Monday, October 8, 2007

I've got problems

I’ve got problems—lots and lots of problems. But, I also have lots and lots of math textbooks. Seriously, though. We ALL have problems. Problems are what makes the world interesting, so long as it’s not a problem involving food, clothing, shelter, or any of those things that Maslow says we need in order to even begin to think of the world as interesting.

That’s where math is the ultimate SUV through life—it helps you SOLVE these problems of life. Sure, life may not require you to “find the log base one-fifth of thirty-seven to the five-eighths power,” but being able to answer that question will endow you with the skills and acumen you will need to answer questions like “how in the h*ll can I fit this sofa through that door?” Or “how can I get another bag of chips without getting off the sofa?” Or even more important questions like, “how can I get our of doing that activity, but still get credit for its success?”

Whatever you study in life, problems are a major part of it, and ultimately, why you get paid to do it. People who don’t like math, are bad at it, have math anxiety, or who have a math test tomorrow are generally uncomfortable with problem-solving. Perhaps this stems from their belief that there is only one path to solution, their being overwhelmed with the fact that there are INFINITELY MANY different paths to solution and they don’t know a single one, or because they realize that getting the chips from the kitchen without getting off the sofa is not as serious a problem as when the time comes for their body has to “make room for more chips” by getting “rid” of the “old” chips.

We math teachers are in a unique position to teach, inspire, and demonstrate different problem-solving approaches every day. We can model appropriate behavior, encourage struggling students to “talk” themselves through a crisis, or we can just have our TA do it. We can encourage different approaches and stress that mistakes are great learning tools. Mistakes don’t hurt (unless they’re huge, but then they only hurt briefly) if you learn from them. We shouldn’t rush students through a discovery process (unless the they are on a timed assessment or we have to go to the bathroom.) Very often, the best understanding and appreciation comes from taking the long way around, or the scenic route.

We as teachers can replace anxiety with greater comfort and confidence, simply by replacing the attitudes and experiences of problem solving. If that doesn’t work, we can replace bad students for good students.

It is said that a problem worthy of attack proves its worth by fighting back, and I’m beginning to think that those enchiladas from last night were very “worthy.” Unfortunately, many people eschew difficult problems instead of chewing on them. Too many assume that problem solving should be easy, intuitive, and that insight should come naturally, and that THEY can’t do it. Well, by their own admissions they are right—either way. We teachers can show them that they CAN do it, and that what they need to succeed they already have (or can be purchased at minimal cost at the local Wal-Mart.) The true value is in the interesting and challenging process, not the product. We truly appreciate those things that we work hard at, and nothing of any real value is EVER compromised by taking a little extra time on, except perhaps, that million-dollar prize for being the one-zillionth Wal-Mart customer (Hey, take solace in being the one-zillionth AND FIRST customer!! The TRUE prize is in the savings anyway!!)

The only problem I actually have is HOW to continually, consistently, and effectively enable ALL of my students to develop a belief that they can do it, to take pride in their methods, and to develop a hunger for something other than chips, but for the desire to strengthen and improve their methods.

It's an equation with many variables, but one that I believe will be effective in transforming all of eternity because IT WORKS!! It rests on the student’s thinking power, and not on some external "gift." We ALL have the power, right between our ears. It’s just a matter of finding the right switch . . . a problem, since you can’t find it on any isle in you local Wal-Mart.

1 comment:

Mr. Woehler said...

amen to the need for problems. kinda reminds me of a Freudian theory that essentially descibes the need for pain to feel alive.(and hey, math problems can kind of hurt too!) I think I derived this from his repetition compulsion theory while writing a paper this summer for a class I was taking at TLU called Comedy and the Art of Film. The professor, Dr. Vrooman, sparked my intrigue in Sigmund Freud's philosophy, but then again Freud was a crack-head...