When I started at St. Mary’s, I had plans to get a math degree and be a high school math teacher. I had become appalled at the state of the education system which focuses more on warehousing kids instead of teaching them to think. At the time, I considered mathematics to be the foundation of teaching students critical thinking and problem solving skills. If a student has a firm grasp of mathematical concepts, they will normally have a better time understanding other disciplines. That’s not to say that every mathematician can write a novel or paint a masterpiece, but the fact remains that the majority of the great thinkers and artists had an underlying understanding and appreciation for mathematics and logic.
This appreciation for mathematics has depreciated over time. The first round of blame goes to parents. When parents
fear hate math, they teach their children to fear hate math as well. The second round of blame goes to educators that fail to introduce higher mathematics in a way that facilitates the interest of students. I felt compelled to be a math teacher because I believed that a student’s first introduction to advanced mathematics sets the precedent for the attitudes those students have about math.
Over my academic career I have had the opportunity to study not only my core subject, but also the application that I was anticipating. What I uncovered about the education system made me turn full circle, pick up an extra major in Economics and abandon any idea of jumping on that sinking ship.
The truth is that this country no longer values education. This country values money, and the quicker we can get these kids out of schools and into jobs, the better. It’s disgusting and insulting to think that a student can get a high school diploma without being able to read at grade level or understand the algorithms of arithmetic (barring of course those with learning disabilities). Related to this advancement of inadequacy, are the consequences of raising a generation of students with an instant gratification/entitlement complex. It seems that there exists a generation of parents that (in memory of their own adolescent angst) view educators as adversaries. When students do something wrong, the parents don’t react with repercussion to the student, they instead lobby blame at the teachers and absolve their delinquent offspring of any liability.
Teachers however have been saddled with the burden of raising classrooms full of children. Teachers are having to act as trusted adult counselors for students from dysfunctional backgrounds, and educators of basic living skills on top of the responsibility of a bare bones basic education in their discipline. Teachers are spending their own money buying school supplies for low income students, they are spending hours every day outside of school hours planning lessons, grading work and attending workshops. As if those weren’t enough extraneous anxieties, teachers must also contend with the absolute power that students wield with reckless abandon. In these days of instant information, all it takes is one disgruntled student to make one accusation and a teacher’s personal and professional name is permanently scarred. Teachers go to work never knowing when some drunk/high/mentally unstable student is going to flip out and attack. The world is always worried about the safety of students, but who stops to worry about the safety of teachers? And on top of everything, there’s the standardized testing beast to face. Teachers carry 98% of the weight in these exams with the administration stepping in to account for maybe 1.5% and the last .5% is shared by the students, the parents and the government. [Disclaimer: This is not to be taken as an accurate, fully researched statistic. This is simply meant for illustrative purposes and dramatic effect.] The job of the educator is not really the easy ride that it’s long been made out to be.
The system has removed incentives for students. I’ve been a student. I’ve taken those exams, and I know that the minute they told me that exam didn’t count as a grade I filled in random bubbles on the answer sheet, got my juice box and spent the rest of the time doodling some boys name on my book cover till it was over. I’ve made this argument before and people tell me that this isn’t the norm. But if it can happen even once than it cannot be used as tool of measurement. It becomes completely invalid. The idea that a teacher’s salary and career hinges on the arbitrary nature of children is ridiculous! There are some kids that will do really well, and there are some that just won’t care. Motivation comes from within and no matter how skilled a teacher is, there are some students that will never self actualize enough to produce measurable results. An answer on an exam says one thing. That the answer provided is not the correct answer. Everything else is correlation.
I had an Algebra professor once that said two things that changed my life.
1. 2+2 = cat.
2. This is rocket science and people do die.
When no instructions are provided 2+2 = cat is a perfectly valid answer. It is only from providing the parameters taught in basic mathematics that the sum of the quantity 2+2 will equal the integer 4. When we fail to instill the foundations of mathematical logic we set our kids up to thinking 2+2 =cat.
This leads to the second statement. The small mistakes can leads to disastrous results. A mistake in arithmetic causes a spaceship to explode, a building to fall, or a machine to dispense too much/little medication and people die. Ask any mathematician and he or she will tell you that the most common mistakes made in higher mathematics are not related to the Calculus or the Algebra, they are related to the basics of arithmetic.
It’s the small things that matter. It’s the small things that make a difference.
A final exam at the end of a semester tells you more about the student and the teacher than the massive state exams every other year.
Galileo said that “Mathematics if the language that God used to write the universe.” If we teach our kids to appreciate, respect, and admire mathematics we bestow upon them the tools they will use to write their own universe.