How Not to Treat Teachers

Aaron Grisez
March 19, 2018

So I have a bone to pick with the internet. Did you see this float around?

Here’s the TL;DR: there was a picture of math test question floating around Twitter and Facebook in October (I realize that is ancient history in internet terms, but hey; better late than never).  It’s the sort of question that you might remember from elementary school math: “If Tommy does something in 5 min and Lacy does the same thing in 3 min, how long does it take them working together?” Except, this question used musicians in an orchestra. Classical Musicians made fun of the question because it suggested (I’ll come back to the choice to italicize these words later) more players could play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony faster than fewer players.

Anyhow, I saw the picture on my Twitter feed. And I jumped on the bandwagon of ridicule. This was before I bothered to look around and find some context. It turns out the teacher was doing something genius. She included the question on the worksheet intentionally as a trick question to encourage students to think critically about when proportions were applicable.

Cue the standard social commentary: social media enables us to talk without thinking, to criticize without consequences, and to share what we want with or without original context.

Okay, now that that part is done, let me move on to my main point. Remember those italicized words I put up there? People were complaining that the question had suggested that more players could play Beethoven 9 faster. But let’s really look at this question:

If I were a betting man, I’d put down a giant box of dark luxurious expensive chocolate that most people would be in auto-pilot for this problem. It is, after all, the fifth problem on a worksheet of similar problems. Most modern worksheets I’ve seen for math are the sort I’d call “drill and kill” or “plug and chug”. You learn a procedure and you apply that procedure identically many times.

Well, anyone who has had a dose of real-life knows real-life doesn’t work that way. And what’s more, math isn’t about “drill and kill”. What should be the central focus of any math exercise is why the process works. Absolutely there is merit to applying the process quickly, but consider: no human is ever going to beat a computer at a well-defined, repetitive task.

At this point, it’s really, really easy to point a finger at the educator and say: well, teach the kids differently!

Ah, and here we are. A teacher tries to do something different. And what does the internet do? The same exact thing it did when Common Core was rolled out. The same exact thing it did when New Math was rolled out. Society demonized the teacher.

“This is stupid! I’m an accountant and I’ve done addition all my life and my child’s homework is way overcomplicated! Just line up the numbers and carry your 10’s and there you go!”

I can’t quantify how many of these posts I’ve seen that completely miss the point of the conversation. We can’t begin to discuss the issues surrounding education if any time teachers try something new, we shoot them down. We need to put our faith back in our educators. We need to trust that new methods aren’t unfounded or pointless. We need to realize that if we are going to survive the Great Automation, we need to think differently.

And how exactly do you teach people to think differently? You show them where a particular line of thinking doesn’t work any more. You demonstrate that the process worked for all these other situations, but might not be applicable here. You encourage them to consider exactly why they are following the steps that they were taught to follow. Only then can they begin the invaluable processes of synthesis, growth, and creation.

This question and the teacher who wrote it, are genius. The question achieves what “drill and kill” cannot: it rewards critical thinking and promotes students expanding their analytical powers.