By Bill Selak, Director of Technology, Hillbrook School
I loved math in school. In middle school and high school, I looked forward to the routine of math class during the school day: copy notes on a board, do a few practice problems in class, and then get stuck. I also looked forward to the homework each night: look at the back of the book for answers to the odd problems, figure out which steps were needed to get those answers, and then complete the homework. It was fun in the same way that a Sudoku book is fun--figure out the pattern, and slowly make your way through the book.
I continued to love math in college. By the end of my freshmanyear, I was already at Calculus IV. It was during that spring class that I realized math, as it was taught to me, was completely useless. The "game" of math--figure out how to do the homework, and repeat those steps on a test--was suddenly complex and useless. I still remember the precise moment when I became disinterested in math: my calculus instructor announced to the class, "We are going to spend the next three weeks working on this problem. The answer could never exist, but if it could exist, we'll know the answer." It was then that I began to question every moment I ever spend doing math.
As an educator, it's fascinating to think back on my experience with this subject in school. By all metrics, I was advanced and successful in math. Any yet, I stopped pursuing it. More importantly, I never saw the importance or relevance of math, beyond the cliched balancing a checkbook argument. And now, as I reflect on this experience, I think I know what was most lacking in my experience: I did a lot of math problems, but never actually did any math. Schools in the United States do this all the time--they teach a skill or an algorithm or a set of facts, but never ask students to do anything with it. So how do we make learning meaningful?
School has become formulaic: the teacher teaches, students practice in class, and students practice at home. This sterile approach to learning simply no longer works. In a world with continuous, accelerating change, schools need to become practice-oriented. This in no way suggests we need more homework or practice problems; rather, we need students to engage in real-world, student-directed learning. It is messy and it is uncertain, but then again, so is the future. This type of learning needs to have context and it needs to be meaningful for each student. In the book Whiplash, authors Joi Ito and Jeffrey Howe share that people learn best when they connect their learning to their interests. We need to connect students with mentors and give learning context.
David Culberhouse beckons us to prepare students to be agile and adaptable. In his book Surviving AND Thriving In a VUCA World, Culberhouse argues that we need to teach our students how "to be able to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us." He talks about a VUCA world, an acronym borrowed from the military: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. In this world, mistakes and failure in an essential part of learning. Too often, schools punish failure. In a VUCA world, failure is a bargain-priced learning opportunity, as Ito and Howe put it.
A shift from success/failure towards iteration may just be the pivot we need in education. Call it design thinking or rapid prototyping or cycles of failure; the goal is to shift the mindset in educators and in students that learning needs to happen through multiple, rapid iterations. This mindset is a prerequisite for the faster future we are experiencing. Ito and Howe note that we are already seeing this in businesses where it is faster and less expensive to try something than to talk about it. This new mindset, which is highly touted in Whiplash, needs to be implemented in schools. The great news is that this shift is free. The bad news is that it takes a lot of work to move a teacher, a school, a nation towards valuing failure. That said, I can't help but think that if my own math education prompted me to struggle with deep math concepts and connect them to my passions, I might have stayed in love with math.