A Disturbing Observation

I recently visited a classroom in which there were two activities planned for the day. First, students were gathering data that is to be used to answer the question “Is anyone average?” Second, the students were completing some standardized tests which are part of the school’s assessment plan.

While the measuring was intended to be an active part of the class, and students were indeed “active,” they were also somewhat distracted and appeared to be struggling with the idea of being focused when they were active. The students were not at all inappropriate and their behavior was certainly not “misbehavior,” but they were noticeably unfocused. For example, the teacher asked the students to record measurements in metric units, but several groups had to redo some measurements as they had used English units.

They were also noticeably nonchalant in their measurements. The teacher had prepared directions for how to make the measurements, but many ignored the directions. When the directions were pointed out to them, many responded, “whatever, it is close enough.”

As a veteran science and math teacher, these are not unusual observations. My first year teaching journal from 30 years ago records similar observations. The teacher sis what I felt was a good job at trying to refocus the students, and talked with students about the importance of accurate measurements. (The teacher and I had actually developed the activity together, and it was based on Todd Rose’s The End of Average, and the teacher connected their measurements with Rose’s story of fighter jets and the accuracy needed to make them safe.)

That part of the class ended with students messy recordings, papers that had already been lost, and students expressing a lackadaisical attitude towards the work. The second half of the class found the students opening Chromebooks to complete tests measuring their capabilities in math. The tests are part of the school’s “data plan,” but the teacher admitted the tests were administered, but the data were not really used.

Based on what I had observed in the first half of the class, I anticipated the students would be unfocused during the tests. I observed quite the opposite. Students became sharply focused on the tests and worked in silence for the duration. Surprised by this, I chatted with some students as they packed up to leave. It became clear to them that the messaged they had received throughout their lives in school was clear:

The tests are the most important part of what you do in school. This is the data that is most important about you. What we do in class otherwise is just for fun and to give you a break from the real work of answering questions on the computer.

This was a math class, and computer-delivered math programs are *very* popular in school in the region. They had gained acceptance and widespread use as school fought to avoid being labeled as “not achieving acceptable yearly progress” in the last decade. Once established as part of their practice, many teachers continued to use the programs.

From my perspective as one who believes that math must be learned and applied in context (if you don’t understand where quadratic equations are found and why it is important to find their roots, then you don’t really know anything about the functions), I find this very disturbing. Mathematics, and every other type of human knowledge, is built upon connections. We are more powerful learners, and our knowledge is powerful, only when it is understood as part of other systems and other knowledge. The ability to solve calculations on the screen is a useless skill. We, and our students, are mathematically competent only when we use math.

Becoming competent requires we be attentive and purposeful in our work and practice. I observed inattentive and unpurposeful math when students were supposed to be connecting math with the world through their measurements, but very attentive and purposeful math when looking at problems stripped of all context. The culture that has created this situation has been very destructive, it must be changed.