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August 2, 2011

Who’s Responsible?

Nick Diaz

Fortunately for me, I have outstanding students in my math classes. During class time, most of them work very hard and will do just about anything I ask of them. Over the years, however, I haven’t been too successful in teaching them the importance of preparing, practicing, and thoroughly studying outside the classroom.


It isn’t necessarily that they’re unwilling to practice, but that they are so busy doing other things that they have little free time to put toward practicing. Doing math in math class seems to be more appealing than practicing, studying on their own, and preparing for tests. I wonder if they have ever thought about the relationship between the two.


Let’s take a professional football player. During the regular season, there are only 16 games, leaving roughly January through July as the off season. Let’s assume that, during the off season, a player dedicates 20 hours a week to conditioning and weight training. There is also the time spent studying film of not only his opponents, but of his own performance. When the season begins, he adds hours of classroom time to his schedule, almost every day, in addition to countless drills on the practice field.


Consider the fact that on-the-clock playing time in a game is four 15-minute quarters. During that time their team has the ball, ideally, 50 percent of the time. Assuming the team has a balanced offense, 50 percent of the plays will be passing. If the player is a wide receiver, he is only one of five individuals eligible to catch the pass. When one considers all of the football-related work that goes into this, the game itself constitutes a very small percent, probably in the single digits.


Imagine the time and effort required to become famous for catching only a handful of passes a week.


It’s important for teachers to consider how this doing-versus-practicing relationship impacts our students’ lives. Are our students like the professional athletes who devote most of their work-related time to non-game, skill-based activities? Are our students, by contrast, trying to scrimmage their way through life, never spending the necessary time and effort to learn the skills – whether it’s football or mathematics -- required for success?


* * * * * * * * *


In a perfect world, every student would come to the classroom with the intent of learning; they would hang on our every word and their work would demonstrate great care and effort. Ours, however, is not a perfect world.


A former student of mine, brilliant mathematician (and at present a math teacher at a local high school), recently engaged me in a long-winded Internet chat. This individual was understandably frustrated by this reality.


Despite offering a highly interactive and engaging class, he has students who are more interested in texting, tweeting, and facebooking than participating and learning. It seems that their lack of desire has little to do with whatever is being taught, and more to do with their own self-image.


The teacher has been reaching out to his peers and mentors for answers to his dilemma, for things he can do to further engage these students. But what responsibility do the students have to this issue?


Can we assume the problem is in the design of the class, or is it more likely the problem lies within the students? Could it be that, no matter what “bells and whistles” the teacher infuses into the class, these students will continue to see little value in learning?


Is the issue even about the class? One cannot teach information to a closed mind any more than they can pour water into a container with a lid on it. At what point should the teacher concentrate on opening the minds rather than teaching the content? To what extent is this indifference to learning due to a poor background in basic mathematics, which leads these students to give up on algebra before they even try?


I don’t have the answers to these questions, but am throwing them out for all of us to consider. I will continue to ponder them in an attempt to help my friend – the former student, now a fellow professional – help his students. (This really means I need to find the answers for my own work as well).


Consider the above dilemma. Do you have students, or employees, or co-workers who, despite your best efforts, seem to refuse to make an attempt to learn or do their work more efficiently? Do they come to you with issues, seemingly unrelated, that hold them back from achieving? What can any of us do to help them open their minds and to see the value in learning and achieving?


Certainly, I know I must make adjustments in my classroom and delivery of information, but I also know that I must hold the student accountable for the role he plays in the learning process.


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