What I Learned About Teaching Math – At Starbucks

October 6, 2011 at 11:06 am 5 comments

Last night I dropped my daughter off at her dance class, and as is sometimes the case I went to Starbucks to work on the new Statistics project I am involved with. I sat down next to a 9th or 10th grade kid and his college aged tutor. They were working on Algebra I.

Over the 5 minutes that they stayed, I found myself getting more and more frustrated. Here are words that came directly from the tutor’s mouth, followed by my thoughts.

  • “Just do it like the one I did a minute ago.”
    Having students mimic your work will definitely not lead to understanding. I need to keep this in mind every day during class. “I’m the expert. Just do what I do.” is not an effective way to get students to understand. Students can watch me work one hundred problems in a row and not be able to work problem 101 without me helping them to find some level of understanding first. I’ve watched Tim Wakefield throw thousands of knuckle balls, but that doesn’t mean that I can do that too.
  • What’s wrong with you? Don’t you get it?
    I’m pretty sure that making the student feel inferior doesn’t help at all. If you want to help a student to understand mathematics, you need that student to be motivated and inspired. You cannot motivate and inspire a student by making the student feel bad. I think the tutor might want to pick up a copy of Daniel Pink’s Drive.
  • You know those 20 problems you did on that worksheet earlier? Just do it like those.
    This just screams to how ineffective “drill & kill” can be when there is no understanding tied to it. Mindlessly going through those 20 problems did not increase the student’s level one bit. I need to remember that fewer, well-chosen problems can definitely make for a better assignment that 1-157 odd. When students view homework assignments as a tedious, meaningless task that must be accomplished, then I am afraid we have lost that student.
  • Any number times 1 is … one. Followed shortly thereafter by  Any number divided by 1 is … one.
    Yes, both statements were wrong. I know the tutor probably meant to finish both sentences with “the number itself”, but he didn’t. We have to be careful with what we say, because a confused student will just get more confused when we misspeak.

The night didn’t end as badly as it started. Two older women came in and sat next to me – a 40-ish woman with her 60-ish French tutor The tutor was warm and positive. When her student made a mistake, she was supportive and tried to help her student understand why what she said was incorrect. I was fascinated as I listened to them. That’s the type of teacher we all need to be. One more point – the student was trying to learn French so she could travel to Paris. When students understand why the material they are trying to learn is important, they will be more motivated to learn.

Have any lessons that math teachers should learn? I’d love to hear them.

– George

I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website – http://georgewoodbury.com.

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Entry filed under: General Teaching, Math. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Setting Up Binomial and Poisson Probability Problems Doing Homework

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Genesis  |  October 9, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Hi George, I’m somewhat new to WordPress and I stumbled upon your blog by searching ‘math’. I can’t believe that college-student tutor. Brings shame to the elegance of math and to the beauty of understanding it. You must have a lot of patience and respect not to butt-in.

    Reply
  • 2. kai  |  November 16, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Believe me! This is what happened to me. I used to like study mathematics, but there are many of these teachers, especially mathematics teachers at there. Now, I do not like mathematics.

    Reply
    • 3. georgewoodbury  |  November 17, 2011 at 11:56 am

      I’m sorry that happened to you, but thanks for sharing. It’s so important for teachers to hear from students like you in your own words. Very powerful.
      I hope that your next instructor finds a way to win you back.

      Reply
      • 4. kai  |  November 18, 2011 at 8:06 am

        I am very curious, but how do you make time to reply people like me?? you must be a real educator.

      • 5. georgewoodbury  |  November 18, 2011 at 1:04 pm

        I try 🙂

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