a hard-working kid who does not have a lot of natural ability in math. By not a lot I mean he’s terrible at it. And please, before you object and say nobody who works hard can be terrible at something, look around. Some people are wired to be awesome at certain things and terrible at others. Some kids are born athletes, some are born artists, some are born mathematicians and some are born poets. You can improve your abilities in almost anything but that doesn’t mean you can excel in almost anything. Personally, as hard as I might have trained, I would never have been an Olympic sprinter. My legs are too short and I don’t have the reflexes. I’ve made peace with it.

So back to Hanz. Hanz doesn’t want to close doors, so he takes Calculus in grade 12. Currently in Ontario the course is actually called Calculus and Vectors. It’s the two hardest math topics in high school grouped together in one spectacular ride. Hanz has been miserable in math class ever since grade 9. He works hard, and puts in the time, but the most he can muster are grades in the 60’s, and it eats him up. His hard work is constantly rewarded with what he considers to be mediocre grades. He’s miserable because he’s convinced that he can’t be successful in life unless he’s successful in math and his definition of successful in math is marks in the 90’s, something he’s never been able to do. In trying so hard to keep a door open, Hanz has missed the fact that for him, there is no door marked “math”. He can’t see that if a program requires Calculus and he takes it and earns a 51% he won’t get in anyway. It’s a fruitless exercise. Yet every time I talk about this with Hanz or his dad Franz, they both insist that Hanz has to stay in Calculus so that he can keep his doors open. That’s when I shake my head and say “Sometimes, there is no door. Walk down the hall.”

See, if Hanz could recognize that there is no “math” door for him, he would be compelled to walk down the hall and see what other doors there are. If Hanz would spend more time in situations where he has natural strength, he’d know what those doors are and what lies beyond them, and he’d be so much happier. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to convince Hanz of this, and he spends all his energy working at something he was not wired for, spiraling further and further into self-loathing and often depression. I’ve seen it many times. I’m not exaggerating.

Now please, before you go off wondering how I can call myself a math teacher and be so willing to write kids off, understand that’s not what I am saying. I teach all levels of math. I am just as happy teaching someone like Hanz how to plan a family budget and the evils of credit card interest as I am teaching him how to take the derivative of a sinusoidal function that has been composed with the square of a logarithmic function in order to determine the instantaneous rate of change on the curve at the place where it intersects with a given exponential function. I work just as hard either way, and my reward is always Hanz’s success. It just pains me to see kids like Hanz convinced that they will end up “homeless under a bridge” (this is a saying my students have when they decide they are going nowhere in life) if they can’t do the derivative question. Honestly though, how many people can? And why on earth would most people need to? The derivative question is an exercise in abstract thought that is beautiful in its way, and critical for people going into a field where they have to solve high level math or science problems all the time, but it’s not the definition of intelligence or success.

Students like Hanz often ask me what courses they should choose when they are picking for the following year. I always say the same thing.

Me: “What are you good at?”

Student: “Well I’m good at <insert non-math or science discipline here> but that doesn’t get you anywhere so I need to take <insert completely inappropriate math or science course here>.”

Me: “Why would you take something that makes you so miserable?”

Student: “Because I need it to be successful. I need to keep my doors open.”

At that point I generally ask them how they intend to become successful in a field that requires them to be good at something that makes them miserable. They really never have an answer for that. Except for the door thing. My advice then is for them to take courses they enjoy, and that they excel in. Happy people who excel at what they do are always successful. Find one and ask them. You’ll see what I mean.