Turning “When will I need this?” into “I need this!”

Yes, if you were one of the few that have read my blog before, and possibly even noticed the name of my blog, whenwillineedthis was the previous title and url. This question is one that not only wrangles its way into students’ minds but  even their teachers.

This post originally came from a very negative rant that I typed up with my rapid-fire thumbs in the notes section of my iPhone. This rant was going to be a blog post named, “Why I hate tests”. In an attempt to dig deeper and try to write a more constructive (and perhaps more positive) post, I learnt that there was much more than just “tests” that concerned me.

It’s more than just a test

It seems that just before a test, students and teachers seem to totally redefine the purpose of what is being taught and learnt in the classroom. They forget the reasons we learn mathematics and become obsessed with this feeling of measuring their understanding at a unreasonably high level. I acknowledge that this is a very general statement, but what I am nearly certain of is that every student and teacher has felt this way before. This feeling of learning and practicing mathematical procedures in an attempt to perform perfectly on a test.

What I believe this stems back to is the teacher and students’ understanding of the purpose of learning mathematics (possibly even learning in general). Here’s a conversation I had with one of my Year 10 maths students only a couple of days ago (the test isn’t until next week):

    S: “What do I need to know?”
    T: “Why it’s important”
    S: “No, I meant for the test”
    T: “I know. You don’t know why it is important and that’s why you asked. If you know why it is important, you won’t need to ask if you need to know it

I have never seen a student look more confused than that Year 10 did. To be fair, this student didn’t deserve such a roundabout answer. It wasn’t his fault that he was concerned about what was going to be in the test, which was nearly two weeks away. It did, however, have to be someone’s fault. To me it is a “fault”. It is a misconception that students (and teachers) develop about maths. Sadly, the fear of failing or underperforming in a test drives this misconception. Here are some other questions that came from students, (unfortunately none of these will be questions you haven’t heard before):

  • Why are we learning this?
  • Is this going to be in the test?
  • What do I need to revise for the test?
  • Do I need to learn this if I’m not going to be tested on it?
  • (and of course) When will I need this?

Addressing the misconception

What I’ve been writing towards is the notion of staying true to our beliefs about learning. As teachers, it is in our nature and interest to address the misconceptions our students have. More importantly, we need to first address the misconceptions we hold ourselves. We as teachers are in a privelaged position to help the students understand the purpose of what they are learning. A quote that I find myself referring to quite frequently from Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) captures this quite nicely,

Teachers do not create learning, learners create the learning. Teachers create the conditions in which students learn.

(Assessment for Learning: Why, What and How, 2009)

It is up to the teacher to make the learning seem purposeful to the learner. If teachers can engage students with a hook, harness their curiosity and guide their inquiry to discover their own learning, the purpose should be crystal clear – “it is so damn interesting and important, I want to learn more”.

Why “struggle” is so important

I have learnt that when students are allowed to productively struggle with a problem that either has insufficient information given or the way of thinking about the problem is not obvious to them, they appreciate the learning and are more likely to understand its importance. Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) describes this process as creating the headache and prescribing the aspirin – where the headache is the struggle and the aspirin is the information, mathematical skill or formula, or way of thinking that allows the efficient solution to be found. You can read his post here. Without a headache, the effect of the aspirin is not noticed or appreciated. Without the aspirin, it is just struggle. There is no relief for the learner nor is there any positive outcome from the struggle, causing negative feelings towards challenge and struggle.

It’s the Teacher’s job

If the teacher has a misconception, it is highly likely that this will be passed onto students. It is therefore the teacher’s job to help students understand the purpose of their learning despite the pressures of testing and achievement. Trust your pedagogy and believe in the learners in your classroom. Have confidence in the way you teach and how your students learn. Sure, tests have their place. In my opinion, they are used to provide some level of equity across schools through moderation procedures and provide the learner and teacher with feedback about their level of understanding at a specific point in time. These two reasons aren’t important enough to place an unnecessarily high level of pressure on teachers and students, and hijack the purpose of learning mathematics in the first place.

I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts or your own. Comment below!

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