## 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.

#### What I Do About 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

## Thoughts From a Dance Dad

Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.

Early Years

My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.

At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.

As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.

Emerging Talents
Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.

From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.

Dance is a Language
This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been watching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.

Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.

Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est une danceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one  😉 ).

Dance is Empowering

Rich

## Arithmophobia (Fear of Math): My Thoughts

I’ve been a high school math teacher for 11 years now, and I’ve also been tutoring students privately for even longer than that. Consequently I’ve seen the whole spectrum of math students. Everything from the freakishly gifted to the astonishingly weak, For the most part I think this is fine. Some people are wired for certain things and some are not. I am not wired to be a sprinter. I could train my butt off for years and still not qualify for a track team. I’ve made peace with that.

What I don’t think is fine however, is the growing number of math-phobic students I am seeing. Students whose deep fear of math is so intense that it is almost impossible to determine where their strengths and weaknesses in the subject are. To understand what I mean think of a person who suffers from stage fright so severely that every time they sing in front of even a small group of people their throat closes up and all they can manage is a pathetic croak. Anyone listening would conclude this person is a terrible singer. Yet it may not be true. The neurosis camouflages the talent and it’s impossible to know what the person’s singing ability really is. What makes it worse is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the cause of poor performance. After all, some people just can’t sing.

In math these students whose fear interferes with their performance very often conclude that they have no ability in the subject, which further feeds the phobia. A seriously vicious cycle that is difficult to break, even after it’s been recognized. So my question as of late has been, what’s causing the increase in math-phobic students?

I don’t have research to back my conclusions. It’s all purely anecdotal. However these observations have been made from the trenches. I see these students every day, in a classroom setting and one-on-one, for over 11 years. Here are my thoughts.

Poor Evaluation Criteria
More and more I am becoming convinced that this may be one of the single biggest causes of arithmophobia. I am talking about the alarming tendency for students’ grades to not reflect their ability, due to poor evaluation criteria. I’ll give you an example.

here is one student’s work, graded:

and here is another student’s work, also graded:

The first student received a mark of 2/3, which rounds to 67%. What are we to take from this? Imagine the student coming home with a report card that says 67% in math. What would the parents conclude? What would an independent observer (like a university) conclude about a grade of 67% in math? The easiest and most likely answer is that this is a student who grasps roughly 67% of the concepts covered in math. With respect to this question and the topic it tests, it means the student grasps only 67% of the concept of solving linear equations. Now based on their work, do you believe that is a true assessment? What would we have this student believe? It’s disturbing to say the least.

But significantly more disturbing is the grade of 0/3 assigned to the second student. This student answered the question correctly, however the traditional approach is to assign one mark per step in the question, and since the student did not show any of the expected work, he lost all marks. Now he has 0%. What would that say to parents and universities? Most disturbingly, what does it say to the child?

Stop and ask yourself what it means to solve an equation. The above equation, translated to English, states that

“There is a number which is multiplied by 4 and then the product is reduced by 3, for a result of 29.”

The instruction “Solve for x” means

“Tell me what the number is.”

Student 2 has successfully done just that. Period. End of discussion. Not only has he correctly answered the question, but in doing so has demonstrated that he understands the question and has the higher level thinking skills to answer it without employing any traditional algorithms. And we work in an educational system which has evolved to tell this student that he is so bad at math he gets a zero. Shame on us. Shame on us all.

So what happens to this student? Well from my experience he either dismisses the subject as “a stupid bunch of rules” (and who can blame him? When the answer is so obvious what value is there in writing down a bunch of steps that do nothing more than add tedium?), or he “learns” that to be good at math you have to suppress your instincts and replace them with the all-important STEPS. And let me tell you something. By the time you get to senior math in high school, there are a lot of steps! There’s no way most of us – myself very much included – could memorize all those steps, know precisely when to apply them, and do so with complete accuracy and precision every time.

Enter fear.

Imagine for a second you are a dog. A puppy. You mean no harm to anyone and in fact are a bouncing bundle of happiness and joy. Unfortunately you have an owner who has anger issues. You’ve discovered that your owner hates it when there is pee on the carpet in the house. The reason you know this is because every time he discovers any he loses his temper and yells. So in order to help, you begin peeing in hiding places around the house. To a dog this makes a lot of sense and is very considerate. Unfortunately all this does is make your owner even more angry, to the point where he smacks you every time he discovers the hidden pee. Result? You are now afraid of the owner, and afraid of peeing. Nothing productive comes of this because despite your best efforts, and despite the fact that you are doing what you think is right, you are still getting in trouble. That is a recipe for fear. And that is what happens to students who do what they think/know is right, but get rewarded with marks like 0/3 for their efforts. How can a person continue with a positive attitude under those kinds of circumstances?

What also happens to a large number of students is that over the years, as they fail more and more to memorize the right “rules”, they become more and more disillusioned with themselves. The mathematics becomes totally obscured by the algorithms, to the point where students believe that the algorithms are the mathematics, and can hardly be convinced otherwise.

I tutor a student named Randy and she is in grade 7. Here is a question from a test she wrote recently.

Sam has answered the question “7 – 3 ½” with “4 ½”. Sam says this is because seven minus three is four, and then there’s an extra half to make four and a half. Is Sam correct? Explain.

Here is what Randy wrote:

Sam is not correct. To answer the question you have to convert 7 and 3 ½ to improper fractions, then subtract the numerators, then convert your answer back to a mixed number. This is what Sam should have done:
7 – 3 ½ = 14/2 – 7/2
= 7/2
= 3 ½
So the correct answer is 3 ½

For this answer Randy received a “2+” which is a mark out of 4, with these comments from the teacher: “What was wrong with Sam’s thinking? How could he modify his strategy so that it would work? Expand on your answer.”

Hmmmmmmm. My thoughts as a teacher were immediately “Those comments would have made good questions for students to answer on the test instead of criticisms of Randy’s answer”. In any case let’s have a look at how this result impacted Randy.

So marks out of 4 like this one can be roughly converted to percentages, which they ultimately will be for reporting purposes. A mark of “2+” converts to around 65%-70%. I implore you, dear reader, to tell me just exactly how Randy has shown her capabilities in subtracting mixed numbers from whole numbers to be 30% less than perfect. The message to Randy?

Because you were unable to extrapolate from the word “explain” that I, your teacher, was expecting you to delve into the mind of a person who, unlike yourself, can not subtract mixed numbers from whole numbers, I conclude that you, Randy are a mediocre math student, at best. Despite the fact that the question was in two parts (“Is Sam correct?” and “Explain”), and that you addressed both correctly, you should have known that what I was really looking for was for you to help Sam understand why his thinking was wrong, despite the fact that it did not say this anywhere in the question and despite the fact that Sam is a fictitious person. Please work harder from now on so that you may become a better math student.

Randy was in tears over her results. She said she was sure she understood the material going into the test but she’s just bad at math and she hates it and she is never going to be good at it. It took quite an effort on my part to show Randy that she completely and perfectly understands subtraction of mixed numbers from whole numbers and that the real flaw is the question. I’m not sure she is totally convinced and her grade in math will certainly not reflect what I know to be true so it will be a difficult pill for her to swallow. Randy is developing a serious case of arithmophobia based on experiences like this. She is not wired to “know what the teacher means”. She reads instructions and takes them literally, and then answers them as best she can, usually correctly. But since there is more wrapped up in the evaluation criteria than is revealed in the question itself, Randy is rewarded for her efforts with marks like “2+”. To her this makes math incomprehensible, and who can blame her? To her math is now a mysterious subject with weird expectations that you have to “just know”, and what hope does she have of being able to do that?

So what can we do? The answer is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement in today’s education environment:

Let’s start teaching MATH again. And when we grade a student’s work let’s stop comparing what they did to some sort of “template of perfection” and instead evaluate what the work we see says about the student’s fundamental understanding of the mathematical concepts. Solving an equation means finding the values of the variable that make the equation true. The fact that we have algorithms for solving equations is wonderful and essential for very difficult equations, but let’s not punish students who are able to understand and solve without the algorithm! Let’s celebrate those students because they are the ones who really get it. The algorithms can be introduced and reinforced later when the equations get harder, but it serves no purpose to tell a student like that they are bad at math, for they are truly not. And for students like Randy? Let’s throw away the rubrics and fancy words and assess what their work tells us about their abilities. If we want Randy to extend her knowledge to be able to help Sam modify his strategy so that it will work let’s help her with that, but there is very little value in tying her grade in math to that ability, unless that ability is very specifically what we are trying to teach and assess, in which case we need to ask ultimately how much is that worth and how should it be reflected in the grade that she will use to determine her performance?

Arithmophobia is real and it is getting worse each year. We must change what we are doing if we want to reverse the trend.