Monday, July 9, 2012

More Kakaes Followup

In his blog today, Dan Meyers skewers (rightly) Kakaes's basketball metaphor.  Kakaes writes
Math and science can be hard to learn—and that’s OK. The proper job of a teacher is not to make it easy, but to guide students through the difficulty by getting them to practice and persevere. “Some of the best basketball players on Earth will stand at that foul line and shoot foul shots for hours and be bored out of their minds,” says Williams. Math students, too, need to practice foul shots: adding fractions, factoring polynomials.And whether or not the students are bright, “once they buy into the idea that hard work leads to cool results,” Williams says, you can work with them.
and, as Dan points out,
  1. Drills aren't a basketball player's first, only, or most prominent experience with basketball.
  2.  Drills come after a student has been sufficiently enticed by the game of basketball — either by watching it or playing it on the playground — to sign up for a more dedicated commitment. If a player's first, only, or most prominent experience with basketball is hours of free-throw and perimeter drills, she'll quit the first day — even if she's six foot two with a twenty-eight inch vertical and enormous potential to excel at and love the game.
  3. Basketball players aren't bored shooting foul shots.
  4.  Long before "math teacher" was on my resume, I was a lanky high school basketball player trying to get his foul shooting above 50%. I'd shoot for hours but I wouldn't get bored, as Williams suggests I must have been. That's because I knew my practice had a purpose. I knew where that practice would eventually be situated. I knew it would pay off in a game where I'd be called to the line for a shot that had consequences.
Dan's right on target on both points, but I don't think he goes far enough.

  1. Our (national) approach to teaching math is to avoid doing anything requiring actual thought or creativity until we've convinced as many students as possible that there's nothing worth thinking about in math;  eventually, the few "survivors" get to do actual mathematics.  If we taught English that way, it would be all grammar and spelling until senior year, when a lucky few would get to read actual poetry.  Right now, the problem isn't that the U.S. curriculum doesn't have enough skill practice; it's that it doesn't consist of much besides skill practice.
  2. As Dan suggests, what *makes* skills important is their placement within the big picture of doing actual mathematics.  Being able to multiply accurately isn't worth a darn--especially in the age of calculators--if you don't have good ideas about when and what to multiply (and when and what not to).  We can be excited when kids know their times tables, the way we might be excited about a kid being able to spell really well, or lift something really heavy, but by itself, multiplying not a really useful skill except in the context of multiplication tests.

If we taught athletes the way we taught mathematics, there would be no Kobe Bryant, although there would be handful of strikingly eccentric bodybuilders who would get together to run around, lift heavy things, and engage in odd activities that make no sense to the rest of us couch potatoes.