Today’s post is reblogged from Traditional Math with the author, Barry Garelick’s, permission.


Articles I didn’t finish reading, Dept.

This article in Business North was titled “Teachers Learn to Make Math Fun, Engaging”, which alone would have caused me not to read any further, but I was curious as to how many tropes I would run into. The article doesn’t disappoint.

It starts off with an opening as classic (and nausea inducing) as Denny’s bacon and egg eye-opener:

“When will I ever use this in my real life?” is a plaintive question students often pose to their math teachers. For over 20 area elementary and middle school teachers, the “Engage, Learn, and Connect Math Topics” summer workshop at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) provided teachers some solid ways to respond to that perennial question.

I usually find that students ask this when they are frustrated and/or having difficulty with a particular type of procedure or problem. When they are capable of doing the procedure, they tend to be just as engaged as they would with any activity. Not to mention that the prevalence of this question is helped along by TV sitcoms that may feature such a situation. The question is met with the predictable laugh track as the camera zooms in to a close up of teacher’s frustrated expression.

“Engagement is key. There is no one size fits all approach to teaching. Workshops like ours help to bridge some gaps and help teachers dispel some misconceptions of what it means to study math.”

Of course, what is ignored is what I pointed out above; that proper instruction that allows students to be able to do problems and stretch beyond the initial worked example breeds success.  And success in turn breeds motivation. But the pervasive group think is that engagement comes first, and then success and motivation follow.

And part and parcel to engagement, is this gem of a trope without which no article would be complete:

“It is important for our society to prepare kids for the jobs of the future. There are new jobs that don’t even exist yet that will come as a result of the new ideas in the math and science fields. We want to engage students so they know they can succeed in those fields and to prepare them to be ready for the new opportunities yet to come.”

Oops, I guess I did finish the article, didn’t I?


How many schools are touting their new Chromebooks to parents because the devices “will keep kids engaged” and “make learning fun”? Do parents know that such engagement is used to hide teacher incompetence at being able to properly instruct students in the topic? How many education software developers have confused engagement with entertainment? You can be entertained thoroughly without being educated effectively. If we have teachers focused on getting their students engaged in (i.e. excited about) the topic, they are losing focus on the topic itself. Darn it Johnny, how can I make you care about rational numbers?!

Children seek approval and success which comes from careful instruction, repetition and mastery. Toddlers like the old fashioned Fischer Price See ‘N Say matching animal pictures to animal sounds because their young minds are working on sorting new information, storing it and retrieving it. Most of them are unlikely to see a live cow or an elephant so the real world application of knowing which animal makes which sound is not why they engage in pulling the string or lever. They remain engaged because they get both Mom’s happy approval when they correctly predict the animal sound and a reduction in stress associated with familiarity. If 5th graders can do fifty fraction to percent conversion problems problems easily and correctly, then they won’t really care if that skill will help them figure out the sale price at Kohl’s. Most of them are decades away from actually making those purchases or staying within a family budget the real world application is practically meaningless to them. They seek teacher and parental approval for mastering a new skill as well as that jolt of confidence from knowing they can handle this topic by themselves. Children need foundational instruction, repetition, mastery, and growth through new challenges. Delivery through an expensive entertaining device is no guarantee of understanding, success or mastery.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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