Thursday, 4 June 2009

An intriguing thought

I am going to bang on about education for a few minutes.

We've been having problems with Junior and maths. His test results have been rubbish, and we've been doing a bit of back and forth with his teachers - I say "teachers" because he seems to have had 2 or 3 so far this year, and not a lot of consistency.

That aside, we discovered last night how he has been doing his maths homework. The answers are in the back of the text book. When given a page or two of exercises to complete, he just copies down the answers and thinks that will suffice.

Oh boy, we busted him big time last night. The exercise he had to do involved calculating the square of a few numbers, and then the square root of some other numbers. I can remember how to calculate the square without using a calculator, but doing the square root has me baffled. I am going to have to Google that process later on.

The way we busted him is that he had no working for his calculations - just answers. One of the things he had to calculate was the square of 35. I could probably work that out in my head, but I prefer to get a pen and paper and do it the old way. I did it twice, just to make sure my brain had not gone soft, then checked it against the answer in the book.

Phew, brain is not too soft.

J challenged Junior on how he got the answer. He said he did it in his head. But then he couldn't do it again. Then she asked him to calculate the square root of 729 in his head, which he couldn't do (answer is 27). And on and on she went - he was unable to do a bloody thing. If it had been a proper test in the classroom, he would have scored 0.0 out of 100.

You have to wonder how, in this day of small class sizes, how this sort of thing slips by. We haven't been super-diligent at our end either, but unless the teacher calls to say things are going pear-shaped, you tend to assume that he is getting by ok.

Talk about tears before bedtime. He didn't like being pulled up on being a cheat, and then being pulled up on lying about it. There are going to be some changes around here from now on...

But that is not what I was going to write about. Instead, I wanted to write about teaching methods.

In my day, I don't remember having a maths text book. I really don't. What I remember is that we opened our exercise books and the teacher pulled out his stick of chalk and he wrote lots of equations on the board for us to solve. Or, if he was really modern, he turned on the overhead projector and put down a pre-prepared foil with lots of equations on it.

One way or another, we sat there in silence and copied out each equation, and then solved it in our book. We showed all our working etc etc. As we sat there copying, the teacher would walk around and check that we were in fact copying down the equations, and not doodling, and would whack us with a ruler if we weren't doing the right thing. If we had trouble, we'd sit back with our hand raised, and not utter a peep until called by name. Or, the teacher would note that we were struggling as he walked up and down the rows, peering over our shoulders at our work, and he'd stop and help out.

Funnily enough, they could teach a class of 30 or more with no problems using those methods.

These days, Junior is given a text book and worksheets. There is no copying. The equations are printed on the worksheet and they go through and work out the answers.

My point is this: the act of copying equations and so forth takes time. Whilst you are copying, you are concentrating too intently to have any time or energy to talk. Once copying is done, you are under pressure to work out the solutions, so you don't talk or fool around. A teacher can stand at the front of the room and tell at a glance who is beavering away at a solution, who is day dreaming and who is having problems.

All that is gone. I think Junior and his mates spend all their time chatting, and once they start, they don't stop. Under the ancient and crusty system that we were taught under, all idle chatter in the classroom was verboten - even if the teacher stepped out of the room. We knew that if he returned and caught us farting around, we'd be caned. So we kept farting around to a minimum and got on with the set task.

Speaking of that, a teacher leaving the room was always the signal for those that had been bottling up some gas to let rip, which was of course always hilarious to school-age boys; a particularly noisome and loathsome guff would be guaranteed to bring the house down.

Anyway, I wonder if all this new-age wank that has been introduced to the classroom is actually a root cause of poor results. If you remove the need to copy down stuff, you give kids more time. If you give them free time, they will use it the only way they know how - they will mess around and waste it. What they actually need is less free time, and more work. More drudgery if you like. It might be boring and seemingly pointless, but keeping the little buggers active all the time is crucial to maintaining control and focus.

On that note, parents should descend on their children's school and set fire to all photocopiers.


M said...

You know, I think I'm with you on this one. We didn't have worksheets. Worksheets drive me crazy in schools because the teacher hands them out and then coasts around checking his or her emails then gets the kids to swap worksheets and mark each others answers.

My son's new school, however doesn't do this. No worksheets, except for homework.

Wand said...

BOAB, I agree entirely with your comments. I'm past all this now with my family but I coached all my children at some stage with HSC mathematics at all levels.

You may be interested in an excellent HSC maths teaching program which I bought all those years ago for my 'children' to use (about 7 - 8 years ago now). Anyway I've just checked on it - it used to be called Back to the Future Maths - now it is called Maths Power .

With this program the student works his way through the course problem solving all the way. The program actually does teach maths.

Boy on a bike said...

We didn't even get worksheets for homework. Part of the challenge was ensuring that you copied down the homework before the end of the lesson. That was all part of the pressure in class to get things done. All the pressure is gone now - presumably in the name of some lovey-dovey educational stupidity.

nic said...

The best teacher I ever had dictated notes for two years at HSC level, the man was a genius. We never saw a text. We wrote for 50 min each period lol.

Boy on a bike said...


My Economics teacher at school also lectured at university, and he was a walking text book. Like all the other teachers at my school, he taught the course out of his head. We all wrote in a form of short hand to keep up with their output. The only teachers that ever opened a text or referred to notes were the few straight out of teachers college. We all became "speed writers".

1735099 said...

Teaching is a bit like driving - everyone has had a teacher so everyone knows how it's done. The world outside the classroom has changed a bit.
Some of what you describe (particularly in reference to whacking with a ruler) would land you in court these days. The point about keeping kids busy is well-taken.
Another issue not well understood is that kids are different now as a consequence of the effects of TV and other image-rich media on early development. See -

nic said...

I suspect that what the boy was referring to was that times have changed and that old fashioned methods were quite effective. I agree with him.

1735099 said...

These methods aren't "old-fashioned". They're still in use today in many of the classrooms I visit.
What these methods presume, however, is that the requisite basic skills have been learned. In many cases these days kids arrive at school bereft of social physical and emotional skills that were taken for granted in the old days.
Teachers these days in many cases have first to socialise kids to a point where they're ready to be safely supervised in a classroom, before they can begin to teach them anything else. Everything that matters is taught before the age of seven. After that it's too late.

Anonymous said...

When I taught it was a useful technique to calm a class to write notes on a blackboard (yes I preferred a blackboard and this was only 5 years ago) and get them to copy them down. Some grumbling soon settled and I believe they even felt some self wortht hat they were "doing something". If there was still some disruption you made up more notes for them to copy, even if you started to repeat yourself a bit, and enjoyed the collective groan as you got to the next board. This technique however could easily backfire if over employed. Dilegent but slow students complained if you moved on too quickly, fast student played up if left too long after they finished, too much note taking disolved in a roar, and language had to be suited to the lower end of the classes capability. Good on a wet Tuesday afternoon for about 10 minutes near the beginning of the class.


kae said...

switch on 7 news now they're using the teleprompter stuff you did first I think.
or someone's nicked it.