I was bored in class this week. Bored with my students, bored of their tired expressions and their disinterest, bored with their teenage behavior. They were bored too, it was obvious. And what on earth is the point of us all in that room together, wading through analysis of functions and the meaning of the second derivative, or manipulating exponential equations. WHY BOTHER? The students don’t have to ask me that question – I ask it of myself often enough.
My morning run was devoted to this problem of boredom, and I thought about it from all angles. I could shout from the treetops: MATH IS BEAUTY! LEARN IT BECAUSE IT IS BEAUTIFUL!!!! and I think some of my students would hear me and listen, believing that there is beauty to be found in the way the asymptotes indicate changes in concavity. Or I could say, more gently, “You will need this to succeed in your engineering course” and others would buy it, and plod faithfully through the mire of the quotient rule, yet again. And to my students who are artists, linguists, writers, musicians, to them I say: “Trust me. Learn it because it teaches you how to think differently, how to approach problems, it creates new patterns of thought for your mind. And it is beautiful” Those students, they buy the first part but can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to the beauty of the subject.
I could just give them all detention and march on with chalk-n-talk, punishing any deviation from the syllabus.
This week, we worked on skills in most of my classes and got bogged down in so many details that it was just too boring.
The problem is that they need the skills in order to solve the interesting problems. When will a virus spread to an epidemic? How much time do we have to create a vaccination? How do grown-up things like retirement plans actually work? How many people see a viral tweet in 24 hours? How long does it take for a drug to “disappear” from my body? These interesting problems have mathematical solutions, the kind of thing I would like my students to be able to figure out. But how can they figure them out without the skills? How can I get them to practice the skills so they are ready to answer interesting questions?
Which comes first? Chicken or egg?
Interestingly, my students don’t like it when I step out of the sage-on-the-stage role, and they are left to think for themselves. It creates a mini-revolt in the classroom, they fling themselves around in their seats, helplessly calling out “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO HERE??” and I smile and promise them that they only have to think a little, that I will go back to the song-and-dance of lecture the next lesson. That next time I will drill more skills into them just so theycanpassthetest.
This week, I’m combating my boredom by attempting to freshen up the lessons with a little oooh-shiny novelty. The fact is, the students need the skills in order to answer the interesting questions. So we’ll use IXL to practice some skills, I’ll assign some videos to watch for homework, we’ll flip the classroom a bit and spend our time in class researching numbers for the interesting questions, then building mathematical models to find answers together.
I’ll even stand at the front of the room for that last part. They’ll appreciate that.