Thursday, February 02, 2006

A mathematical fable

In an article called, More Training Is Seen as Key to Improving Math Levels by Diana Jean Schemo in the New York Times, Bush's proposal to -cough- help math and science education is to get volunteers to do the teaching.

...he called for 30,000 mathematicians and scientists to pitch in as adjunct teachers, to teach a course at their local public schools.

That's where my story starts. My sons play basketball and we taxi them around quite a bit and every once in a while I get to the gym and some players are hanging out late at the gym with the coaches.

So one day I arrive a little early and Ron Pires, the Varsity basketball coach says to the squad, "Okay, listen up! We're going to shoot free throws [and he gives them certain parameters to follow] AND! - I WANT THE GROUP AS A WHOLE TO MAKE AT LEAST 85% OF YOUR SHOTS."

From the distance of the sidelines, an almost perceptable breeze seemed to push back the hair on the players heads - kind of like that rock and roll speaker advertisement of a kid listening to music in a wind tunnel. Ron repeated, "85% gentlemen."

At every basket, a group formed and began the exercise - for those who aren't basketball fans, 85% is a mighty fine shooting percentage and this was a test.

Once the shooting exercise was over, everyone gathered around Coach Pires who began asking for results.

"How many made four out of four?" Say five players raised their hands. "Five times four is how many baskets?" "Twenty" was answered by a chorus of players.

"Alright, how many made 3 out of four?" Now three players raise their hands. "So how many shots is that?" And so it went. Coach Pelletier rushed to get a calculator.

But what I witnessed from the sideline looked very much like a Norman Rockwell painting. Here in the middle of a gym were the biggest students in the school rubbing their chins, raising their eyes to imagine a calculation on a non-existent whiteboard, scatching their heads like Stan Laurel pondering an impossible dilemna. It looked like a lot of thinking and had I captured it on film it would be the yearbook photo.

And in the same fashion that they win basketball games, they helped each other track and recalculate the necessary arithmetic - IOW, with teamwork. The image is still stuck in my memory because everything you ever needed to know about teaching math was right there.

Which brings me back around to a number of things.

A.) Feed these students math in non-threatening, appropriate doses and they learn. You don't need tests to see the gears working when the learning is obvious.

B.) Students working in teams to supplement each other's efforts works well. A lot better than "every student for themselves" no matter what - we got tests to - ahem - administer!

C.) You don't need mathematicians and scientists to walk in from the street to teach math. And, we aren't even touching the subject of what would qualify these people to be in classrooms with mixes of students with mixes of needs. Math is taught and can be taught in doses in many school activities that already exist. Students need to be given a weighed credit for the math and english they exercise in other classes that counts toward graduation.

D.) Bush's "plan does not envision hiring new teachers. Rather, it proposes to retrain the math and science teachers on hand." That's very nice but if the teachers receiving more training are hopelessly poor teachers to begin with - unmotivated to learn new techniques, self-centric, experts in math and ignorant of learning - we're just throwing good money after bad. Schools need a plan to marginalize mediocrity and reward talent.

BTW; The team made exactly 85% of their shots that evening.

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