A few nights ago, my wife and I were doing some work, and she excitedly pulled up a video on YouTube that one of her former students created. The video by Tim Schauer, How I Met Your Mather, is brilliant. The 2014 First Prize Winner in Dartmouth’s Math-O-Vision contest, the goal of the production is to tell a creative, four-minute story that shows the math that fills our world.
Watching the video, it is clear to me that Tim knows and loves math and is able to communicate his understanding with a creative flare that engages the viewer and invites critical thinking and discussion about abstract math in the concrete world. Further, the concise tale of unrequited love is one to which we can all relate. Beyond the obvious and comical fatal attraction satire designed to draw us into the story, Tim’s collaborator and the story’s protagonist, Michael Balaban, tells a cathartic tale of woe. We all have an early joy of learning. Pre-schoolers and kindergartners seem to thrive in their busy, hands-on environments. They make, they play, and they discover while they soak up basic skills. Engagement is the norm.
As children make their way through school, however, boredom creeps in. A national survey of over 600,000 students conducted by Gallup in 2013 indicates that 54% of U.S. students are engaged in school. Data from the survey reflects involvement and enthusiasm at higher levels in 5th grade than in 12th grade. One has to ask why this is the case. Upon closer analysis of the information provided by the survey, my takeaway is that it is not about a lack of friendship or even a dearth of teachers who are able to get their kids excited about the future. For me, one engagement item out of seven really jumps out as the worst. Only thirty-one percent of the students surveyed strongly agreed that in the last seven days they had received praise for doing good schoolwork. Tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders have the lowest scores on this item. The following hyperlink is an excerpt from Education Week.
"The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure," executive director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed said in The Gallup Blog. "Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged—just as they were in elementary school."
What a shameful story of unrequited love! Indeed, this story is the story told in How I Met Your Mather, and it all boils down to assessment. From my vantage point, in spite of the narrow test-prep environment foisted on school systems through misguided reform efforts, teachers find ways to make learning meaningful by encouraging creativity and critical thinking in their students. They expand the curriculum, tapping into student’s personal experiences and inviting them to collaborate to solve problems. Every child should meet and “know” math on his or her terms: true love. After all, mathematics is a human construct! To know math is to love math. The fundamentals of Algebra, for example, have been with us for at least 4,000 years. Apparently, ancient Babylonians in love with math explored and recorded their findings with equations that simply illustrated the beauty of abstract balance. I can only imagine Al-Khwarizmi visiting us from 800 AD and sitting down to take a modern test to find out whether he can do “good work” in mathematics.
As ingenious as How I Met Your Mather is, the students who created it will still be required to sit individually to work through a diminishing assessment to find out whether they “know” math while passing through all the gates we have established as important to our nation for global competitiveness. If I haven’t made my case for the imbalance in this approach, I will offer Yong Zhao’s research on math test scores vs. math confidence to share insight into how nations like the U.S. continue to dominate the world’s entrepreneurial stage. Sadly, the efforts we make to improve our students’ results on “seductive” measures like the TIMSS and PISA only erode the economy-driving creativity, confidence, and love of learning our students build with their teachers.
Consider a question from Trilling and Fadel's Twenty-First Century Skills: Life for Learning in Our Times. Think about your own life and those times when you have had a ‘peak’ learning experience. What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful and engaging? Were you doing “good work”? Are you remembering a challenging and supportive teacher? How about relevant materials, resources, and choices? Did technology play a role? Was there a real-world problem to solve creatively? For a moment in time, you loved learning and learning loved you back; then comes the test on what you “know” and the love is diminished or lost.