Realism and Idealism

Math Curmudgeon juxtaposes two arguments I’ve seen on Twitter several times in the last few weeks:

“If kids in your class are more engaged by a fidget spinner than they are by your lesson, the spinner isn’t the problem. Your lesson is.”


“Learning is hard. Kids fidget. Fads come, then go. Your lesson doesn’t suck simply because two kids out of 25 are fiddling with this thing.”

I find the tension between these two perspectives one of the most important interior monologues I have as a teacher. It’s a tension between the idealism of teaching engaging, meaningful, purposefully-structured lesson every day and the realism of the challenges and imperfections of classroom teaching and doing the best with what I have to work with. I need to be able to see both perspectives. I need to ask myself every day if I can be more engaging, ask better questions, be more responsive to student needs, build stronger relationships, and structure more meaningful curriculum. I also need to acknowledge that much of what happens in my classroom is at least partially outside of my control, and a lesson that doesn’t go well or a disengaged student doesn’t mean I’m a terrible teacher.

Honoring the cognitive dissonance of realism and idealism applies beyond the recent craze of fidget spinners.

  • Teaching the last class of the day or the last day before vacation, I need to bring my best and believe that students can learn every minute while acknowledging that those classes are going to look different than mid-morning classes on a typical Tuesday.
  • Working with students with math anxiety, I need to believe that every student can learn and achieve at high levels while acknowledging that the most practical way forward may be to adjust my expectations in the short term.
  • When I look at a set of exit slips and see that my students all have the misconception I tried to address in class that day, I need to ask myself how to improve that lesson next time while acknowledging that human brains are mysterious, learning is hard, and even the best lesson plans often come up short.

Every moment of teaching is useful feedback on what works and what can be better next time; every moment of teaching is an imperfect teacher with imperfect students in an imperfect institution trying to do what’s best in that moment.

3 thoughts on “Realism and Idealism

    1. MathCompSciTeach

      I don’t see kids fidgeting as necessarily that they are bored. Sometimes it is quite the opposite (especially for boys). In the book “The Male Brain”, Louann Brizendine points out that the male brain actually understands the world through the movement part of their brain. The more intense they are focusing, the more the motion part of their brain lights up. I have twin boys (who are now 18). I remember reading a book to them when they were 6 years old and one of them could not top moving and eventually ended sitting on his head. I responded with an annoyed tone and told him if he did not sit still, I would stop reading. Several years later I realized that far from being distracted, he was actually very engaged. I get worried that I am boring my students when their discussion is not about the material or they try to put their heads down and go to sleep, not when they “fidget”.

      1. dkane47 Post author

        This is interesting — though I’m hesitant to make such sweeping claims about male-female differences, especially with regards to things like “the motion part of their brain” which, to my knowledge, is still a divisive topic in psychology. See this article for a reference on some skepticism toward that book:

        I do think you make a useful point about the interaction between fidgeting and attention, and I think that expansive view of the reasons for fidgeting is useful to avoid taking a deficit view on behaviors school normally sees as wrong.


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