It was not clever materials, or puzzles, or teaching ideas that had made my class a better place for the children, where they had learned more than they had learned before, but the fact that it was a different kind of human situation. And it was not as an inventor of clever materials that I was of most use to these children, but as a human being who had done a few interesting things in his life, who had many interests, who loved books, reading, writing, sports, and above all music, who was generally fairly kindly and patient with them but who could now and then get very angry, who did not pretend to be something other than what he was, but generally said what he thought and showed what he felt, and who above all generally liked, enjoyed, trusted, and respected them. Almost any adult who felt and acted that way would have done about as well.
-John Holt, How Children Fail (revised 1982 edition)
I am at the Park City Mathematics Institute’s teacher program at the moment, and we are spending a great deal of time doing really deep thinking about mathematics. In particular as we discuss classroom practice, we are focusing on rich tasks that have a variety of entry points, elicit student thinking, and produce varied solution strategies. It’s great fun to think and talk about these things with other teachers, and to put together a common vision for what great mathematics teaching looks like.
There is a bit of an undercurrent against some of what we’ve been discussing, acknowledging that many of us are teachers in struggling schools, and all of us teach some struggling students. We have presented our students with rich tasks and asked them to think in new ways, and been rebuffed with “I don’t get it”, or random guesswork, or numbers copied from a neighbor.
We have discussed strategies to support these students, and have hit upon a number of good ideas, but these seem like tricks, difficult to put into practice on a regular basis, and band-aids rather than long term solutions. Thinking about John Holt’s idea, it strikes me that students in my class do not as a whole engage with math because I provide the perfect scaffolding, or use subtle discussion moves to make them more comfortable. Rather, the students who do not very much like math but are willing to try new things, experiment, and open themselves to new experiences in my class are the students who most like me, seem most interested in me and my life, and are willing to see my class as an interaction between humans who only mean the best for each other, rather than a place they are forced to be to undergo certain unpleasant experiences in order to move on to something else.