Learning from TED – November 10, 2013

I haven’t been blogging about much of anything for a while, and I certainly haven’t been blogging much about the TED talks I’ve been watching.  Could be because I haven’t been watching them. Oh well…  Today I will start to make up for that.

I actually watched two TED talks today, both of them about mathematics.  The first one, Arthur Benjamin:  The Magic of Fibonacci Numbers, starts off with a statement that really resonated with me:

So why do we learn mathematics? Essentially, for three reasons: calculation, application, and last, and unfortunately least in terms of the time we give it, inspiration.

Math is, in my opinion, a fascinating field of study.  I do find inspiration in it — even at the very low level of math at which I function.  Benjamin goes on to add:

Mathematics is the science of patterns, and we study it to learn how to think logically, critically and creatively, but too much of the mathematics that we learn in school is not effectively motivated, and when our students ask, “Why are we learning this?” then they often hear that they’ll need it in an upcoming math class or on a future test.

At the school where I work, we try very hard to inspire kids to learn math, to think beyond the test.  Some days and with some students we are more successful than others, of course, but at least we are trying.  It is easy to see, though, that the students have not have this kind of math instruction earlier in their academic careers.  They do not see math as being beautiful or fascinating at all.  It is a real struggle to get them to really open themselves up to math.

Benjamin concludes his talk with this:

We spend lots of time learning about calculation, but let’s not forget about application, including, perhaps, the most important application of all, learning how to think.

If I could summarize this in one sentence, it would be this: Mathematics is not just solving for x, it’s also figuring out why.

It is this idea of learning how to think that seems to be at the root of the problem.  The students are used to doing what they have to in order to pass the test.  They don’t want to learn alternate ways of doing something in hopes of finding the one that makes the most sense to them; they want the answer.  They want a mechanical way to approach the problem that will give them the answer this time and every other time they see a similar problem.  And I can’t blame them.  We all want answers to the problems.  But the benefit of getting the answer is short-lived while the benefit of learning how to think about the problem will last a lifetime.

What did I learn from this talk?  I actually learned a little about Fibonacci numbers.  And I learned that what we are trying to do at school is important and that we cannot abandon it just because many of the students complain and don’t want to participate.

Our efforts as teaching application uses, among other things, Dan Meyer‘s Three Act Math activities, which can be accessed from a link on his blog.  These activities, and puzzles completed by groups of students, seem to be the most well-received.  And that leads me to the next talk I watched, Scott Kim The Art of Puzzles.  More about that in another post.

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