kitchen table math, the sequel: Culture Quiz

## Friday, March 13, 2009

### Culture Quiz

This week, my 7th graders have been grappling with straight lines. Now, mind you, we're in the second straight week of these straight lines so this is no intro lesson. We were having a sort of Socratic discussion on the meaning of slope and I was desperately trying to narrow my probative questions down to something they could hang on to. Finally I got down to one of those questions that has the answer embedded in it.

"If the value of y increases by 10, then what is the change in y?". I naively expected this to be the magic question that would kick off a real discussion. What I got was more like you'd expect if I had inquired about their favorite Frank Sinatra album. Nothing! Not one child could answer this loaded question. Now I'm not green, so I'm fully aware of the liklihood that 30% of the kids in the room never heard the question and another 30% were thinking about lunch and wouldn't answer to any question, but surely someone was out there, with enough listening skill to answer. Nothing but blank stares!

This isn't the first time I've reached this Socratic nadir. It happens a lot. It's always a puzzlement. Later, I was talking to a student about his video game prowess. I asked him what he liked so much about video games and he started to talk about how, when he's playing, he just sort of gets in a zone. His fingers just respond automatically to what is happening on the screen. "I don't have to think about it.". Could it be that Socratic fizzle is related to video anesthesia? Is my teaching competing with a video game?

Trying to connect these dots is probably a hopeless exercise but it brings to mind a larger, equally imponderable, but more interesting question about how we learn. Here's the question…

When does learning take place? Is it (on one extreme) just a school event or, (on the other extreme) is it a 24 x 7 x 365 process? And, wherever you land on that one, what is being learned in the various compartments of a child's life? What do you learn in a splatterfest like Gears of War versus playing marbles? What did you learn with a stereoscope that is different from what you learn clicking through 200 cable channels in an afternoon of diversions?

I'm curious to know what folks think about this. Has a cultural shift occurred that changes the learning paradigm for any or all of these compartments? Does our culture 'wire' kids differently today than it did years ago, or for that matter, how does what you learn in one compartment drive or spill over into others? Does any of this have a connection to why my kids can't answer a question that's a 'gimme'?

SteveH said...

Maybe the problem is that kids don't learn how to work hard in K-6 anymore. They're used to low expectation thematic group learning. When I taught an SSAT prep class for seventh graders (fresh from K-6 land), they seemed to be unable to keep up with my direct instruction and leading questions. (no fluff) Perhaps they were too used to working in groups. It takes more effort and concentration to tackle a problem directly in class.

What I do remember from my student days is that discussions of bigger concepts and ideas worked well in class with a Socratic approach, not detailed mastery issues. Most of my detailed learning came from doing homework. Only after students have struggled with homework are they primed for detailed discussions in class based on those problems. If they don't do the problem sets, well, there's not much you can do. I told my students that the most important thing they can do is the homework.

Kids are quite capable of hard, concentrated work. They just haven't been taught to apply this skill to things that don't interest them. K-6 educators may think they are caring and developmentally supportive, but they never see the big sink or swim that happens in 7th grade and beyond.

I find that my seventh grade son resists my direct instruction in math. Anything beyond a few minutes and he wants to jump in and do it himself. This is not so much a desire for discovery, but an impatience with direct instruction. The end result, of course, is confusion and frustration. He wants to do the problem and move on, and I want him to look at it from different angles. The discovery they push in schools might not be so bad if they expected something more than a trivial amount of effort.

I don't think the problem is video anesthesia, it's years of low expectations and no mastery of the basics.

vlorbik said...

because they're afraid of being socially awkward.
maybe a teacher's pet. maybe a teacher's victim.
(we beg them to ask questions... then [so it seems]
beat them up for not asking the question *we*
had in mind all along... stuff like that.)

because of any of an awful *lot* of reasons.

getting a classroom culture going
where students are comfortable
talking about ideas is one of the hardest things
i've ever been able to do. i sure as hell
make no claim to know *how* to do it
after a quarter-century of teaching.
if it happens it's a god-damn miracle.

when they eyes glaze over, the need
to retreat into "lecture mode" is palpable:
*everybody* is uncomfortable when
a useful dialogue.

you may feel that any teacher worth their salt
can get a good give-and-take going
and you may even be right. but somebody else
expects something else and pretty soon it's like
you're not a good ballplayer because you can't
slug a homer out every few games *and*
pitch an occasional no-hitter.

impossible expectations are just part
of the culture. the point seem to be
that when they don't like you, they'll have
something to attack you with.
you're too strict; you're too lenient.
this is why everybody's required to lie
all the time about pretty much everything:
if *everybody's* guilty, it's somehow
never the bosses fault.

there's a lot going on in my classes--even lectures.
and sometimes the students even learn a lot
but i'm the farthest thing in the world
from the kind of master teacher that can
just come in and win everybody over reliably.

those guys are out there. but mostly
you have to treat 'em with respect
to get 'em to stick around and do their thing.
public schools are typically incapable
of respecting human beings...

somebody will now chime in
with some union-bashing...

vlorbik said...

no. it was ever thus.

Barry Garelick said...

I would have been afraid to answer; I am even now. Is it y + 10? Is that what you were getting at? Vlorbik described it fairly well; they don't want to look foolish. I just stuck my neck out, and will be embarrassed if it turns out "y + 10" was NOT what you were getting at. And then I'm also wondering, why are you getting at that?

I know I've had the same reaction with my daughter when I ask her an obvious "gimme" type question.

bky said...

The question can be reworded, if y increases by 10, then by how much did it increase?

uh, 10?

maybe more precisely, +10?

"I naively expected this to be the magic question that would kick off a real discussion."

To my ear the question and the tone of the original post sounds sort of desperate and hectoring, which is not a good invitation to a discussion.

And this, unfortunately, I know from experience. All this sounds just like a classroom discussion I had once. Except I was teaching freshman calculus to a bunch of kids who had almost all just had high school calculus. And before that they must have had algebra and who knows what. They still didn't understand what the equation of a line was all about (or what a variable is).

I think Vlorbik and Barry G. are going in the right direction: it is a question of group dynamics as much as anything. There are many reasons people don't want to answer a question. One is that they don't know the answer, and then there are many others. I remember once when I was an undergraduate taking an advanced class. The teacher asked a question that drew a long silence. I knew the answer, which was basically, "Calvieri's principle" or something that. Long, long silence. Anyone? Anyone? My initial impulse to simply say the answer was distorted in my mind through a set of rapidly mutating although inane scenarios, all based on overestimating the value of saying the right answer and also overestimating the cost of giving a wrong answer. Probably half the people in the room knew the answer, but somehow were convinced that it was too easy, or actually harder than we thought, or ... something.

concerned said...

Hi Paul,

I applaud your courage for bringing up the topic. Probably every teacher has experienced this situation, yet few reflect on it in the way that you are doing, in search of a better understanding.

I'm not a real "touchy feely" person, but I read a good book a couple of years ago entitled Becoming a Reflective Math Teacher. It's tough to analyze your actions in teaching. There are so many factors to consider. I applaud your efforts!

I don't know the reference, maybe some other reader can point us in that direction, but I've read research on the changes in brain chemistry that happen when playing video/computer games. Maybe it does have an effect on students' abilities to focus in a classroom setting.

I believe that SteveH was right on target with his comment that students are "used to low expectation thematic group learning" Unfortunately, I believe that many students are allowed to "fall through the cracks" in that setting because they are never expected to produce anything individually.

Students are generally not happy when they realize that I ask questions of individuals in our classroom. Hopefully they grow to understand that it is precisely because I have faith in their ability to understand the concepts and answer the questions correctly.

Hang in there Paul! You are doing exactly what you need to do to solve the problem!

Liz Ditz said...

Later, I was talking to a student about his video game prowess. I asked him what he liked so much about video games and he started to talk about how, when he's playing, he just sort of gets in a zone. His fingers just respond automatically to what is happening on the screen. "I don't have to think about it.". Could it be that Socratic fizzle is related to video anesthesia? Is my teaching competing with a video game?

The student was not experiencing " video anesthesia" but a highly-desirable mental state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow" (see the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the wikipedia summary* or Csikszentmihalyi's
TED talk (18 minutes).

From the wikipedia* summary:

Components of flow

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).

2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.

======
* I know, I know, Wikipedia?? -- but this is a subject I am familiar with, and the summary agrees with what I know

Liz Ditz said...

Better link for Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk

Paul B said...

I'm mostly interested in the kind of insights that might come out of things like 'flow'. Here's a question. If kids are spending lots of time on 'flow' activities, are they then inclined to have difficulties in activities that don't provide the same sort of environment?

It seems like any traditional classroom setting is about as far away from that as you can get. This is what I meant when I pondered about competing with it. Should classroom techniques be more aligned with that in order to break through this barrier?

I've noticed that girls (not big on gaming), for example, are much more alert and likely to answer things, while boys, not so much. In fact the boys who I know who are big gamers are my biggest zombies. They are barely able to keep their eyes open at 10:00 am and seem bored out of their minds.

When I do an activity with whiteboards that is fast paced and very dynamic, they wake up. In fact when I think about it, this is the only time they wake up. Maybe I inadvertently create a 'flow' environment with the boards. Too bad I'm off the reservation when I do these things.

Tracy W said...

I'm with the kids. What's the trick in this question?

I hate situations where the teacher sets out to make you make a mistake so they can show off how wrong you are, and this sounds like one of those set ups.

Has a cultural shift occurred that changes the learning paradigm for any or all of these compartments?

Does our culture 'wire' kids differently today than it did years ago

Presumably. It is, after all, a different culture. And the culture 50 years ago was also different to the culture 100 years ago.

or for that matter, how does what you learn in one compartment drive or spill over into others?

This is a serious topic in cognitive science, but not one I can summarise. Search for "over-generalisation" and "under-generalisation".

Lsquared said...

I did this just yesterday with a bunch of college freshman types. We were doing arithmetic mod 10, for those of you who know what that is, and I said "I'll start off with an easy one--what's 5-2?" Absolute silence. "Come on--I know you all know what 5-2 is is. What's 5-2?" Lots of people answered. You have to convince them that it's easy.

By hindsight your next question should have been: "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" or something like that. Make it obvious that the answer is in the question, and it's not a trick question. Maybe do a few before you go on to another Socratic gambit: "If y goes up by 10, how much does it go up by?" "If y goes up by 3 how much did it go up?" "If y goes up by 2, how much did it change?" There's a little acting in the whole thing. You just have to figure out how to get in the zone (sorry--I couldn't resist).

Of course, you're teaching middle school, right? Which is also the nadir so far as a lot of social stuff goes so far as I can tell, so you've got a tougher audience. Good luck!